Words: Calvin Chan
Photography: Calvin Chan
Published: October 28, 2019
Performance compact SUVs are in their infancy but that doesn’t stop automakers from competing for a slice of this rarified pie. We’ve driven most of them too, so we have a good sense of what this segment offers, from the feral supercharged Jaguar F-Pace SVR ($92,000), the GLC 63 S warhammer from AMG ($90,500), to the glorious Stelvio Quadrifoglio from Alfa Romeo ($95,000). We can’t forget about the Porsche Macan Turbo either. That leaves just one fruit on the tree, and it comes from the blue roundel.
BMW has unleashed their hardcore compact SUVs in two variants, the X3 M ($82,700) and X4 M ($84,300), the former being the more traditional SUV with a boxy roofline and more conventional liftgate, while the latter is the sportier coupe variant with a sloping roofline. To make things even more confusing, you can spend an extra $10,300 for the Competition variant that adds even more horsepower, track capability, and street cred to the mix.
On the outside and much like its competitors, it can be terribly difficult differentiating the X3 M from its lower X3 compatriots. That said, there are a few standout features, like the quad exhausts, signature C-shaped side mirrors, flared up fender vents, exclusive Donington Grey and Toronto Red paint colours, and of course, the liberal slab of M badges. Other than that, it’s fairly standard X3 fare. The interior follows a similar mojo, and retains what makes the X3 such an ergonomic and soundly designed affair, just with a bit of sporting M flair on the exquisitely quilted two-tone leather seats, beefy steering wheel, M coloured seat belts, unique digital displays, and a new gear shifter that operates much like the current M3 example but now with an actual Park button.
Both the X3 M and X4 M receive the same mode of propulsion: a 3.0-litre twin-turbo inline-six good for 473 hp and 442 lb-ft of torque. Courtesy of more boost and a slightly more efficient exhaust, Competition models get 30 more horsepower for a total of 503 hp. BMW says this new S58 unit is their most powerful straight-six engine ever produced, and judging by how BMW tends to underrate their vehicle outputs, this is going to be one fiery sleigh. Rumoured to underpin the next generation M3, the S58 here is mated through a silky 8-speed ZF transmission and sends power to all four wheels via a rear-biased all-wheel drive system, though you can’t disconnect the front-axle for some tire burning shenanigans like in the M5. BMW also added stiffer springs, retuned adaptive dampers, stronger brakes, a sports exhaust, and beefier alloy wheels. Like other M models, the X3 M comes with adjustable modes for the steering, suspension, and engine response. There is even a dedicated exhaust button like the M5 that can close the valves for a quieter cruise through the neighbourhood, and two shiny red M buttons flanking the steering wheel that drivers can customize to any setting they choose, working much like the shortcut dials on the new Porsches and AMGs.
On paper, you may notice that some SUVs in this class are hoarding massive V8 engines that produce silly boatloads of power, like the Jaguar F-Pace SVR (550 hp), and the Mercedes-AMG GLC 63 S (also 503 hp), but just because the X3 M lacks two cylinders and a fair bit of displacement does not mean it’s not up to snuff. Surely, its 503 hp in Competition guise isn’t all for naught. And the S58 does not disappoint. It’s a sweetheart of an engine and the inherent balance and high-revving nature makes the X3 M such a wild and sonorous street weapon. Simply mash the gas pedal in Sport Plus Mode and hold on tight. For an SUV to accelerate this quickly and offer such a ferocious kick back to the seat is nothing short of impressive. The engine peaks at a scintillating 7,200 rpm too, and the tachometer on the head-up display will ensure you don’t forget to shift.
When all is said and done, the X3 M Competition sprints from 0-100 km/h in 4.1 seconds (4.2 seconds in non-Competition models), which is faster than the F-Pace SVR (4.3 seconds), but significantly slower than the Stelvio QV (3.8 seconds), and GLC 63 S AMG (3.8 seconds). I believe that delta mostly comes down to the weight of the X3 M, and I’m scratching my head here because the BMW weighs a whopping 147 kg more than the AMG, and an even more worrying 193 kg more than the Alfa. In fact, the X3 M is nearly as heavy as the porkier Lamborghini Urus. So while the BMW has the power, the actual power-to-weight ratio isn’t even close, and you will feel that extra heft when thrashing it around corners at higher speeds. This is perhaps the reason why BMW has tuned the X3 M to be so darn stiff.
You could say that the Stelvio QV and GLC 63 are stiff riders, but they are actually fairly balanced and walk on that fine line between stiff and supple. The ride quality in the Macan Turbo is possibly the best tuned of the bunch, and just goes to show that you don’t need a harsh ride to make an SUV feel sporty. That said, in the X3 M, you feel every rock, crevice, and bump on the road. You could probably even feel the crunching of an ant as it sees its life flash before its eyes. This tactile connection to the road is welcome in a dedicated sports car, but perhaps not in an SUV that will most likely only see action ferrying kids to soccer practice, albeit at terminal velocity. I like a stiff ride in my M3, and there may be a select few who do in their M’ed up fortress, but I have a knacking feeling that BMW would have been more successful tuning it to be slightly more absorbent. A great deal of vertical motions shuffle their way into the cabin, and the thumping noise as the tires grope every bump on the road reverberate the chassis and makes for an uncomfortable, bass-filled background noise. Don’t get us wrong, the BMW does not demonstrate poor road compliance, rather it seems catered towards those without arthritis in their medical chart.
On the bright side, you can undeniably feel most of its overwhelming power go straight to the rear wheels, lighting them up if you aren’t careful, and becoming playful when dancing on the glass ceiling of grip. The steering isn’t bad either, and not overboosted to the point where you feel like it’s a numb, vibrating Playstation controller. Body control and top-heavy lean are kept in check too, but while BMW has surely made a proper track SUV that deserves its M badge, they haven’t exactly tailored it to the 90% of people who will actually buy an X3 M. Ergonomics are sound, sightlines are excellent, and it doesn’t sip that much fuel when driving rationally, but that ride pushes the boundaries of what rig you would actually want to take to the grocery store. Even with three modes of suspension adjustment - Comfort, Sport, and Sport Plus - I could hardly discern the difference between them. Bottom line is, even Comfort Mode is jarring. I suspect that the smaller 20-inch wheels in non-Competition models could make a difference but we did not have one to test. However, I’d argue that if you want a BMW SUV that sounds great, feels just as perky in a straight line, and rides with a little more grace, then why not the cheaper, more conventional, and more comfortable X3 M40i instead?
At least the exhaust in the X3 M sounds titillating. Tuning a twin-turbocharged engine to sound like this is a monumental engineering feat on its own and deserves praise. There aren’t many V6s or even other straight-sixes that can replicate the kind of mechanical growl and symphony from this high-revving BMW unit, though the piped-in cabin noise does ring a little differently than what’s going on outside. Have a listen to our Exhaust Notes video above to hear it for yourself.
The X3 M has the right ingredients and BMW has managed to pull off an exceptionally enjoyable performance SUV. Alas, it’s just not as segment defining as we wanted it to be. The weight is an issue, and there is only so much the stiff ride, sticky Michelin PS4S tires, and bewildering S58 engine can do to make up for that. The result is a stellar machine but one that sacrifices civility for performance. Those who can forgive the taxing ride will find a true M car. This one just happens to be an SUV. Those who can’t will find solace elsewhere, because however young the segment may be, there are now more than a handful of automakers willing to pick up your tab.
Model: 2020 BMW X3 M Competition
Paint Type: Donington Grey Metallic
Base Price: $93,000
Price as Tested: $99,150
Length/Width/Height (mm): 4,730 / 1,897 / 1,669
Curb weight (kg): 2,171
Engine: 3.0-litre twin-turbo inline-six (S58)
Horsepower: 503 hp @ 6,250 rpm
Torque: 442 lb-ft @ 2,600 - 5,950 rpm
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Engine & Drive Configuration: Front engine, AWD
Observed Fuel Consumption (L/100km): 13.1
Tires: 255/40R21 front; 265/40ZR21 rear; Michelin Pilot Sport 4 S