Performance cars are old news. Aspirational brands are building and extending performance ranges. BMW doesn’t just apply the theory to one model in each model line either, but to boost family numbers multiple models get a look-in.
Like the BMW X3 M40i. Right now it’s the most performance-focussed version of the new X3 available, but it will soon be joined by an even faster X3 M variant.
A two-car M-performance range in the greater mid-size X3 SUV array gives BMW the artillery it needs to tackle the Mercedes-AMG GLC43 and GLC63 twins. It also sees BMW’s revered inline six-cylinder engines given a starring role, eventually, in both cars.
In the $99,529 (before on-road costs) X3 M40i, the twin-scroll 3.0-litre straight six develops 265kW at 6500 rpm and a stout 500Nm between 1520 and 4800 rpm. Lined up against key competitors the BMW sits right on the Audi SQ5’s tail (260kW/500Nm and $99,240) but undercuts the AMG GLC43 (270kW/520Nm and $103,129) slightly.
It’s also the newest of the three, having only gone on sale in Australia from the middle of 2018, with the less powerful mainstream variants leading it by a little over six months.
That gives the X3 a contemporary sweep of BMW’s latest and greatest design themes, infotainment, and technologies.
Amongst its headline features, the X3 M40i lays claim to standard inclusions like 'Vernasca' leather upholstery, heated front sports seats with electric adjustment, 16-speaker Harman Kardon sound, BMW’s 10.25-inch iDrive 6.0 infotainment system, 12.3-inch TFT instrument display and a huge colour head-up display.
Some of the M-specific enhancements include the steering wheel, body styling and wheel from BMW’s M catalog. Shadow Line exterior black-pack, Cerium Grey grille and intakes, adaptive LED headlights, a larger rear wing and 21-inch alloy wheels contribute to the external differences.
The overall effect is a subtle one. You won’t mistake this car for a full-blown M car – the changes aren’t as pronounced as those carried out on an M3 compared to a regular 3 Series, say – but it’s been toughened up all the same. Subtly tailored visual menace.
It’s a similar story on the road, too. The top-gun engine (for now) doesn’t feel like a rorty, leash-straining beast. It’s got muscle when you drive with intent, but it’s also calm and collected for punting about town.
That’s good. For school runs and office commutes you can drive the X3 M40i like any other average family-SUV and disappear into the crowd. It’s subtle and smooth on a gentle throttle and can happily endure grinding urban commutes.
Open the taps though and the M40i can reel off a 0-100 km/h sprint of 4.8-seconds. There’s punchy reserves of torque and a gravelly exhaust note that invites you to indulge, although the ‘enhanced’ soundtrack pumped through the speakers still sounds like garbage.
The handling package gets an upgrade to suit: firmer M-tuned suspension with adaptive dampers, M Sport rear differential, quicker steering rack and uprated brakes give the handling a more sporting edge.
That does mean overall comfort steps back. The ride is much firmer in comfort mode than a regular X3, and stiffens to a jittery crash-fest in sport mode. The steering meanwhile is very light, giving the M40i a darty nervousness in spirited driving but catering more to a life of tight spaces and cramped city streets.
They’re compromises that could perhaps be forgiven in a more relentlessly hardcore X3 M, though road-focussed performance SUVs are, overall, still really finding their place in the world. In the X3 M40i it feels like BMW’s engineers tried to get a toehold on both performance and practicality but didn’t quite land either.
At least BMW’s pricing structure falls into a relatively affordable realm with capped price basic servicing for five years or 80,000km priced at $1495, or a more inclusive program (including brake pads and rotors) for $4400.
From the cabin the X3 shows a vastly improved interior compared to its previous generation, though due to launch timing it misses out on the latest and greatest tech-fest styling of the larger, and newer, X5 (and coming 8 Series and 3 Series).
Finishes and styling ape the direction of more expensive cars like the 5 Series, but in something of a break from X3 tradition, the driver’s seat is higher and and the driving position more upright than previously.
Interior space has grown in just about every direction. Up front the X3 almost feels X5-rivalling for interior space – no real surprise considering this generation eclipses the first-gen X5 for external size in every dimension except height.
There’s more usable room in the rear too. The X3 now moves to properly family-sized territory, there’s head room and leg room aplenty, a pair of ISOFIX mounts and a 60:40 folding rear seat with release levers in the boot.
Behind the second row there’s 550 litres of boot space (to the cargo blind) or 1600 litres with the rear seats folded (to the roof), accessed via a powered tailgate, naturally. That’s a bang-on match for Benz and Audi with the seats up and 42-litres ahead of the Jaguar F-Pace.
Overall though, apart from a liberal smattering of M logos, the M40i doesn’t do much to distance itself from more pedestrian X3s inside. There’s a set of more sculpted front seats, and a fat-rimmed steering wheel, but in basic black the interior can look a little drab and lacks any significant trim differences to set it apart.
At around $100k the X3 M40i really ought to do more to distance itself from a sub-$66k X3 sDrive 20i. That’s not say there aren’t plenty of specification differences to justify the up-sell (like a smaller nav screen and partial-cloth trim in the 20i), but first appearances count.
On the safety front BMW packs the X3 M40i with Driving Assistant Plus which bundles adaptive cruise control with stop and go, front and rear cross-traffic warning, lane-keep assist for a few seconds of hand-off capability and side collision warning, along with the usual suspects like blind-spot monitoring, forward and reverse ‘collision mitigation’ (so not full-stop) AEB and six airbags.
Parking Assistant Plus package adds in automated parking assist and a 360-degree camera system takes the pain out of squeezing into tricky parking spaces.
Typically BMW’s iDrive infotainment system rates highly amongst its peers, there’s a sensible layout to the system, voice, touch and controller inputs, excellent navigation, quick load times between functions and a general polish and ease of use that brands like Lexus (in particular) can’t seem to get right.
The standard features list isn’t quite where it needs to be though. Yes you get three-zone climate control, heated front seats, wireless phone charging and digital radio and auto lights and wipers but you still need to add cost options like ventilated front seats, heated rear seats and Apple CarPlay… all of which come standard in the cheaper but much less powerful Mazda CX-5 Akera turbo, for instance. C’mon BMW!
Nonetheless, The X3 M40i represents the current state of play in the medium SUV market. Buyers want M cars and flagship status, though not everyone wants to live with the full M onslaught – there are compromises in delivering such a product, sure, but the end result is more approachable and liveable.
Sensible? Well, that’s a term to be applied sparingly. A base model X3 could be termed sensible, but the M40i – while not exactly bonkers – still runs with a wild streak.