BMW’s performance division believes the X3 M will likely be the best-selling M-Car when it launches in August, so it’s strange to think that BMW had left this segment to Mercedes-AMG and Audi RS for this long. But now that the long-awaited X3 M is finally here, was it worth the wait?
We flew to New York to find out by reviewing the new 2019 BMW X3 M and X4 M both on-track and on-road. Both of these cars are basically the same, except the X4 adopts a coupe look to take on the GLC63 Coupe. Other than that, they both share the same platform and architecture. In fact, BMW’s official data claims that the X3 M and X4 M both weigh 1970kg and even have the same 51:49 weight distribution (although the suspension engineer told us there is a 10–15kg difference front to rear between the two).
Nonetheless, considering that the X3 M will account for the absolute majority of sales, we did focus our attention primarily on the more practical model tested here. From the outside, the M models are easy to tell apart with more aggressive front and rear bumpers and quad exhausts. The black grille and highlights also do wonders for the menacing look.
For Australian-delivered models of the X3 M ($157,900) and X4 M ($164,900), all will be the Competition variants by default, which sit above the base models offered in other markets. The standard-fit packages see a power bump, as well as bigger wheels (21 inches) and the sports exhaust as standard kit.
The party trick of the X3 M is the new S58 engine. This is the first time that the engine going into a new M3 and M4 has debuted in another car. If that doesn’t tell you how significant and important the new X3 M is, then nothing will.
BMW says the new engine is 90 per cent new parts and shares very little with the current motor in the M3. It’s still a 3.0-litre inline six-cylinder engine with two single-scroll turbos, but the focus has been to reduce pressure loss, which is why it runs only at 2.3bar of pressure, but somehow manages an insane 375kW of power and 600Nm of torque.
That’s unsurprisingly the exact power output of a GLC63 AMG, but is 100Nm down on torque against its main rival. Perhaps there really is no substitute for two additional cylinders. It’s also outgunned from 0–100km/h, coming in at 4.1 seconds against 3.8 – even if the AMG weighs 40kg more (1970kg vs 2010kg).
BMW has also ditched the dual-clutch transmission, replacing it with a standard eight-speed torque converter from ZF, which allows for much smoother shifts at low speeds around town and definitely suits the character of the SUV.
Jump inside and the interior of the X3 M is a very pleasant place to be. The build quality, general ambience and tactile sensation are very much befitting of a car its price. The steering wheel is super thick and great to hold, as you’d expect from an M-Car, and the X3 M has adopted the new M5’s gearstick (which means you can finally put an M-Car in park without having to turn it off), red starter button, and the M1 and M2 buttons (also in red) on the steering wheel.
We like that the newly developed front seats have adjustable bolstering and certainly look the business. But to be fair, they are rather firm and lacking significant lumbar support, and it didn’t get much better in the rear, as the second-row passengers will find their seats lacking significant padding.
Furthermore, the X3 M, much like the X3, misses out on the latest version of iDrive (7), so there are no RFID-enabled credit card keys or features like reversing assistant that we have truly come to love from the new X5, X7 and 3 Series. Apple CarPlay also remains an option, making BMW the only car company apart from Ferrari to charge for the system. That’s not to say the interior isn’t terrific, because it is, but it’s not perfect.
Press that red starter button and the S58 comes to life with a little growl. This engine has a lot to deliver both here and in the M3, but our first impressions with it are that it doesn’t feel its full 375kW. Without launch control, there is a noticeable amount of lag off the line before the gearbox and engine decide it’s time to really take off.
It does sound pretty decent for a twin-turbo six, though, and not all that different to the previous car. There are three modes to pick from: Comfort, Sport and Sport Plus, and if you put it into Sport Plus there are plenty of crackles from the back. We are not a fan of the ‘enhanced’ exhaust note being pumped through the speakers, but it actually sounds better from the outside than on the inside – which, apart from the noisy M-specific side mirrors, is very quiet.
We were also a little bit surprised by the super-firm ride quality of the X3 M, which is further exaggerated in the even stiffer X4 M (though we are told they are identical). Even in Comfort mode, the SUV's ride is tuned for flat cornering rather than comfort. Find yourself a few bumpy roads and you can feel everything through the seats. It’s actually an ideal set-up if you’re keen to track your car frequently, but we wonder how many X3 or X4 M owners would want to do that?
On the plus side, the gearbox works beautifully with the engine at all speeds and RPM. On the move, the X3 M changes direction with an extreme level of precision. So much so that you can immediately tell there is an all-new steering system employed here (completely different to the regular X3), which means a much sharper turn-in and great feedback.
In a humorous kind of way, the Sport Plus setting for the steering makes it so artificially heavy that even BMW’s own staff admitted it's akin to a gym workout. Comfort steering is where you’ll likely always be, and with the two M buttons on the wheel you can set your own customised set-up for different occasions.
So, for example, we would have our daily commute done in M1, which would be set to Sport Plus for the engine and Comfort for ride and steering with the exhaust open. When we came across a twisty bit of road or wanted to have some fun, we would program M2 to Sport Plus for both engine and ride, but keep steering in Comfort.
BMW put us on New York’s famous racetrack, Monticello, to experience the cars flat out. While this was an almost pointless exercise in showing off just what the cars can do, it was also a reminder of how far we’ve come in the last few decades – that an SUV can now tear up a racetrack and look good doing it, and probably be significantly faster than supercars of just 10 years ago.
What you’ll notice with the M SUVs at the limit on a racetrack is, firstly, how amazing the brakes are. The 19-inch brake system is borrowed from the 760i, so it has an insane amount of braking power, and despite our repeated abuse, it didn’t really show much fade.
But, secondly, no matter what, you can’t defy the laws of physics. BMW’s boss of M, Markus Flasch, told us that the aim with these SUVs was to make you ‘feel’ like you are driving an M3 or M4. Well, it feels like an M3 with an extra 400kg or so, which means there is a lot of weight shift from front to rear under brakes, and the rear gets pretty tail happy (which is fun, to be honest) if you’re in xDrive Sport and pushing hard out of a corner. But there is also understeer and the car struggles to get its power down.
We did a fair few laps of Monticello Raceway in an X4 M and very much enjoyed the experience, but neither it nor the X3 M are made for the track. Both M and AMG always like to pretend otherwise with their SUVs, but that’s simply not the case with these cars. They are inherently compromised.
We would fathom a guess and say around a 5km track, the current M3 or M4 would be significantly faster (4–5 seconds) than this car because of how much confidence it inspires mid-corner. Furthermore, the Michelin Pilot Sport 4 S tyres don’t last that many laps and are much better suited to a road.
Which is a good thing, actually, because we punted the X3 M extensively around the mountainous roads of New Jersey and found it to be excellent. It’s here where the X3 M really shines. This is a road-destroying super-sporty SUV, and it does that job brilliantly. Give it a twisty road and the hard suspension makes a lot of sense, there is endless grip and zero body roll, and the steering is so delightful that once you get to the end, you will turn around and do it again. You genuinely cannot help but smile as you push the latest Bavarian missile through such roads.
Overall, our first impressions of the BMW X3 M and X4 M are that they are a natural extension of the M range into what will be a super-popular segment. Those looking for more practicality than an M3, but seeking the power and prestige of the M brand, no longer have to desert to AMG, but we do have to question the car’s super-firm ride and we are yet to drive it on Australian roads. So, the final verdict will be an Australian test and a comparison against the GLC63 coming up in August.
For now, though, what we can say is that if ride quality is very important to you, you really won’t go wrong with the X3 M40i, which delivers more than enough power and torque at a much more affordable price.