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2020 BMW X3 M Competition review: 'Outback rally' style

Australian first drive

$157,900 Mrlp
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BMW's X3 M Competition promises to blend urban family friendliness with spirited road and track performance. But we threw that out the window and instead went rallying in the Outback.
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When I think BMW X3 M Competition, I think: bulldust. And the latter is the most evil shit in the universe.

You know that B-grade sci-fi movie where astronauts collect a space rock covered in alien microbes that mutate, escape the air-locked quarantine, infest everyone on board the spaceship, and everyone involved is destined to a most terrifying fate? Well, alien microbes have nothing on Aussie Outback bulldust.

It’s so fine it defies gravity, and when agitated it hangs motionless in a fog so thick that visibility can be measured in centimetres. And yet, it’s so opaque that by the time you’ve noticed you’re lightly dusted in golden brown, it's made its way into the deepest corners of your belongings… And body.

It clings to everything, including itself, where it clumps like concrete: inside rear wheel rims thrown violently off balance, or caking up in jambs that prevent doors from shutting. It’s so pervasive it can seep through beads and flatten tyres, and fogs up a vehicle’s cabin space regardless of the integrity of ‘airtight’ sealing.

Imagine what it does to the innards of high-performance, leather-dipped sports-luxury cars such as the X3 M Competition. Imagine what gets sucked through the combustion process of its 375kW/600Nm biturbocharged 3.0-litre inline six. What it does to high-spec Merino leather trim. What might never escape the intricate plumbing of its three-zone climate control.

I’d never lost sleep wondering of such horrors, up until the day after the local launch of the hyper X3 M and its slope-roofed X4 M Competition twin, wondering what might become of the $157,900 (list) wagon and its seven-grand-pricier twin I’d thrashed the absolute ringers out of on a huge, flat clay bed in the middle of the South Australian Outback. These were German fish so far out of dusty dry water, I pondered long and hard ‘what the heck was BMW Australia thinking?’.

It gets wilder. This was no slow-moving and short toe-in-red-y-brown detour between more sensible As and Bs. BMW Australia had carved a high-speed rally course in one of the most hostile environments for vehicles promising to seriously impress around town, on twisty back roads, on motorways, and even racetracks… Anywhere other than off-road. And it proceeded to invite journalists to cut as loose as they pleased, rally style.

The dusty elephant in the outback shed is, of course, why? Not only will no owner ever take their SUV-shaped M-cars for a thrash through bulldust, but no owner ever should!

As both a car reviewer and car bloke who cares plenty about mechanical sympathy, charging such premium machinery flat-knacker at speeds north of 150km/h – rarely in straight trajectory – seems like a helluva lot of sacrifice to essentially learn nothing about these cars’ real-world capabilities. For that, you’ll have to check out our on-road X4 M Competition review.

But I’ll tell you one thing: if anyone ever offers you the opportunity to indulge in replicating this experience (in their machine, not yours), then grab it with both dusty hands. It’s outrageous fun. And given such a scenario is on the impossible side of highly improbable, I feel somewhat duty bound to fill in the gaps in your potential curiosity.

It’s a dirty horse, but someone has to ride it…Right?

Pulling up to the start line first time out, the virgin clay under the X3 M’s 21-inch Michelins – the new Pilot Sport 4 S – has a hard and surprising skin. For one lap, at least, we’ll have solid ground before any broad 255mm front and 265mm rear rubber churns the surface on the driving line into much slipperier powder.

The X3 M fits M5-style dual red M-mode buttons on the wheel, each storing very different individually selected setting suites. M1 is full attack mode, forcing the powertrain, suspension and steering all to Sport+, though I’m inclined to favour M2, knocking the suspension and steering back to Comfort while leaving the engine and eight-speed ZF auto – the same transmission as used in the mighty M5 – in maximum Sport+.

It’s easy to toggle between the two preset modes on the fly, but I’m wagering the softer damping will tame excessive tail-happiness, and the lightest steering setting offer less effort and more control should this German SUV tap its inner rally car as much as I hope it will.

I am, however, a little skeptical. Yes, this has an M-certified xDrive system with pronounced rear bias, though unlike the M5 you can’t uncouple front axle torque. And I’m gathering neither the active rear M differential nor variable M suspension smarts were calibrated by any meaningful extent to demonstrate dynamic excellence on slippery clay.

Ditto the differences in axle torque splitting between selectable 4WD and more rear-biased 4WD Sport, undoubtedly tuned more for full-grip tarmac duty rather than the full-wheel-spin folly of churning up plumes of bulldust you could spot from 50km away.

Further, we’re read the riot act about opting for the loose M Dynamic stability-control safety net rather than switching DSC completely off – which is offered – and it certainly makes sense. If this SUV pitches 90 degrees sideways, grabs a rut and starts flipping anywhere near the intended 150km/h plus v-max, it won’t be much fun at all.

Out of the hole, the S58 3.0-litre biturbo six pulls hard and clean, with none of the low-RPM hesitation we reported on the sealed stuff at its international launch. It's probably the wheel spin that helps to keep the engine on the boil between the 600Nm mid-range and all 500 old-school horsepower as the tacho sweep in the M-specific head-up display touches redline. The eight-speed auto is an absolute gem: crisp, assertive and immediate in upshifts, if with none of the alarming jolts you experience in a dual-clutch alternative.

The X3 M pitches keenly in a slow, second-gear right corner, kicking off a succession of increasingly wider-radius bends that slither for a kilometre-and-a-half into the distance into some yet unsighted braking zone. And the still-crusted clay is returning more lateral grip than I’d anticipated. The tail snaps eagerly and recoils just as quickly, the chassis jinking to-and-fro through a lack of road speed and lateral inertia. It’s begging for upped pace.

We’re in the top of fourth when the braking zone arrives, and the SUV pitches hard as its four-pot 395mm front brakes go into full ABS lockdown, the front tyres bursting through the grippy clay crust and instead finding slippery powder beneath. It takes more real estate than I anticipate to wash off excess velocity, but it pulls up confidently. The only alarming trait is the enthusiastic seatbelt doing its best to strangle me at the onset of a non-existent collision.

The back straight is wilder: long gentle sweepers enticing bigger speeds, higher gears, more sustainable powerslides, and more dramatic bulldust storms coming off all four tyres under relentless wheel spin, breaking up the clay in what’s to become a surprising change in conditions come lap two.

As if suddenly ‘broken in’, the course becomes instantly slipperier – frictional properties somewhere between mild-graded gravel and ice, I reckon – and, in turn, the X3 M seems twice as eager to pitch into a powerslide and demands half the encouragement to hold them. It’s as if the lateral inertia that governs any trajectory except the straight-ahead has effectively doubled. And the recovery from the increasingly wider-angle slides takes twice as long and much more real estate.

The effect behind the wheel? The X3 M is much happier now tackling those tighter top-of-second-gear corners in the upper reaches of third, the powerslides becoming longer and smoother with the chassis seated more comfortably in wider yaw angles. Even with such little purchase from the front tyres, the front end itself remains impressively accurate, and the steering surprisingly so, too.

For the most part, it’s an impressively controlled experience… Right until you get a little too greedy keeping the throttle buried too long to over-milk a slide. The X3 M is alarmingly keen to change direction for a near-two-tonne machine, and in recoil of switching from one ever-wilder slide to another, you want to be careful where you suddenly aim that hefty inertia.

If anything, the 4WD Sport mode throws too much torque to the rear axle on clay. It’s so keen to happily sit with its bum wagging wide at full throttle that you think 'c’mon, give me more front drive and pull yourself straight'. It can behave very much like a rear driver, except rather than want armfuls of countersteer it prefers, as spirited all-paw performers do, that you keep the steering centred and induce almost all of the chassis rotation using throttle and braking weight transfer.

Yep, just like a proper rally car.

Even after a handful of laps, there’s really only one small but terribly important and somewhat challenging adjustment required to muster up the kind of ballistic pace you see in the video above. And that’s rhythm and timing.

Get that bit right and the X3 M or X4 M will scythe through a twisty rally course, throttle pinned, all 375kW relentlessly on tap – mid-era ’80s Group B rally monster power – with all four wheels constantly rotating faster than the ground beneath them.

It has the poise, balance and technical smarts to harness its considerable firepower, not on tippy-toes but absolutely flat out. And it’s batting for you, rather than against you, offering impressive control at some cracking pace, even on those 21-inch tyres. I can’t imagine how quick it’d be fitted with bespoke rally rubber.

Of course, you’re just going to have to take my word for it. You really don’t want to try this with your own M-SUV. And after a thorough post-mortem on its bulldust-infected machinery, I’d be surprised if BMW Australia’s all that keen to reboot such an experience in the future.

For a full review on how you would and should treat your M-bred SUV, check out our on-road test of the X4 M Competition.

EDITOR'S NOTE: As an unusual test that falls outside of our scoring regime, we have left this review unscored. See the scores of our BMW X4 M review for a hint at how the X3 M would likely perform in an on-road test.

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