As the popularity of flagship performance cars grows, so too does the range of options available.
It goes without saying that for BMW, getting M badges on more cars makes sense. The one gap in the line-up so far has been a fully fledged M warrior for the X3 range – one of the most popular models BMW sells, and still growing its share.
In this newest generation that gap has been plugged, and an X3 M joins the range. In fact, for Australia the all-in X3 M Competition is the weapon of choice, giving BMW a card to play against cars like the Mercedes-AMG GLC63 and Alfa Romeo Stelvio Q.
As regular family cars decline in popularity, the move was a natural one, and the modular nature of BMW’s model range means whereas the M3 may once have flown the mid-size performance flag, buyers now want ‘outside the box’ options. Ironically, this time that option is capable of carrying even more boxes.
For the 2019 BMW X3 M, the cargo-capable X3 medium-SUV body meets a mechanical package destined for the next-generation M3 and M4 sedan and coupe models. Along with a more aggressive engine, an uprated handling package ensures everything stays in shape.
From an opening bid of $157,900 plus on-road costs, the X3 M Competition sets you up with a 3.0-litre inline six-cylinder petrol engine capable of producing 375kW at 6750rpm and 600Nm from 2600rpm to 5950rpm.
A pair of single-scroll turbochargers spool up quickly to provide boost while minimising lag. On the techy side of things, BMW spruiks the benefits of a 3D-printed cylinder head (a layer-by-layer additive process) for reduced weight without sacrificing strength and allowing optimised coolant paths.
Power gets from engine to tarmac via an eight-speed torque converter transmission and then on to a variable all-wheel-drive system, which starts feeding power to the front wheels only when required (ie: often), or in jargonistic BMW-speak an M Steptronic transmission with Drivelogic and M xDrive with Active M differential. The result is a claimed 4.1 seconds from 0–100km/h.
Visuals are boosted within the latest M guidelines, too. There are chunkier bumpers and sills, bigger intakes, front guard appliques, 21-inch alloy wheels, double-vaned black grille nostrils, and quad exhaust tips finished in ‘black chrome’ poking from beneath the rear bumper.
It's a visual package that does just enough to stand out from the ‘regular’ X3 model, but without the full fattened guards and power-domed bonnet of an M3, the X3 M looks a little underwhelming. Not to mention the jarring details of guard vents that look like eBay afterthoughts, and little black sections in the sills where the courtesy lights shine from that look like missing jack-point covers.
Maybe I’m being old fashioned, but there’s something satisfying about a car that looks complete, and the X3 M Competition falls a fraction short.
Performance, on the other hand, is much more emphatic in its persuasion.
No matter how you cut it, 375kW is a decent whack of power for any medium car, be it an SUV or sedan. In the case of the X3 M, it makes for a properly menacing tarmac weapon.
Throttle tuning is such that driving around town is possible in a steady, calm and comfortable manner with engine and transmission modes set to their least aggressive modes. Better still, BMW’s move away from a dual-clutch auto to a torque converter means there’s less head-tossing and shift-clunking than you’d find in the outgoing M3. If that’s your thing.
Ride quality is less agreeable. There’s an unrelenting firmness to the way the X3 M handles obstacles most other cars would effortlessly shrug off. Every errant pebble on the road surface, every cat's eye, every tarmac join jolts through the suspension, making even 15-minute commutes frustrating.
The bucking and pogoing from the super-firm suspension also highlights how much taller the X3’s centre of gravity is compared to the lower 3 Series, which makes the transition to performance car an awkward fit.
BMW’s focus, it seems, has not been a duality of character. There’s no calm and comfy illusion during the work week before letting its hair down on the weekends. The X3 M is resolute in its role as performance hardware.
As the city fades into the distance and the roads ahead swoop and dive over and around the hills, the X3 M comes into much, much sharper focus. Every major control system (engine, transmission, suspension and steering) offers three-stage adjustment adding more accuracy with each step.
BMW doesn’t group settings together either, so you could run the most aggressive shift map alongside the softest suspension, if you are so inclined, with a pair of configurable M recall buttons on the steering wheel capable of storing your favourite settings.
There’s some heft to the steering, yet it remains fluid enough at low speeds to strike a comfortable balance between sporty feel and daily ease of use. Ramping up the steering modes seems unnecessary – adding weight but doing little to enhance the drive.
Thankfully, the brakes also hit the sweet spot of monstrous ability on hot runs and ease of modulation in calmer situations. Even cold, there’s less wailing and shuddering than some high-performance rivals.
Glorious noise, if that’s your thing, is also on call via a button on the console, which in concert with the engine's Sport and Sport+ modes creates a low-key warbling muscle car sound without tipping things into the full obnoxia available in a GLC63 or Stelvio Q.
But would you drive an X3 M on the knife-edge? You could actually. There’s a rather sweet chassis hiding beneath the X3’s lumpen form, and even though the passing resemblance to a garden-variety X3 suggests otherwise, the M is deftly capable.
Ramping up through the progressive modes reveals tuning nuances, though ultimately on all but a racetrack, stepping up the damper stiffness is just a recipe for punishment (though I do look forward to seeing the first of these filter into local track meets).
For the brave there’s a 4WD Sport mode that sets the xDrive AWD system up with a dedicated rearward torque bias (though no front-axle decoupler like the M5), and a choice of loose M Dynamic stability control or, for the very brave, full, hairy-chested DSC Off.
There’s even a reward for piling on revs. Although top-end strength isn’t always the forte of turbocharged engines, the new M 3.0-litre mill is as happy at the top of its power band as it is in the meat of its mid-range.
Keeping with the sporting theme, the interior has been overhauled with aggressively profiled M seats. They’re narrow up front, yet still decently comfortable and fantastically grippy for arresting lateral movement.
There is power adjustment and seat heating, but the full-luxo range of additional adjustments and seat cooling are off the menu for the X3 M. There’s at least an interesting Midrand Beige and Black standard colour scheme to break up the otherwise restrained trim, and illuminated M logos in the headrests, of course.
At a price edging towards $160K, the interior fit-out is pleasant, but in some areas doesn’t match its price. Now a generation older in design alongside BMW’s current models, there’s carryover switchgear and a few dull finishes and low-rent surfaces that don’t lift the M beyond the levels of the base model at less than half the price.
Rear seat passengers get generous seat space, head room is no issue, and leg and toe room are up to scratch for all bar the lankiest adults. The rear seat can be reclined slightly, and there are rear sun blinds for extra comfort.
Given the practicality benefits an SUV lauds over a sedan, the X3 M makes for a pretty rapid freight hauler. There’s 550L of boot space to the rear seats, or drop the 40:20:40 folding second row and you can stash 1600L of gear.
There’s a 12-volt outlet in the boot and a pair of bag hooks, though they’re a little low. You can secure loads with sliding tie-down points, but you do have to navigate a fairly high boot floor.
Standard performance inclusions cover things like electromagnetic adaptive dampers, strut bracing to improve front and rear structural rigidity, uprated rear suspension arms, M Servotronic variable-ratio steering, four-piston front brakes with 395mm drilled compound rotors and single floating piston rears clamping 370mm discs, and staggered 255/40R21 front and 265/40R21 rear tyres.
Other parts of the package cover things like a colour head-up display, panoramic sunroof, LED headlights with auto high-beam and active cornering, three-zone climate control, keyless entry and start, wireless phone charger. surround-view camera, front and rear park sensors, ambient interior lighting, 16-speaker premium audio, and much, much more.
Then there’s the safety roll call, as long as your arm in fine detail, but with headline inclusions like Driving Assistant Plus package for lane-departure warning, adaptive cruise control, front and rear cross-traffic alert, lane-keeping assist, road sign recognition linked to the adaptive cruise, Stop & Go and speed limiter, plus steering- and lane-control assistant enabling brief (30 seconds) hands-off steering control.
As up to the minute as it all might seem, BMW hasn’t installed its very latest infotainment system. While you do get a fully digital instrument cluster, the main 10.25-inch display in the dash doesn’t carry all the neat tricks of OS7.0, but even the older system flaunts advantages competitors have been slow to catch up on.
Wireless Apple CarPlay is its main claim to fame, but you’re better off ignoring it entirely and using native iDrive, with touchscreen, clickwheel, and touchpad inputs to access Bluetooth, DAB+ radio, and a huge range of connected services, concierge access, weather and traffic info, and third-party apps that require a subscription (with numerous packages available) after the initial access period expires.
After-sales care sees BMW provide a sub-par three-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty (but buy from a non-prestige car brand and you'll get five years usually). Servicing can be pre-paid with BMW Service Inclusive packages from $3528 for three years/40,000km worth of filters, fluid and spark plugs, or $7995 to add wipers, brake pads and rotors over the same term.
If fuel bills are a touchy issue, BMW suggests 10.6 litres per 100km, but on test mid 12s were the more likely mixed-use scenario – given the performance potential available and the poor showing from some rivals, BMW's six-cylinder does well for itself.
The X3 M’s biggest struggle might simply be the embarrassment of M-labelled options to choose from within any given showroom. Beneath the flagship, the slightly less aggressive X3 M40i at $100K is much more than two-thirds the car, at less than two-thirds the price.
Despite being in runout, the departing M3 is a much more honed and exciting performance car, though it falls short on practicality. If space is what you’re after, the X5 M50i or M50d deliver in spades, pack in a more modern interior, and maintain a honed performance feel, albeit freed from the stringent ride of the X3 M – and all three are fractionally cheaper.
None of those details are likely to temper the success of the X3 M, however. BMW hasn’t phoned it in for this one – it has developed a complete and proper M-car that stands on its performance merits.
If you’re after an X3 M, it’s likely a very conscious decision. One that rival brands have shown can, and does, appeal to plenty of buyers.
No, it may not be the best M-car in BMW’s stable, but the X3 M is the best mid-size SUV to wear the M badge, and that alone will be enough to ensure its success.