The Macan Turbo and X3 M may wear practical SUV bodies, but are infused with the sports car DNA that made legends of the Porsche and BMW brands. So, which is the most worthy of the performance badges they wear?
These are practical SUVs only up to a certain point, and then for many points beyond that they are purebred performance machines. The brand histories of both BMW and Porsche are steeped in legends, both on the road and the track.
A Porsche 911 is, undeniably, a purpose-built sports car designed without compromise. A BMW M4 takes rather common bones, but wants for little in performance or handling at the end of its development process.
You may think that an M-car is formidable, but at the end of the day it has more in common with a 320i rep's car or a 520d taxi in Europe than any commonality a 911 might share with a Cayenne.
The pair of cars you see here, the Porsche Macan Turbo and BMW X3 M Competition, make for an interesting match-up, then.
Porsche is dedicated to precision automotive machinery, but to keep its core business alive, more volume-oriented models like the Macan are a necessity. BMW’s X3 is just what BMW does, not what it’s always done, but a key part of its current business strategy all the same.
In this match-up both are hotter, more honed and more focussed than the cheaper, more popular platforms they spring from. Each is a little different in their execution, but there’s no denying both are still formidable.
If you’re entirely hung up on the cupholder count, or the practicalities of hanging your bag in the boot, we’ve covered more on the basics in the past. You can read more about the essentials of the Macan Turbo here and refresh yourself on the X3 M Competition here.
For this comparison, we’ll spend some time looking at what these two performance cars are like when used for their aspirational purpose, instead of their intended one.
Part of the appeal of this pair starts with the way they manage to fly under the radar. Neither is outrageous or obnoxious to look at. They are subtle enough to convince your neighbours you’ve opted for sensible family transport. Unless, of course, your neighbours already have a 911 or M5 parked in their garage. Or perhaps you do, too. That makes you insiders – you know the differences and you’ll get the appeal.
Yes, there are plenty more competitors playing in this space, too. Mercedes couldn’t get us an updated GLC63 in time to play, Jaguar sent an F-Pace SVR to the wrong state, and the Alfa Romeo Stelvio Q we had lined up broke, was whisked away, and never seen again…
They’ll return to the arena another day, then. For now, it's the best from Munich against the brightest from Stuttgart – in the popular medium-SUV segment, at least.
Pricing and specs
In Australia, BMW has made the X3 M range pretty easy to decipher. There’s only one version (for now at least), and it comes as the fully loaded Competition version from $157,900 plus on-road costs.
There are other less performance-oriented X3s, too, of course, but unlike overseas markets that get a less powerful and lower-specced non-Competition model, Australia takes one with the lot.
Porsche, too, offers a variety of steps on the Macan path, but the pinnacle is the Macan Turbo, from $142,000 plus ORCs, which is a comparative bargain next to the X3 M. However, with Porsche’s miles-long options list, it means you’re likely to be paying well above the RRP.
The difference in price also allows for a difference in performance.
From its twin-turbo 2.9-litre V6, the Macan Turbo generates 324kW and 550Nm. BMW takes the upper hand with a 3.0-litre straight six providing 375kW and 600Nm, with the help of a bi-turbo set-up.
BMW also lays claim to the quicker 0–100km/h sprint at 4.2 seconds against Porsche’s 4.5 run.
Before you take a stroll through the options list, both come with 21-inch alloy wheels, leather seats and steering wheel, heated power-adjustable front seats with memory, LED head and tail-lights, three-zone climate control, selectable sports exhaust, keyless entry and start, and high-grade touchscreen infotainment systems loaded with CarPlay (wireless in the BMW), digital radio, and voice inputs.
Genuinely, there’s much, much more in each. There are some differences, too. BMW runs standard adaptive cruise control, but Porsche does not. Porsche includes a space-saver spare, but BMW doesn’t. The X3 has wireless charging, the Macan doesn’t. Fourteen-speaker audio, Macan, 16-speaker, X3. Adaptive air suspension, Team Turbo. Adaptive dampers but steel springs, Team M.
It’s tit-for-tat the whole way through, but as well as more brawn, the X3 M packs in one or two extra features to justify its higher price.
The gap between the two becomes all the more obvious as you step inside. One has pursued a more relentlessly aggressive aesthetic, the other a slightly more chilled grand-tourer vibe. There are shades of difference when it comes to modernity, too.
Porsche loves tradition, and it shows in the more identifiably Porsche way the interior is laid out: all horizontal dash, columns of buttons on the console and overlapping-dial instruments – Porsche through and through. BMW has more recently decided to loosen its grip on tradition. There’s no navigable line between this interior and one from the ’80s or ’90s; there’s more visual noise in the digital displays, and yet the user interface still ranks as one of the best.
Porsche blends relaxed comfort and neat casual style to create the Macan Turbo’s recipe. BMW goes for a more athletic vibe: winged seats and more M logos than you can shake a stick at.
Both fit a fat-rimmed steering wheel. The Macan’s feels purposeful, the X3’s seems a little foolishly over-padded. In this instance, Porsche’s black-on-black colour scheme whispers subtle suggestions, whereas the BMW is brighter, but also the stitching and interior detail are more shouty about its intent.
Both, of course, provide a range of options if you’d like more (or less) ostentatious surrounds. BMW deals in colour blocking the seats and door cards. Porsche will let you change the face of the sails, the seatbelts and individual trim elements – the limit, seemingly, is your imagination (or budget).
It’s hard to knock the build quality of either. They feel solid, sturdy and well put together. Your individual design preferences are likely to be the thing that sways you to one over the other.
Interestingly, BMW’s full digital display is the less convincing of the two, oversupplying information, running the tacho in reverse, and providing little in the way of customisation.
Porsche’s ‘old-fashioned’ gauges feel less high-tech but more sporty, with the giant central tacho and offset speedo conveying a greater sense of purpose, with supplementary info available via the small TFT display on the right.
If you’re into what your rear passengers think (their size, age, and relative capacity to object will be a deciding factor here), keep in mind the X3 feels the airier of the pair, but in terms of physical dimensions there’s very little to divide the two.
Things like rear sun blinds, more space for feet under the front seats, and extra length to stretch legs into, make it more accommodating as a family SUV. The ability to recline the X3’s rear row adds to long-distance comfort.
Both feature rear-console air vent outlets and third-zone climate controls for rear passengers. The Macan provides rear USB outlets, while the X3 sticks with an old-style 12V barrel plug.
As for the driver, if ease of infotainment operation is key, then BMW takes the prize. Although the X3 M doesn’t yet use the latest and greatest BMW OS7.0 operating system, there’s nothing wrong with the layout and use of the slightly older system.
Porsche goes a bit heavy-handed with home screen data. You get everything all at once, but you can configure or personalise the screen a little more. The two dials aren’t really clear in their purpose (which varies from screen to screen), so there’s more of a sense of flying in the dark, and combing through menus – it’ll make sense over time, but isn't as intuitive as iDrive.
Right, then, enough fluff. Let’s do what these machines are supposed to do best. Drive.
First and foremost, the elephant in the room, or is it the fallacy in the room: An SUV will never handle as well as a sedan or coupe.
Maybe, maybe not. For every millimetre lower a car’s centre of gravity sits, and every gram lighter its unsprung and overall mass, there is a technical improvement in handling and acceleration. That much is undeniable.
That’s not to say you can’t make an SUV handle well. It has been proven many times over by now that you can. Anything can be made to handle better, from garbage trucks to passenger jets, and even dedicated supercars get sharper versions at some stage in their production cycle.
Relativity rules the, well, the rules, I guess. If heavy haulage trucks get their own racing series and tractor pulls have their own YouTube fan following, then anything can be turned into a motorsport, bringing joy to drivers and spectators alike.
I wouldn’t consider these two contenders worthy of their own race series (but you never know); however, for their drivers they’re closer to racetrack-grade thrills than rally-cross adventure.
BMW has pulled some neat tricks out of its hat to get its iconic straight-six engine to lay down 375kW and 600Nm. It doesn’t feel like too long ago that cracking the 300kW mark in the 4.0-litre V8 E90 M3 was a spectacular feat. While this engine is a litre smaller, a pair of turbos means more power and torque than the decade-plus-old V8 and a quicker 0–100km/h sprint of 4.2 seconds (versus 4.9) despite the X3 M weighing 400kg more. Progress, ’ey?
The Porsche Macan Turbo isn’t exactly shy with its outputs either, though, at 324kW and 550Nm. It delivers less when you pin the throttle for its 4.5-second belt to 100 clicks, but still feels suitably aggressive when you do so.
Depending on your individual take, there’s less icon under the bonnet, too. 911s and 718s stick to Porsche’s traditional horizontally opposed cylinder arrangement, the Macan (Cayenne and Panamera, too) take a more modern V approach, and the base engine in this car owes its engineering work to Audi Sport, who can coax at least 331kW and 600Nm out of it in the RS4, so there’s room to move.
BMW deals in straight-six engines and always has (yes, with threes fours, V8s, V10s and V12s along the way), so the X3 M is able to trace its family history back to the jaw-dropping, motorsport-developed M1 of the late ’70s.
On the road, the two take on neatly different personas. The Macan clearly aims to keep everyone happy. Leave it in Comfort mode and the adjustable dampers are pliant enough to cruise for hours on end.
If you want to turn up the heat, Comfort won’t be what you want, but setting things to Sport removes any trace of lag from the engine's response and sharpens up the shifts from Porsche’s, frankly excellent, seven-speed PDK (dual-clutch) automatic.
You couldn’t ask for better steering balance. The responsive rack is attentive to driver inputs, it lacks resistance in its Comfort setting (so is great around town), but finds a magical sweet zone of weight and control as you cycle up through the more aggressive driving modes.
Engine: sharp as a tack without the need to keep hunting the redline. Torque everywhere you need it, and enough revability in reserve to make chasing apexes a hobby, not a chore.
The Macan Turbo probably isn’t what you’d call a relaxed performance car, but it can be. It’ll relax when you want to take things easy, but has fleet-footed reflexes and track-ready touches if you crank it to Sport Plus, open the valved exhaust and ignore, for a moment, the high roof and seating for five.
Jump into the X3 M Competition and you get the impression BMW has a score to settle. The engine starts more gruffly, there are shortcut buttons for the individual adjustment of engine, dampers, transmission and steering, and a feeling of tension the second you slip it into drive and ease off the brake. It’s all quite overt.
The suspension could be the biggest culprit here. In Comfort mode it is fillings-rattling taut, and there are Sport and Sport Plus settings that enact rock-hard and diamond-tough damper control respectively.
Because of the lack of compliance, it feels as though the roll centre of the car is much higher, though that could be because it jolts and jars more and never gives way to road conditions beneath.
There’s also the feeling that if you’re too abrupt with the steering wheel, the whole package will shake loose, following lateral directions too faithfully without giving consideration to the needs of the car to move in three dimensions, not just two.
Find yourself on a tight road, where every degree of cornering lock is critical, and the X3 M comes alive. Sketchy though it may be on the freeway or in suburbia, by the time you hit your favourite mountain pass, the lively steering will be your very best friend.
The ride balance makes sense when you prod the throttle. In the laziest of its settings (Efficient), the X3 M plays chicken with your licence constantly, or you can ask for more and more again in Sport and Sport Plus.
The Porsche likes a rev, but the BMW feels less turbo and more natural in its ability to sustain higher-RPM runs. There’s a peak at the top of the rev range where you can feel power plateau, even with stacks of torque from the mid-range. In terms of engine calibration, that’s a neat trick.
If the Macan Turbo gives enthusiastic drivers a thesaurus of safe words, then the X3 M Competition is nothing but whips and chains. M Dynamic Mode creates more movement, puts more faith in driver skill, and shoves more power to the back axle of the BMW for a far edgier experience.
If you really want to explore BMW’s prowess you’ll want a racetrack, and until you master it, one with generous run-off zones. The irony here is that as family transport for five you simply wouldn’t track this, at least not while the M3 exists, or the M4, or the M2, or the Porsche Cayman... Depending on what you’re into.
There is a flipside, though, and it’s the transmission. BMW has given up on the dual-clutch autos from the last generation of M-cars, and has instead settled on a tweaked version of the torque converter eight-speed auto found in the regular X3.
It has been tweaked to feel more sporty, and can run aggressive shift patterns, but it never has the crispness and immediacy of Porsche’s PDK. Is it a bad transmission? Absolutely not, but of the pair it’s a pretty clear second best.
In a world where every car feels dangerously close to the rivals it targets and homogeneity rules the roost, it's good to see that these two cars aren’t the same thing wrapped in different foil.
Porsche has decided to be the more gentlemanly of the two. Undeniably swift, brimming with controlled and resolved chassis attitude, and never, ever rough-edged or uncivilised.
To which BMW says ‘hell no’ by taking all of the comfort and suppleness of the regular X3, and turning its back to instead create a fiendish, purist-minded, precision tool wrapped in the unassuming bodywork of a mild-mannered family SUV.
It would therefore be odd to give the win to anything but the most aggressive of this pair. Performance in all its forms is the key metric of this comparison, and by that criterion, the X3 M Competition runs rings around the subtler Macan Turbo.
If you had to do anything other than pursue a life of driving at nine-tenths and above, however, things start to get very different. While not as spacious as the X3, nor as tech-friendly, the Macan becomes much, much easier to love and live with in the daily grind.
As if that matters, though.
NOTE: As single car reviews, the Macan Turbo outscores the X3 M Competition as the more balanced all-rounder. In this comparison, the focus is on performance and handling. The scores are weighted in favour of this analysis, and apply to these two vehicles as pitted against each other.