It’s an all-new BMW M car, and as such something to get pretty excited about, since it’s not every year we get one. But it’s also a mid-size performance SUV – and in that sense one of an increasing number of cars that seem to arrive every few weeks.
Nonetheless, this is M’s first full-fat X3, and appears at the same time as its ‘coupe’ X4 M Competition sister car.
As the X5 M and X6 M have already proven, M Division doesn’t make hot SUVs quite like other car companies. It took a while to get used to the idea of an outfit like M making hot SUVs at all, but BMW’s in-house tuner will finish 2019 with as many jacked-up ‘utility vehicles’ in its range as sedans, coupes and convertibles combined.
And, while many will surely snipe at the firm for cashing in even further on its credibility, the X3 M Competition is true to 40 years of M history. With a powerful straight-six petrol engine, fully retuned steel coil suspension, uprated braking and steering, and an actively locking rear differential, it has plenty in common with the sedans and coupes with which BMW M built its reputation.
Most fast four-by-fours are champions of multiplicity of role and versatility of functional flavour, but the BMW X3 M Competition isn’t quite like that. It doesn’t have the Porsche Macan’s transformative air suspension system or the loping stride of a Jaguar F-Pace SVR – and that may very well make it a true driver’s car.
Aside from what we’ve already mentioned, the car’s powertrain has two notable ingredients to catch the eye – the highly configurable four-wheel drive from the current M5 super sedan, and BMW M’s brand-new ‘S58’ high-performance straight-six.
The new engine isn’t a redeveloped version of the outgoing M3’s S55, but rather M Division’s overhaul of the B58 that came into the firm’s mainstream model range in 2015. Even so, it only shares 10 per cent of its componentry with that mainstream motor.
Developing more power and torque than any other six-cylinder petrol engine BMW has produced (a peak 375kW, and 600Nm of torque across a much broader band of revs than the old S55), it’s bound for the next M3 and M4 in 2020, and quite possibly other compact M cars after that.
Using a forged crankshaft, forged pistons, lightweight cylinder head with 3D-printed parts, indirect intercooler and twin monoscroll turbochargers boosting at up to 2.3bar, the engine has the potential for even more power and torque – and without the need for technologies such as water injection.
Even in a two-tonne SUV and as it is, the engine feels stronger than either its cylinder count or its on-paper torque output leads you to expect. There’s a bit more raw, straight-six combustion noise about its audible character than the old S55.
Nothing about it is more impressive, though, than the balanced linearity of power delivery from below 3000rpm and right the way up beyond 7000rpm. Some rival turbocharged performance engines give a bigger hit of mid-range thrust, others a more dramatic, characterful climax to the rev range, but none have such predictable pedal response and remarkable drivability.
X3 M Competition owners are in for handling that’s only likely to be beaten for sporting agility, balance and adjustability by the very best cars in the fast SUV niche. It has the same confidence-inspiring grip, body control and precision that serve as the main dynamic calling card for so many current M cars.
That comes at the cost of ride isolation and refinement. The adaptively damped suspension, 21-inch forged alloy wheels and low-profile tyres aren’t too compatible with rough or broken asphalt. While they make for a clearer and more immersive sense of connection with the road on smoother stretches than most fast SUVs have, they also give the car a slightly coarse, tetchy and highly strung temperament on less-than-smooth surfaces.
This isn’t the only car in its niche to stretch the limits of acceptability on hardcore temperament, and it doesn’t do so quite as far as either an Alfa Stelvio Quadrifoglio or a Mercedes-AMG GLC63 S.
But because it prizes handling precision and drivability over more lurid, dramatic and accessible performance appeal, the X3 M Competition ends up feeling short of a really outstanding selling point: like a car that isn’t as versatile, as broad-batted or as usable as some, or as downright rapid or exciting at everyday speeds as others.
It’s a predictably serious driver’s car, in other words. Which is what we should expect of M Division – even if that makes it feel unusual, and perhaps a bit misplaced, in a class of performance cars that some remain singularly unwilling to take at all seriously.
2019 BMW X3 M COMPETITION SPECS
Engine: 2998cc inline-6, DOHC, 24v, twin-turbo
Power: 375kW @ 6250rpm
Torque: 600Nm @ 2600-5950rpm
0-100km/h: 4.1sec (claimed)
Like: Smooth and potent turbo straight-six; mid-range performance; all-wheel drive system; confident handling
Dislike: Ride isolation and refinement on rough roads
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars