When horsepower causes you to rethink your values
Words by: Adam Allen
The stench of hypocrisy emanating from the Carpages Garage is overpowering.
(Sigh)…OK, we’ll come clean. You know by now that we are staunch defenders of low centers of gravity, precise handling and superb efficiency in our cars-so, basically, sedans- and we have always wondered by any self-respecting enthusiast would opt for an SUV instead of their lower riding counterparts. Despite our thinly veiled contempt, we admit to having driven SUVs that have left us shaking our heads in amazement- the sumptuous Range Rover, the fire breathing Mercedes Benz GLC 63 and BMWs own how’d-they-do-that sports car aping X5 M are a few examples. So when BMW confirmed that the X3 would be the next candidate for massaging by the M division, we decided that since we were so impressed by the current G01 generation a few years back (and because anything the M brand gets their hands on usually turns out to be on the right side of insanity) a closer look was in order. Still wearing our customary SUV chip on our shoulders, we cast a wary glance towards our Donington Grey painted tester waiting in BMW’s carpark. We figured that it would be a somewhat cool car but not something that you would call great. As it turns out- like it has so many times in the past- we were wrong.
Let’s begin inside before we get to the hardware.
Seems like as good a place as any to start. When we put the X3 M40i through its paces back in December of 2017, we said of SAV’s interior: “…it is a comfortable, nicely furnished place to be no matter the length of your journey.” The same is true this time around, but there are some upgrades that ensure your top dog X3 is elevated to a higher level than your neighbor’s rig. The M Sport seats that come from the M3 are excellent perches in which to be immersed in your own personal high speed, apex clipping odyssey and they’re furnished in two tone Vernasca leather- two things your old pal from a few doors down cannot enjoy in his humbler X3. The carbon fibre that is splashed around looks good but the weave and topcoat are of exceptional quality- we’d absentmindedly catch ourselves touching it while waiting for the lights to change at intersections. iDrive is still is intuitive old self so nothing to gripe about there. And while we’re sure that the sound system is good, but we are not able to say for sure because while satellite radio is inherently awesome, it can’t compete with the noise made in the engine room which provided all the music we needed.
BMW makes great inline-six engines. Good to know.
Ha! If that’s a tactic to avoid enabling us to blubber hysterically about the goodness of BMW’s legendary powerplants, well, it ain’t gonna work. This all-new engine known as the S58 is BMW’s most powerful version of a six cylinder they have ever produced. They took some unique routes in order to deliver the savage power and zinginess you would expect- it packs a shorter stroke for hungrier rev building, low friction turbochargers, a forged crankshaft and a unique cylinder head design that happens to be manufactured on a 3D printer. Our Competition trimmed tester’s 503 horsepower are accompanied by a soundtrack that BMW says is “arresting”, which is a bit like saying Bella Hadid is cute- both are slight understatements. It never gets old and your willpower will be tested by trying not to drive around in too low a gear just to hear it sing. There are baffles in the exhaust you can close with a push of a button to quiet things down, but why would you? The sound this thing makes when you start it up on a cold morning gave us shivers of delight. Along with the superhero engine, other familiar bits donated from the M5 are bolted up for good measure, like the excellent ZF 8-speed automatic transmission and the trick electronic rear differential. There are some baubles that stiffen the chassis, and massive braking hardware makes sure that you can erase the gobs of speed served up by the drivetrain. The behavior of the X3 M can be adjusted through multiple setting for throttle response, steering heft and suspension firmness, or there are the M1 and M2 buttons adjacent to the paddle shifters which allow you to pre-program your own tailored settings that can be summoned instantly. We took to using M1 for a slightly spicier feel than the default setting, and M2 we employed for maximum anger- Sport Plus all the things!
Let’s go back to the part where we talk about hypocrisy.
It’s time we embraced our mea culpa moment. This is undeniably an SUV (OK, SAV or Sports Activity Vehicle in BMW parlance) but darned if it doesn’t drive like one. The numbers the X3 M is capable of are astonishing, not just because it’s an SAV but also the way it shames many so called sports cars. These types of vehicles were meant for schlepping families and their stuff up to cottage or maybe some light off tarmac endeavors, not clinging to the skid pad at almost 1g of lateral acceleration. Yet your internal organs will find themselves compressed in various ways by physics as you accelerate, turn and brake with surprising ferocity. An SUV shouldn’t be able to do this, your mind screams at you as the X3 M sashays with expert proficiently around your favorite sparsely traveled roads. If an M5 ditched it’s V8 for the new S58 six and increased its ground clearance by several inches, it would drive exactly like the X3 M. We didn’t take it anywhere near a track, but we bet it would perform as flawless as its mighty big brother, albeit not as quickly. During our far too short time with the X3 M, we got dumped on by a major snowstorm and where most people choose to stay indoors in those conditions. Not us. It’s the perfect weather recipe for fun courtesy of silly oversteer, and the X3 proved to be a willing playmate. We must give a shout out to the MDM setting for the traction and stability control systems. It lets you hang the back end at slip angles that would make Bo and Luke Duke beam with pride but it saves your bacon if you get carried away yee-hawing a little too much. This is brilliant stuff that you can enjoy throughout the year and not just in the warmer months.
What might go wrong?
Don’t like feeling yourself jiggle when you head out to run some errands? Us neither, which is why we tried the Sport and Sport Plus suspension settings in the interest of science and then never left Comfort mode again. You’ll want to avoid the more aggressive settings pretty much everywhere but a racetrack because the X3 M’s ride can be borderline punishing on our beleaguered roads. We feel a bit guilty calling out a good friend, but the inline six has a noticeable whiff of turbo lag right off idle from a full stop- it lacks the kick to the spleen delivered by AMG’s magnificent V8 engines. It feels odd complaining about this quirk in an SUV that runs low 11 second ¼ mile times, but this first world problem will not deprive you of sleep at night, and the X3 M’s turn of speed doesn’t seem to suffer whatsoever. Lastly, the fact that the M40i version exists might give some pause for thought- it is definitely not as quick but hardly slower, and it handles better than an SUV of its ilk ought to and costs less. Plus it isn’t as hardcore as the M version, a trait which some will prefer in a daily driver.
Should I buy an X3 M Competition?
You are probably guessing that we’d answer
this affirmatively, and you’d be right. We think that the ‘base’ X3 M with ‘only’
473 horsepower is great, but why not step up to the Competition- in for a
penny, in for a pound, right? Let’s get
real for a second- when you shop this segment of steroidal SUVs, you don’t buy
one because it’s good at taking the kids to hockey or because it can easily
accommodate your family and their stuff in luxurious digs, which they will
happily and easily do. You patronize this segment because of the sheer silliness
and outright speed- let’s face it, these
things make no sense whatsoever but what they lack in pragmatism they make up
for in stupid fun. The X3 has certainly got you covered, enough to make even
the most stubborn SUV hater wave the white flag in defeat. It may hurt us in
the feelings to say, but as we reassess and recalibrate our automotive values,
we submit that this is a full-fledged M car worthy of the title- SAV or otherwise,
we love it.
2020 BMW X3 M Competition – Specifications
- Price as tested: $102,400
- Body Type: 4-door, 5 passenger SAV
- Powertrain Layout: Front engine/all-wheel drive
- Engine: 3.0-litre inline-6 turbo, DOHC, 24 valves
- Horsepower: 503 @ 6,250 rpm
- Torque (lb-ft.): 442 @ 2,600 rpm
- Transmission: 8-speed automatic
- Curb weight: 2,096 kg (4,621 lbs)
- Observed Fuel Economy: 14.4/100km (16 mpg)