FLORHAM PARK, NEW JERSEY – The ribbon of tarmac ahead snakes left, then right before upstate New York’s lush greenery engulfs it in the far distance. We might have found the US’ bendiest road … and the speed limit is a miserable 45 mph.
That crawl speed is made more frustrating when the engine ahead pumps out 375 kW and we know it’ll power the next-generation M3. I’m at the helm of the X3 M Competition and sticking to the 70-odd km/h speed limit, a warning of state troopers at every turn from new M GmbH boss, Markus Flasch, front of mind.
Soon enough, the road straightens and clear visibility to the verges where Ray-Ban-donning cops might hide (we actually met one wearing aviator-inspired eyewear, his accent and easy-but-alert demeanour reinforcing any stereotypes I might have had) means I can risk dumping the throttle. The response from the new S58 twin-turbo engine is fantastic, the ZF-sourced torque-converter transmission firing through its eight ratios with alacrity.
This instant-then-relentless stream of acceleration, coupled with promising balance in tighter turns on that restricted road, bodes well for our stint later on the private Monticello Motor Club’s 21-turn track at full blast in the mechanically related X4 M Competition.
But before we get to all that...
What is the X3 M? Well, a latecomer to the party, certainly. The segment for midsize performance SUVs has grown apace ever since Porsche first unveiled a Macan Turbo (which has since been pulled from sale pending an updated version's release), Mercedes-AMG added the GLC63 to the mix and Alfa Romeo installed the Giulia QV’s 2,9-litre Ferrari-developed V6 in the lofty nose of the Stelvio. Jaguar’s recently joined the festivities with the F-Pace SVR, Land Rover will launch its RR Velar SVAutobiography in the coming months and Audi, well, continues with the modest SQ5.
The next M3's engine
Enthusiasts may baulk at this type of car, criticising manufacturers kowtowing to market trends by developing vehicles which are inherently compromised – higher centres of gravity and bulk – instead of remaining true to their sportscar heritages. But the income sheets speak volumes and performance SUVs are profitable. BMW says it’s taken its time developing the M twins, aligning them to the core values of the modern-day M GmbH. That starts with an engine of thrusting low-end brawn and a searing top-end (the digital redline starts at 7 200 r/min).
The S58 unit – which has some relation to the B58 3,0-litre inline-six used in BMW’s mainstream passengers vehicles, but “not much” – is the German brand’s most powerful six-pot ever and employs two turbochargers of equal size, one supplying compressed air to cylinders one through three; the other to the remainder. In Competition models, that means 375 kW (22 kW less in normal X3/X4 Ms) and 600 N.m from 2 600 to 5 950 r/min for a claimed 0-100 km/h sprint time of just 4,1 seconds (for reference, we timed the F30 M4 at 4,29 seconds back in 2014).
An M vehicle is also defined by the quality and volume of the sound it generates. These M SUVs employ two pairs of tailpipes, each 100 mm in diameter, as well as electrically controlled flaps and, on Competition models, a bespoke M Sport exhaust system to elevate the blare. It works: the X3 M sounds better than any other new M product I’ve recently experienced and, while more subdued than its V8 rivals, has its own unique soundtrack.
And a proper M car's handling
Joyous, interactive handling completes the triumvirate of qualities defining an M car. And here BMW has gotten it spot-on.
Taken wholesale from the M5, the M xDrive all-paw system juggles between the security provided by four-corner traction and the interactivity of rear-biased drive. Normally, it favours the latter, transferring power to the front axle only when the rear struggles to bite. Of course, this being 2019, the driver can decide whether this juggling act should lean fore or aft. On track in the X4 M Competition with its rear wheels set wider apart than on the X3, we activated M Dynamic Mode, which in turn switched on M xDrive 4WD Sport (have there ever been so many Ms in a CAR driving impression?). That sent more power to the 265-wide rear wheels, imbuing the SUV with a hint of playfulness on the rear axle exiting Monticello’s many hair-raisingly blind or off-camber corners. Widen the angle and the DSC system steps in and gently trims back power. It’s all very controlled, but lots of fun, too.
Special mention must go to the braking system, which is shared with the M760Li, boasts discs measuring 395 mm up front clamped by four-piston fixed callipers, and has feel in abundance. The setup started to fade during my stint at Monticello but that’s to be expected given the vehicle’s kerb weight – pretty much two tonnes – and the demanding nature of the track.
It’s here, though, where I have to shift the focus from what makes the X3 M a formidable new rival in this class and mention the counter-effect of making a sizeable, hefty SUV handle as well as this one does. The ride is firm. It’ll be too unyielding for some – I found it just-about bearable on New York and New Jersey’s unexpectedly poor-quality road surfaces – and does narrow the X3 M’s focus somewhat from being a do-all family vehicle, to one that’s pitched more directly at performance-car enthusiasts.
Practicality, however, is top-class. The interior is spacious front, back and in the boot (the X4 sacrifices some headroom and packing space, but not much), handsomely finished – although you’ll have to make up your own mind about the Midrand beige/black colour combination on the vehicle picture; I’m not a fan – and promises to be very well equipped when the vehicle makes landfall locally in September 2019.
When it does, the BMW will join an established segment in which it’ll have to nudge aside rivals with more attention-grabbing qualities (the AMG and Jaguar’s V8 engines; the Alfa’s more gently balanced chassis; the Velar’s looks and, well, its supercharged V8) than its decidedly subtler approach. But that’s perfectly fine … M GmbH’s vehicles have always favoured a stealthier approach and the X3 M is no different. I suppose that makes it a proper M car, then?
FAST FACTSModel: BMW X3 M Competition M xDrive M Steptronic
Engine: 3,0-litre, 6-cyl, twinturbo-petrol
Power: 375 kW @ 6 250 r/min
Torque: 600 N.m @ 2 600-5 950 r/min
0-100 km/h: 4,1 seconds
Top Speed: 250 km/h
Fuel Consumption: 10,5 L/100 km
CO2: 239 g/km
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Maintenance Plan: 5 years/100 000 km