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Has many of the dynamic hallmarks of BMW’s best M cars, but lacks a bit of effusive performance charm and SUV-typical dynamic versatility

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The BMW X3 M Competition is at once quite a rare and special thing, and also about as common as new performance cars come at the moment; it depends on how you’re minded to think about it.

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-sized performance SUV – and in that sense one of an increasing number of cars amongst which we seem to be writing about a new arrival every few weeks.

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.

Nonetheless, this is the first full-fat performance version of the BMW X3 mid-sized SUV that the M Division has ever made, and it’s appearing at the same time as its BMW X4 M Competition sister car – the latter on offer to those who prefer their four-wheel drive go-faster utility cars with a plunging roofline and a bit less... well, you know, utility. What a world.

As the BMW X5 M and BMW X6 M have already proven, of course, the BMW M Division doesn’t make hot SUVs quite like so many other purveyors of a performance-car breed that, thanks to the tastes of a great many modern car buyers, has become absolutely vital to fortunes of the companies making them. It took a while to get used to the idea of an outfit like BMW M making hot SUVs at all. But with the launch of the new X3 M and X4 M SUV-cum-coupe, both of which will arrive in the UK this September in higher-powered ‘Competition’ trim only, BMW’s in-house tuner will finish 2019 with as many jacked-up ‘utility vehicles’ in its showroom range as saloons, coupes and convertibles combined.

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And while many will surely snipe at the firm for cashing in even further on its credibility with true enthusiasts here, to give the Motorsport Division due credit, it has executed both the X3 M and X4 M with an observance of its own mechanical conventions and classic character type that gives them both clear authenticity as M cars. With powerful straight-six petrol engines, fully retuned and re-specified steel coil suspension systems, uprated braking and upgraded steering systems and actively locking rear differentials, these cars have plenty in common with the saloons and coupes with which BMW M has built its reputation over the past forty years.

That’s why when new M Division boss Markus Flasch says they were intended simply to be a higher-riding, more practical alternatives to the BMW M3 saloon and BMW M4 coupe, you can believe that he means exactly what he says.

Does the X3 M Competition perform like a true sports SUV?

Most fast 4x4s 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 divisive choice with some, but for others perhaps one of few cars of its ilk that can be considered 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 BMW M5 super saloon, and BMW M’s brand-new ‘S58’ high-performance straight-six engine.

The new straight six isn’t a redeveloped version of the outgoing M3’s ‘S55’, but rather the BMW M Division’s overhaul of the ‘B58’ straight six that came into the firm’s mainstream model range in 2015. Even so, it only shares 10% of its componentry with that mainstream motor. Developing more power and torque than any other six-cylinder petrol engine that BMW has yet produced (a peak 503bhp, and 443lb ft of torque across a much broader band of revs than the old ‘S55’ ever managed), it’s bound for the next M3 and M4 in 2020, and quite possibly other compact M cars after that.

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Using a forged crankshaft, forged pistons, a lightweight cylinder head with 3D printed parts, an indirect intercooler and twin monoscroll turbochargers boosting at up to 2.3bar, the engine is widely tipped to be ready to make considerably more power and torque than it currently does when the need arises – and without the need for technologies such as water injection, as used by the last BMW M4 GTS.

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 little bit more raw, straight-six combustion noise about its audible character than the old ‘S55’ straight six had. Nothing about it is more impressive, however, than the supremely balanced linearity of power delivery that it offers from below 3000rpm and right the way up beyond 7000. 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.

We tested an X3 M Competition on the road and an X4 M Competition on track. While the latter has the slightly lower roofline of the two and a wider rear track, the axles and suspension calibrations of the two cars are otherwise as good as identical.

With both cars, 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. The X3 M Competition has the same confidence-inspiring grip, body control and precision that serve as the main dynamic calling card for so many current M cars, and that give you that heightened sense of control when driving hard that M Division regulars will clearly recognise.

That it all comes at a bit of cost on ride isolation and refinement is clear, however. The X3 M Competition’s adaptively damped suspension, its 21in forged alloy wheels and its 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 that might lead you to question how much more use you’d really get out of the car than you might from a fast saloon or estate.

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How does the X3 M Competition stack up to its rivals?

This isn’t the only car in its niche to stretch the limits of acceptability on hardcore temperament; and it doesn’t do that 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 the 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.


Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

BMW X3 M First drives