The BMW X3 M is a more important car than it might seem. It is not what is on the outside that matters, but what sits at its heart; a brand new 3.0 litre inline six. This engine is the replacement for BMW M’s legendary, soon to be retired S55. The new unit is an engine that will form the basis for future BMW M products; the M3, the M4 and (probably) a new M2.
Yet, far from being a test bed for the latest BMW M engine, the X3 M is also genuinely important for the brand generally. Crossover SUV’s are one of the fastest growing sectors in the automotive industry. Globally, SUV’s accounted for 36.4% of all car sales in 2018. 12.3 million customers opted for a compact SUV. For BMW, the X3 is essential. This makes the BMW X3 M an essential model for BMW M.
The X3 has been part of the BMW range since 2003 which makes it surprising that BMW M hasn’t had the chance before. The X3, being lighter than M Division’s other SUV, the X5 M, presents the perfect package for an accessible performance SUV. Some might think that this is what M Division should have started with.
The new engine is important. The previous generation S55 engine has become a legend, renowned for its effortless performance, sublime smoothness, and supreme response. The new S58 has big boots to fill. This is our first opportunity to experience the new generation.
Our adventure starts on the interstates of New Jersey. BMW’s M cars demand an open twisting road to extract the most engaging drive. Yet it is likely that most owners will be using the X3 M on a daily basis. Interstate (Motorway, or Autobahn for us European’s) traffic is where the majority will be driven. It gives us an opportunity to test the comfort settings.
Stepping across the threshold, the BMW X3 M differs from the standard X3 models. It uses a new set of sports seats, with inflatable side bolsters and with air conditioning built in. The steering wheel is also M-specific together with the option of carbon fibre trim. Small touches such as the contrasting blue stitching hint at the classic BMW M provenance.
The BMW X3 M makes use of three different customisation options. All three range from Comfort/Efficient through to Sport Plus with an intermediate Sport mode in between. Operated in isolation to each other, the Steering, Drivetrain and Suspension settings are each customisable. It is possible to have the Suspension set up in Comfort mode and the drive train in Sports Plus. Three manual buttons, located on the central transmission tunnel.
For the interstate traffic, we have everything set to its most efficient. Moving through traffic with cruise control engaged, the only criticism we could muster is that the Efficient transmission settings seem to hold gears slightly too long. This is most evident when coming off cruise control. Despite having eight gears, the X3 M tends to settle in fifth or sixth, presumably ensuring easier access to that blistering performance. This takes little away from the X3 M’s interstate superb composure with Comfort suspension settings.
Inside, the latest version of BMW’s operating system sits centre-place. In terms of comparison with the competition, it falls slightly short of the usability of the Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen Group alternatives. The digital dashboard lacks the sheer customisation of the Volkswagen Group version and the iDrive system is more difficult to navigate. That said, it has all of the features you would expect.
BMW’s systems are navigated through a variety of buttons, touchscreen and gesture control. Particularly novel is the idea of turning the volume of the sound system up by a simple circular motion of the index system. An interesting gimmick that actually works quite well!
We are soon away from the mundane grind of Interstate traffic. Rural New Jersey awaits with wide open roads, rolling hills and greenery. Switching the modes, we leave the steering in comfort and move the drivetrain to Sport. Instantly, the change is clear. The 8-speed gearbox begins to hold its gears for longer. The response becomes instantaneous. The car comes alive.
Another touch of the button sees the suspension settings changed to Sport. Far from being just another powerful SUV, the X3 M feels every-inch the race car. The suspension comes alive, coupled with the faster Sport steering settings and the Sport transmission. The experience is visceral.
The engine is superb. Completely re-engineered to the point that it shares no components with the S55 and very little with the B58. A 3.0 litre inline-6 cylinder, in the Competition model, it puts out 510 hp and 600 Nm of torque. A significant output for a 6-cylinder model. Its character is clearly suited towards a more mature audience. The sound is raspy and sonorous, lacking the crackle and drama of the Mercedes-AMG V8’s but with better response and more urgency.
Performance is similarly ferocious. Power is transferred to all wheels through an eight-speed transmission. It is delivered with a rear bias and through an electronic rear differential.
As our drive comes to a close, it is clear that the BMW X3 M is not just an SUV with a powerful engine. A significant amount of effort has gone into making the entire package true to the BMW M ethos. The engine is superb and the true centrepiece. The chassis is also well judged. It is clearly the grown-up choice compared to the competition, for those that need the space but also want an uncompromising SUV package.
The BMW X3 M will cost €84,900 in Germany with the competition version retailing slightly higher with a €93,400 entry point. US customers will get it first in July, followed by Australasia in August. Europeans will have to wait until September.