By Derek McNaughton
BMW’s M division is a little like creating monsters from men. Initially set up to facilitate BMW’s racing program, M is what happens when engineers take the ordinary and create the extraordinary, when regular BMWs get more power, better handling and superior braking. Sedans or SUVs that enter the M compound exit as far different animals, all in an effort to make them perform to their full potential on the street or the track.
Prior to the X5 M and X6 M, no other BMW SUV with AWD had ever received the M treatment. Now the unique aspects of M are trickling down the line to the X3 (and X4), which will receive the M badge for the first time in their existence.
Immediately identified by intakes big enough to swallow racoons, the 2020 X3 M gives away its lineage by a unique black grille, breather gills in the front fenders and four quad ovals nested within an M-specific rear bumper. Wheel arches come painted instead of plain black plastic, mirrors are those aerodynamic ears like other M cars have. The rear hatch is also crowned with a unique spoiler. There’s just enough to give the X3 M away as different from the pack, but not enough, thank goodness, to make it shout “look at me.”
But the real jewel of the X3 M resides under its sharply creased hood. An all-new straight-six engine—seeing its debut here (as well as in the X4 M and two additional sub models, the X3 M Competition and X4 M Competition)—feels smoother and more refined than any BMW straight six before. While the exhaust note may not be as rich and melodious as a V8, it is nonetheless distinctive, raspy, and can be quieted (or made louder) by a button on the console.
Far more pleasing is the broad torque band of this all-aluminum heart that begins to pull strongly at 2,600 rpm before tapering at its redline of 7,200. Happy to rev freely, the straight-six channels 442 lb.-ft. of torque to the pavement through all four wheels with such deep wells of power that passing other cars is effortless. Just as it should be with 473 horsepower on tap.
On the race track, the X3 M happily adapts to its surroundings. So incredibly smooth is the engine, it lacks the kind of tactile engine feedback and racket that is normally a welcome partner at the track to gauge what’s happening; thus it’s easy to hit the rev limiter (the heads up display helps to monitor rpm).
Oh, sure, the X3 M will clip apexes as easily as a barber cuts bangs, but the SUV does have a high centre of gravity, and it is heavy, so it will dive and wag its tail under hard braking, just as it will wander wide in a corner with too much speed. As such, the larger brakes have a lot of work to do, yet they deliver excellent feel and consistent stopping ability—as they should given the drilled and vented front rotors are a massive 15.6 inches, the rears 14.6, compressed by four-piston front calipers but single piston calipers in the rear.
It must be remembered, however, this is a luxurious SUV meant to coddle its occupants as well as act like a driver’s car, not necessarily take home trophies against Corvettes and Porsches. And most of the X3 M’s magic comes from that engine, anyway.
The 3.0-litre package, which just fits under the X3 hood even though it is 11 kilograms lighter than that in the mighty M4 Coupe, gets a forged crank and pistons. The two single-scroll turbochargers, with upgraded compressor wheels, are integrated into the exhaust manifolds, aided by a water-to-air intercooler and air intake system designed to reduce pressure losses, while an electronically controlled wastegate enhances turbo response. Turbo lag is negligible, but can be detected under the most demanding moments at the track when trying to extract every last ounce of power.
Still, it was easy to hit 240 km/h (limited to 280 km/h) in limited straights, with zero to 100 km/h reached in 4.2 seconds. Two drive modes, M1 or M2, calibrate the suspension and AWD characteristics to further aid control. M1, activated by a red button on the steering wheel, sets up sport mode, sending more power to the rear wheels for some light drifts before the stability control will engage. Power flows to the front wheels only when the rear wheels lose traction.
M2 mode will deactivate stability completely for full-on hooliganism, and the “active M” rear differential varies the rear lockup between 0 and 100 per cent as the situation demands. Electromechanical M Servotronic steering stiffens as speed increases, and feedback is good. The eight-speed Steptronic sport transmission can be shifted automatically or fully manually, changing gears as quickly as Porsche’s PDK. It’s an ideal set up—and plenty of fun—for some occasional track time to totally destroy those Michelin Pilot Sport 4s.
The other huge appeal of the $82,700 X3 M is its beautiful interior, including standard sports seats, Vernasca leather upholstery in a choice of black or oyster, and interior trim strips in aluminum or carbon fibre. The M leather steering wheel could not feel more perfect. The digital instrumentation and centre screen are not only gorgeous to look at, they are easy to navigate and read.
BMW expects 30 per cent of its newest M models to be sold in North America, where last year the X3 was the top-selling model among its large stable of cars and SUVs. The 2020 X3 M, until now a version that could only be dreamed about, arrives in dealerships in July.