If there’s a performance division that shines brighter than most, it’s BMW Motorsport, more commonly known as M. Historically, when that coveted letter was slapped onto the rear of a BMW vehicle, the result was typically track-ready performance wrapped in a refined, mature, and enjoyable driver’s car.
What’s also interesting is how BMW has managed to sell the letter M even when applied to large SUVs, proving that a utility vehicle can in fact carve its way around a race circuit as fast as some sports cars. The X5 and X6 M are perfect examples of this. So is the brand new XM. And although the X7 M60i isn’t a “real” M, it still boogies like one.
There’s also this, the 2023 X3 M Competition, or essentially a beefier, taller BMW M3 Competition. I had the privilege of experiencing one again in late winter to see if it too deserves its M-car designation.
Olá Sao Paulo!
When the X3 M Competition isn’t painted in this very eye-catching Sao Paolo yellow paint, it’s a somewhat discrete machine. Unless you’re a BMW connoisseur, you could very well mistake this for any other mall-crawling BMW X3. Only the bigger brakes, quad exhaust tips, and M logos show hints of the X3 M’s capability. Otherwise, it’s remarkably inoffensive.
When I say the X3 M Competition is essentially a lifted M3, that’s because, well, it’s pretty much that. The platform is BMW’s Cluster Architecture (CLAR) that underpins a wide array of models, including the M3/M4 as well as the Toyota GR Supra.
And just like the M3 and M4, the X3 M is powered by a real M engine, the S58: a twin-turbocharged version of BMW’s infamous 3.0-litre straight six. In Competition form (the only version sold in Canada), that engine cranks out 503 horsepower and 457 lb-ft. It’s mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission, the same one found in the M3/M4 Competition. And just like those cars, the X3 M’s xDrive all-wheel drive system prioritizes the rear wheels. The driver can also manually disengage the front axle for a true rear-wheel drive experience.
Despite its similarities to the M3, an X3 M is still a proper SUV, weighing in at a full 600 pounds heavier than an M3 sedan. That’s due to larger suspension components, but also the brakes and wheels.
Two Cars in One
In this business, it’s cliché to write about a car having twin personalities. Today’s automobiles are so sophisticated that it’s now common to find vehicles equipped with different drive modes that alter handling and throttle characteristics.
But the X3 M pushes the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde ethos a step further by really transforming its behavior. In its softest setting, it’s business as usual in a good old BMW X3, albeit with a stiffer than usual suspension and – ahem – a rather high 14.8L/100 km fuel consumption average.
I really had a chance to sample this machine’s multi-facetted personality while I was driving it through a tough early Spring snowstorm. Since it was impossible for me to give this performance tool a good run for its money in such conditions (one would need a racetrack to properly do that anyway), I had a stab at the X3 M’s customizable settings, controllable via two red M buttons located on the steering wheel.
In M1 mode, I had tailored the X3 M to be as docile as a pet elephant. All traction systems were on, while the automatic transmission was set to its tamest setting. I even setup a quieter exhaust tone.
In this configuration, I was able to enjoy BMW’s always excellent xDrive all-wheel drive system. Never did the X3 M run out of grip in such conditions. As a matter of fact, it was all rather fun and confidence inspiring driving this thing through the blizzard.
Part of that feeling has to do with the X3’s exquisite build quality. This is a rock-solid family commuter, one that takes broken tarmac head on without a tremble. The drivetrain is lively as well, with more than sufficient torque down low in the rev range, but with a willingness to rev out when needed. Under such settings, the automatic transmission disappears in the background, simply executing what it was asked to do.
I had already driven the X3 M Competition on a race circuit during a BMW-organized event, so I knew what I had at my disposal deserved a bit more than carrying kids, a dog, and a full set of groceries. That, by the way, the BMW X3 M does supremely well.
Once that storm was out of my way, I was finally able to stretch the X3 M’s legs on some winding backroads. For this exercise, I punched the M2 button where I had everything set to its most extreme settings, leaving only partial traction control on (I was driving this thing during winter after all).
Now, the X3 M becomes something entirely different. Stomping on the accelerator pedal no longer catapults it down the road. In the blink of an eye, the ZF-sourced gearbox drops a bunch of gears, putting the engine at the peak of its power band. And boy is the experience glorious.
The X3 M is brutally fast, but also surgically precise. Yes, it feels big and heavy because, well, it is. But it also never feels like an SUV. Very few utility vehicles have allowed me to play with its chassis dynamics like the X3 M has, and very few can take corners as quickly. More importantly, the experience is just as thrilling as in other BMW performance sedans and coupes. It defies physics, this.
Of course, the obvious question is that at just over $100,000, do we really need a BMW X3 that can outrun a Dodge Challenger in a drag race and dogfight a Subaru BRZ on a closed circuit? It’s even more alarming when you realize that the X3 M emits 323 grams of CO2 per kilometer, almost 100 grams more than a xDrive30i.
The answer to these questions is of course, no, we don’t need a BMW X3 M Competition. Heck, some would argue that the already bonkers BMW X3 M40i is a better fit at playing both casual dad mobile and hot-rod rivalling rocket ship. The thing is, BMW builds the X3 M because it can. And because very few carmakers actually deliver on the promise of a performance SUV as well as BMW’s Motorsport division does.
2023 BMW X3 M Competition
BODY STYLE: Five-door compact SUV
CONFIGURATION: Front engine, all-wheel drive
ENGINE: Twin-turbocharged 3.0L inline-six (503 horsepower @ 7,300 rpm / 457 lb-ft @ 2,600 rpm).
TRANSMISSION: 8-speed automatic
FUEL CONSUMPTION: 15.7 L/100 km (city) / 11.7 L/100 km (highway) / 13.9 L/100 km (combined).
OBSERVED FUEL CONSUMPTION: 14.8 L/100 km
CARGO CAPACITY 813 liters (1,775 liters total)
PRICE: $103,495 (as tested)