The 2020 BMW X3 M and X4 M demand that we stop thinking about SUVs in old and obsolete ways — as either trucks in a more palatable form, or as a hopeless compromise that can never perform as well as a conventional car. Here’s the new truth of the ultra-high-performance SUV: You won’t find any car that can do what the X3 M and X4 M can do, which is to attack a road or racetrack faster than most sport sedans but with cargo space and versatility no car could hope to match.
When car journalists and “purists” continue to condescend to Americans — and now global buyers — who clearly prefer the SUV formula of a tall roof, tailgate and AWD, it’s time to wonder whether it’s the purists who can’t acknowledge the automotive truth. And I say that as a lifelong lover of Lotuses, Miatas and any other tiny, laughably impractical sports cars.
The Good: I drove the X3 M and X4 M from suburban New Jersey to Monticello Motor Club in upstate New York, where BMW let us romp on MMC’s full 4.1-mile circuit. And the “good” is how deftly the Bimmers—the first full M Performance versions of the popular X3 and slope-roofed X4 — balance everyday duties and cordial neighborhood relations with acceleration, braking and handling that would have been unimaginable in an SUV even a decade ago.
The most powerful inline six-cylinder engine in BMW history now powers these SUVs: a twin-turbo, 3.0-liter masterwork with 473 horsepower and 442 pound-feet of torque. Ante up for the Competition versions, and horsepower rises to 503, with an identical torque peak and a powerband as broad as the horizons owners will chase. More than 90 percent of this 3.0-liter’s parts are new, including its enlarged bore (and shorter stroke); forged pistons and lightened forged crankshaft; turbochargers with electrically actuated wastegates; high-pressure fuel pumps and integrated cast exhaust manifold; and two-chamber, dual-pump oil pan that BMW says works like a dry-sump unit to avoid oil starvation under extreme g-force duress.
Who It’s For: People who secretly crave a sports car, but won’t splurge on something that feels like a self-indulgent toy. Those people must still be able to afford an indulgent luxury SUV, as the X3 M starts from $70,895, or $74,395 for the X4 M. The 503-hp versions add $7,000 to the price, for a respective $77,895 and $81,305 for the X3 M Competition and X4 M Competition.
Watch Out For: After all these years, BMW’s M Division still can’t design a console shift lever for its transmissions that operates with tactile ease. Its latest affair falls awkwardly to hand, like a child’s block skinned in leather, and it’s annoying to toggle. (Thank God for paddle shifters). The “Park” button, situated low on the shifter’s face, requires an unnatural thumb stretch or finger prod. BMW’s aging navigation system also remains slow on the uptake, often failing to call out or display upcoming turns or exits until you’re practically on top of them.
On the subjective side, certain auto writers are bound to complain that the BMW should be even more aggressive, whether in visual, auditory or suspension-tuning terms. But my sense is that BMW’s M Division has found the Goldilocks mean for a sporting SUV. These are still family cars first, and if all they do is bellow, flaunt their wildness and clomp like Neanderthals over every pavement crack, then BMW families aren’t going to buy them. If you require more than 503 horsepower or a sub-four-second 0-60-mile-per-hour time in an SUV, maybe you should grab a Jeep Trackhawk.
Review: The standard X3 and X4 are among the most spacious, luxurious SUVs in their respective sets, and the M treatment puts them over the top. That includes snazzy M Sport seats with Merino leather and integrated headrests, carbon fiber trim, M digital driver’s gauges, and an M steering wheel with two red-metal buttons to store performance presets for the engine, suspension, transmission, steering, active M differential and two-stage exhaust. Enlarged front openings channel air for brake cooling, and for six (yes, six) radiators to cool the engine and transmission, and to feed turbo intercoolers.
These M models also add specific side mirrors, rear apron, and air breathers on front fenders, with black body details for Competition models; and either 20- or 21-inch wheels shod with Michelin Pilot Sport 4 S summer tires.
BMW’s formidable midsize X5 M and X6 M flex even more muscle, making up to 555 horsepower from their twin-turbo, 4.4-liter V-8’s. But these smaller-scale X’s have less aerodynamic drag and a superior power-to-weight ratio. The X3 M slices 640 pounds (roughly equaling four adult passengers) from the X5 M’s curb weight, at 4,620 pounds versus 5,260 pounds; the X4 M, at 4,590 pounds, weighs 595 fewer pounds than the X6 M. BMW pegs the 0-60 mph run at 4.1 seconds for the X3 M or X4 M, and four seconds flat for the Competition models, but that sounds (and feels) like sandbagging to me: I’d expect a 0-60 run in 3.8 seconds, tops, for Competition versions.
The entire car is buttressed for speed and body control, naturally. That includes the remarkable Active M Differential that assesses multiple variables in real time—not just the differential wheel speeds of a traditional limited-slip unit, but also driving speed, throttle position, and targeted and actual yaw rate—to distribute torque across rear wheels. A handsome aluminum “precision strut” spans the top of the engine to brace the body. Suspension struts are M-specific, along with elastokinematics such as front-axle bearings, transverse links and bushings for precise wheel control. The hot handiwork is complete with M Compound brakes (four-piston front, single-piston rear) and variable-assist M Servotronic steering.
On public roads, the X3 M and X4 M’s wide spectrum of suspension and performance settings proved a high point, including various Comfort modes that delivered a surprisingly compliant ride and toned-down sound to keep the cops looking elsewhere. Dialing up the various systems dials the performance to freak-show heights, including passing maneuvers on Catskills two-laners that left passees as trembling specks in our rear-view mirrors.
It all came together at Monticello, where these five-passenger BMWs cornered on rails, finessed even the trickiest sections—such as the blind crest and left-hand plunge known as Krytpos—and never ran out of brakes, even after dozens of laps. These SUVs still feel relatively large and chunky, of course, and the steering could transmit more pure feedback. But the skillful, objective performance was undeniable, including the near-total banishment of body roll that’s becoming a signature of the best performance SUVs, including these BMWs, the Porsche Cayenne or the Lamborghini Urus. On Monticello’s tightest hairpin, I could feel that Active Differential working hard, shunting torque to help the crossovers dig toward the corner exit without losing undue traction.
Departing Monticello in an X4 M Competition, passing through the track’s imposing metal gates, I immediately began barnstorming the forested lanes nearby — delighting in the 7,200-rpm peak of this 503-hp M engine, the throaty snarl of the exhaust, and the ruthless action of the gearbox. And then I thought about how I could carry my daughter and friends in luxury and comfort, fold the seats for a serious Home Depot run, and keep driving the BMW through the worst of winter. Is, say, a BMW M2 Competition still more fun to drive? Of course. But think of all the things an M2 can’t do.
Verdict: It wasn’t long ago that people laughed at the idea of a high-performance SUV, as though no vehicle could make less sense. These days, if you need one car that really can do it all, models like the X3 M and X4 M are becoming the most sensible choice of all.
2020 BMW X3 M, X4 M Key Specs
Powertrain: 3.0-liter twin-turbo inline-six; eight-speed automatic; all-wheel-drive
Horsepower: 473 (503 in Competition models)
Torque: 442 pound-feet
0-60 MPH: 4.1 seconds (4.0 seconds for Competition models)
Top Speed: 155 mph (173 with optional M Driver’s package)
BMW provided this product for review.
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