X3 M40i: Just about letter perfect

The M-badged X3 is not quite an M3 on stilts, yet it’s definitely a very decent drive.

WHEN BMW signalled intent to put some M Performance mumbo into its X3, everyone wondered how serious the outcome would really be.

After all, when it comes down to it, most sports utilities – even the really fancy ones – do better at ticking the utility box that the one for sports. Also, although the X3 in past format has tended to deliver a firm ride, that’s about as sporty as it has been.

Anyway, they told us that the new-generation X3 would be a marked improvement and, fair enough, the mainstream editions of that generation have certainly supported this contention.

The changes to everything, from design to driving demeanour, has delivered marked improvement. It’s a far more interesting and involving car now than it has been previously.

Even so, it’s no mean feat to lend a car like this bone fide performance car credibility. It’s one thing to slam dunk on straightline speed, another to create the means to carry it successfully through bends.

That’s quite a challenge here because, even though most modern and upmarket SUVs probably don’t get taken off-seal, they still have to deliver some competency in that direction. As a general rule, the better they are for tackling dirt tracks, the less useful they are on those for racing.

Really, from my experience the only two cars in this medium elite category that have felt handy at speed are the Audi SQ5 and the Porsche Macan. The latter, though no threat to a 911 or a Cayman, has probably become the measuring stick. It is quite exceptional among its kind on a challenging driving road and I’ve long wondered if any other brand would ever meet its standard.

The day has come. Macan drivers might want to check their mirrors next time they’re out for a blast. If it happens that this version of the X3 was to be exercised on the same route, then chances are that the Porsche’s mirrors would be full of BMW frontal real estate.

It’s honestly that good and, since the price is a lot sharper, with BMW asking $119,850, this in itself is going to give the Munich machine a good start.

The styling and specification sends a pretty clear message of intent. The new X3 shape is more pleasing than previous looks, but it certainly lifts all the more with the M40i’s sporty signifiers of a bigger front airdam and intakes, silver door mirrors, a flap-controlled M Sport exhaust system, M Sport braking package, adaptive M Sport suspension with M Performance-specific tuning, variable sport steering and 21-inch light-alloy wheels. It also has a lower stance than the two other X3 editions presently on offer.

The treatments carry through to an interior that, again, has really become far more acceptable and liveable now that it essentially apes that of the new Five Series. A fresh design of sports wheel and 'M'-logos in various places make the fast flagship stand out from the less expensive versions and it also steps up on extra luxury touches, including high grade leather. What impresses, though, is that it really now feels like a classy product. The quality of the wood, leather, alloy trim and plastics are excellent.

We’ll get back to the comforts; priority has to go to … well, how it goes. As I say, it’s a cracker. For a start, it sounds totally mean from the get-go; something the neighbour’s might not appreciate if you’re one for crack-of-dawn starts, but important nonetheless in this sub-category, where soundtracks are powerful bargaining chips. This one lays down a handful of aces: You get a snappy bark as it comes to life followed by a rough, menacing idle, while once on the move it plays a tremendous tune; rising in note as the speed increases. Like other German brands, BMW also implants a bit on bang-burble-pop on the downchange when it’s running in the sportiest mode.

The soundtrack only heightens the sense of speed yet there’s nothing illusionary going on. It really is romper stomper fast, not just off the line – where, the smart-witted all-wheel-drive doesn’t allow for anything more than a tyre chirp even when the throttle is fully buried – and certainly also from pretty much any sort of regular road speed.

Hoof it at 100kmh and you’ll soon be seeing speeds that’ll earn top billing on Highway Patrol. I’m not saying it’s as quick as a proper M-car, but it certainly narrows the gap. What impresses about this engine is how cleanly it pulls; the optimal power and torque loadings of 265kW and 500Nm are hardly insignificant for a car of this size and, just a few years ago, would have been the sole preserve of a large-capacity eight-cylinder – indeed, one passenger asked me if that was what was under the bonnet - not a three litre six. But the twin scroll tech seems on top of things and so too the eight-speed auto; there’s no obvious indication of the drivetrain being overwhelmed by expectation.

Of course, there’s no point having all that grunt if the chassis can't handle it. Fortunately, the M40i budget didn’t all go under the bonnet. Significant chunks of change were clearly invested in the brakes and the tyres, but really it all comes down to the quality of the chassis.

Let’s just say that the only factor that lets the M40i down is nothing to do with the car itself: It suffers, at least in regard to ride, from the quality of roads.

Rippled coarse chip is no more a friend to this model in its sportiest damper setting than it is to any other German performance car. It just gets a bit edgy and the roar from those rather wide tyres can become a bit too obvious.

But, if you can live with those side-effects, the sportiest drive mode is a great place to be. Those adaptive dampers do a great job of tying the body down and it has superb poise under heavy braking and abrupt turn-in. Key it feeling so driver-oriented is that handling feels rear-drive biased: no surprise, as the xDrive system usually parcels more torque rearwards, 

What helps the car immensely in NZ conditions is that it allows for customisation of the settings; for instance, you can team the sharpest engine and steering modes to a slightly softer (Comfort) suspension if you so wish. Actually, unless you’re intent on utterly steaming along, that’s quite a good compromise, because even with more yield underfoot it keeps providing a fairly good impression of a well-sorted, if slightly elevated, hot hatch. It’s not just a one-trick pony, mind; dial everything back into Comfort and you get a car that does cruising comfort to decent standard.

That latter ‘c’ word certainly gets plenty of attention in this model. AS we’ve previously said, it’s brilliant that pretty much all of the Five’s instrumentation and infotainment/driver assistance technologies have transferred and also implanted into a setting that is far more luxury-prioritised and better presented than previously.

Drivers are going to delight in the abilities of the 10-inch centre screen with iDrive 6 - which can be operated via the rotary dial, gesture control, voice control or touchscreen – is abetted by a smart 12-inch digital instrument panel and a massive (70 percent bigger) head-up display with a ton of details and data.

Standard fit is something new to the X3, BMW's Driving Assistant tech which incorporates the fundamental elements of BMW’s march toward semi-autonomy, a camera and radar, to run an adaptive cruise control with Stop and Go, cross-traffic warning front and rear, various lane assist tech and blind-spot monitoring.

Another cool touch is the Connected Plus technology suite, apparently clever enough to allow a driver to programme a route in their smartphone app, which then sends all this automatically to the nav upon start-up. Strange that you get all this – and a conductive charging pad for your phone – and yet still are expected to pay extra for Apple CarPlay/Android Auto interaction.

Still, these items are the icing. Fact is, this is perhaps the first X3 you can confidently buy into with expectation that it’ll be a brilliant driving treat.

Handing this model over to M Performance has proven something of a masterstroke.