What Car? says...
Can a sports SUV ever really be considered a true driver's car? You know, one of those machines that has the magical ability to lure you out of bed on Sunday morning. We suspect most driving enthusiasts would say no. After all, who dreams of lapping a two-tonne SUV around Silverstone? Not anyone we know.
But what if you were to base your sports SUV on a truly thrilling performance saloon, like the BMW M3 Competition? Well, that’s the route BMW’s engineers took when developing the BMW X3 M Competition, and the results look rather promising. Under the metal you’ll find a fire breathing turbocharged straight-six engine, a quick-shifting eight speed automatic gearbox and a rear-biased all-wheel drive system – all shared with, yup, you guessed it, the M3.
However, BMW reckons the X3 M Competition should feel more like a sporty saloon than those rivals, in part to its bespoke suspension and steering system setup. Plus, following an update, the engine’s torque increased by 37lb ft (to 479lb ft) and its 0-62mph time dropped by 0.3 seconds to 3.8 seconds – just in case you were worried it wasn’t quick enough already. It also gained a more angular looking bodykit, BMW’s latest iDrive 7 infotainment system and more driver assistance tech.
Over the next few pages, we’ll take you through the impact of these changes, while also investigating how the X3 M compares with the best sports SUVs available. And, if you want to take the plunge with a sports SUV, head over to our New Car Buying pages; you’ll certainly save a fast buck or two.
Performance & drive
What it’s like to drive, and how quiet it is
As we hinted at in the introduction, the 3.0-litre straight six under the BMW X3 M’s bonnet is a true M-fettled engine and shares very little with the same-capacity six that’s fitted to the X3 M40i. It churns out 503bhp: exactly the same amount as that of the Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio and the Mercedes-AMG GLC 63S.
However, and a little disappointingly, the X3’s engine is the least savage of all these. It doesn’t have the bombastic soundtrack of the GLC, nor does it offer quite the alert throttle response of the Stelvio. It still makes the X3 M mighty fast, though, pulling from low in the rev range all the way up to its 7200rpm redline, and its cultured six-cylinder howl is anything but unpleasant.
The eight-speed automatic gearbox fitted to the X3 M Competition hesitates very slightly when setting off, but it's much better than the frustrating F-Pace SVR in that respect. Once on the move, it shuffles gears almost imperceptibly when left in its Efficiency mode. We actually wish there was more ferocity to the shifts when you set it to its most aggressive driving mode; this would better suit the engine’s crazy power output. Still, using launch control, the car will dismiss the 0-62mph sprint in 3.8sec, but that’s broadly in line with what the competition can achieve.
Every X3 M Competition provides various driving modes that control the engine response and steering weight, as well as how stiff the suspension is. Unfortunately, it doesn’t offer quite enough adjustment in the latter category to rectify the car’s biggest failing: it’s simply too firm for British roads.
It fidgets almost continuously over craggy roads and there’s noticeably more vertical movement over bigger undulations than you’ll encounter in a regular X3, even when Comfort mode is engaged. It's especially bad in an urban environment; sharp-edged bumps will have you wincing as the suspension does little to soak up the impact. It can be quite loud inside, too. The M-specific side mirrors whip up considerable wind noise, and the standard-fit 21in wheels kick up quite a racket as their wide tyres pummel the road surface. The Porsche Macan is a generally more refined performance SUV.
The M car fanatics we acknowledged earlier might willingly put these flaws aside on the promise of sublime handling, but there’s mixed news on that front, too. Despite BMW’s claims that it should feel just like an M3, the X3 M just can’t conceal its two-tonne weight and higher centre of gravity.
Yes, it does resist leaning over rather well, but it never feels as agile as a Stelvio through a series of corners, nor as involving. Sure, the steering is precise but there's precious little communication from the front wheels. And while the clever 4WD system will let you slide the car on the exit of bends, the same is true for the Stelvio and Macan.
The interior layout, fit and finish
With plenty of adjustment for the seats and steering wheel, it’s easy to find a decent driving position in the X3 M Competition. Heavily bolstered, the seats do a fine job of keeping you in place during spirited cornering, their illuminated M headrest badges being a natty touch. All-round visibility is good, too, and, just to make your life easier, front and rear parking sensors and a rear-view camera are standard (if you’re a particularly nervous parker, a 360 degree camera and a parking assistant function are optional). Adaptive LED headlights are standard, too, allowing you to drive with your lights on full beam without dazzling other road users.
In traditional BMW M-car fashion, there's not a great deal of difference between the X3 M and any other X3 inside – but that’s no bad thing. The X3 has one of the highest quality interiors in the large SUV class and we reckon BMW has made enough tweaks to make you feel like you’re behind the wheel of something special. As well as the sports seats we mentioned earlier, you get seatbelts in the blue and red M Division colours, a bright red starter button, some carbon-fibre trim and a sports steering wheel with contrast stitching.
The X3 M also benefits from BMW’s latest iDrive system, which packs a whopping 12.3in widescreen, and includes wireless Apple CarPlay/Android Auto smartphone mirroring, built-in sat-nav, online services and DAB radio. We rate this system highly for its ease of use; it trumps rival systems by giving you a physical control dial in the centre console, making it more intuitive and less distracting to use on the move than touchscreen controls tend to be. There's also a 'natural speech' voice control function, which works surprisingly well most of the time.
Passenger & boot space
How it copes with people and clutter
The regular BMW X3 is among the best large family SUVs for front seat space, and the X3 M Competition is no different. Its high roofline ensures that tall adults will have no problems with head room, while leg room is generous, too. A couple of tall adults can sit in the back in comfort, but fitting three abreast is as much a squeeze as it would be in an Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio or a Mercedes-AMG GLC 63S.
You get large door bins up front and the glovebox is usefully large, while lifting up the armrest reveals a generous cubbyhole. In the rear, you get sizeable door bins, while the middle seatback folds down to double as an armrest, complete with cupholders.
The boot of the X3 M Competition is identical in shape and capacity to that of any other X3; there’s more than enough space for the clobber involved in a typical family weekend, as well as enough sturdy hooks and tethering points to prevent your luggage from enduring a spin cycle during rapid cornering or heavy acceleration.
The rear seats split-fold in a 40/20/40 configuration; there are control levers for this both in the boot and incorporated into the seat bases. Once folded, the seats form a flat load floor that's large enough to handle the spoils of a trip to Ikea.
Buying & owning
Everyday costs, plus how reliable and safe it is
If you’re interested in buying an X3 M Competition, or indeed any of its rivals, it’s unlikely that you have inexpensive, economical motoring in mind. Still, it actually costs slightly less than the Mercedes-AMG GLC 63S to buy outright, although the Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio is less expensive than either. Even so, a basic X3 M is still around twice the price of a Cupra Ateca.
The X3 M’s equipment levels are a match for rivals’, but a quick stroll down the options list can see the price rapidly escalating. Be prepared, too, for fuel economy that hovers around 25mpg – hardly parsimonious but broadly matching that of direct rivals.
Although the X3 M itself hasn’t been tested, Euro NCAP awarded the regular X3 five stars in safety tests, in which it achieved similar individual test category scores to its rivals. Automatic emergency braking (AEB) is standard, as is traffic sign recognition (this uses a camera to read road signs and display the prevailing speed limit on the dashboard). A Driving Assistant Professional package is available as an option. This is well worth considering because it can automatically adjust the adaptive cruise control when a speed limit change is detected, and it also brings lane-keeping assistance. This latter feature can take evasive action if a potential side impact is detected.
In the 2019 What Car? Reliability Survey, the X3 finished a disappointing second from bottom in its class, while BMW finished above Alfa Romeo and Mercedes but below Porsche in the overall manufacturer standings. You do get a three-year, unlimited-mileage warranty, though.
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|RRP price range
|£93,660 - £102,585
|Number of trims (see all)
|Number of engines (see all)
|Available fuel types (which is best for you?)
|MPG range across all versions
|26.2 - 26.2
|Available doors options
|3 years / No mileage cap
|Company car tax at 20% (min/max)
|£6,762 / £7,423
|Company car tax at 40% (min/max)
|£13,525 / £14,846