BMW X3 thrives in the M stable

ON THE ROAD

The BMW M range is built on the promise that performance will always take precedent. No one is kidding themselves when they enter a relationship with an M car — there’s no Tuesday night cuddles or feeding the ducks in the park; it’s rollicking, sweaty mayhem for 100% of the ride.  

Now, for the first time, you can have that uncompromising experience in the package of the X3. As of last year, the car that its manufacturer first coined as a SAV — sport activity vehicle — back in 2003, now has an M version. 

It may be new, but best believe it has fully grasped the ethos of the clique. From the first switch of the engine it snarls into life, proclaiming one last warning that it has no intention of toning things down. Blessed with a twin-turbo 3.0-litre inline-6 petrol engine that produces 375kW and 600Nm, and will get you to 100km/h in 4.1 seconds, this beast was designed to deliver power. 

Feeling the brunt of it atop a two-tonne metal frame is exhilarating. It may not be as hulking as an X5 but the size is sufficient to kindle that unique thrill that comes from the palpable velocity of a big car.

It’s worth repeating: this is an M (sports) car. Past X3 owners would be wrong to think that it is a case of few extra parts thrown under the hood to give it some more juice on the way to the shops. This is a performance vehicle: it may have the space for a small family, but it makes no promises to coddle them. 

That’s not necessarily good. It may come as a surprise to the fanatics, but not everyone actually likes being enveloped by a barbarous piece of machinery. There is little in the way of a calm drive or quiet cabin here. Like all modern cars there are of course driver modes that can be toggled for different experiences — there’s even a button that muffles the exhaust somewhat — but at no point is one ever tricked into forgetting what they’re driving.

Of course that warning is a bit irrelevant, because you wouldn’t be compelled to drop the money required here if you didn’t have devious intentions. At R1.6-million there are a bevy of options a more pragmatic buyer might consider. For one, you could get a specced-out X5, the older brother, which is a far more imposing and luxurious car. Purchasing an X3 M requires knowing precisely who you are on a deep level.

There’s always been a touch of extravagance about an M car. The very first offering from BMW Motorsport GmbH, which is responsible for the high-performance variations, came in 1978, in the form of the M1, a handcrafted race car adapted for public consumption that sold in limited numbers. Gradually the brand became less exclusive and more widely produced, but it has always retained its core identity.

The X3, it turns out, is a perfect fit for the badge (arguably more so than the X5 and X6) and in retrospect it’s surprising that BMW took so long to arrange this marriage. 

We drove it, specifically the slightly more jacked up Competition variation, on the winding roads between Hartbeespoort and the Cradle of Humankind, straddling the North West and Gauteng border. The wide  berth of this route is where a car such as the X3M shines. It cruises on the fresh tar and takes the curves with ease. Steering is not perfect, and can feel unrefined thanks to the size of the car, but away from the tight corners of a track that will never really be an impediment.

For what it is, a speedy, compact SUV, there is very little that’s wrong here. Sure, it’ll guzzle thirstily, but the truth is that its owners are unlikely to care. For better or worse, the first X3 with a proper M badge hits the tone of its stable perfectly. The only question is whether you will find that tune appealing.

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham is a features writer at the Mail & Guardian

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