2020 BMW X3 / X4 M First Drive Review: M-Pressive

We get it. You’re a BMW fan and need more room than offered by the 3 Series sedan, but still want something fun for those rare escapes from the daily grind. With the 3 Series wagon no longer on offer in the U.S., and no hot version ever sold here besides, we recommend you check out the BMW X3. We know, we know—crossovers are bad. But have you actually ­driven this one? You may be surprised how pleasing it is, and if you’re able to flog the 355-hp X3 M40i without giggling, you’re ready for the wicked X3 M.

This new max-attack-spec X3—also available in the swoopy-roofed X4 body style—packs enough horsepower, performance hardware, aggressive styling, and carbon-fiber trim to embarrass many a proper sports car. BMW is quick to point out the X3 M and X4 M are the first of their kind, the M badge previously having only been applied to the X5 and X6 in the automaker’s SUV stable. We sampled the new hot models on the mean streets of rural New Jersey and New York, as well as during a handful of hot laps around the gorgeous Monticello Motor Club circuit.

We only had access to the X3 and X4 M in uplevel Competition spec, but we surmise you’ll have a hell of a good time in any configuration. But Competition variants definitely bring the good, including more power, a sport exhaust, different lightweight wheels, thicker anti-roll bars, M Sport seats, gloss black exterior trim, and a higher top speed.

The Specs

Powering these two super-SUVs is the all-new S58 3.0-liter twin-turbo inline-six, the very same sixer you can expect to find in the next-gen M3/M4. BMW says that among all the production six-cylinders it has ever made, this engine offers both the highest specific output and the most power. Those are quite the statistics. While it has a familiar 3.0-liter displacement, engineers claim 90 percent of the engine components are all new when compared with the older S55 found in the current M3/M4. Depending on trim, the S58 puts down tremendous power, starting with 473 horsepower and 442 lb-ft of torque in the regular X3 and X4 M. The Competition offers the same peak torque—on a 450-rpm longer plateau—with a heady 503 horsepower.

No matter the spec, this output is routed through a ZF-sourced eight-speed automatic transmission and on to all four wheels via a snappy M xDrive AWD system that’s for now bespoke to these siblings. Similar to the setup found in the current M5, a 4WD Sport setting delivers a heavily rear-biased torque balance, encouraging cheeky tail-out antics and smoky semi-drifts. If things do become a little sketchy, drivers have a full suite of battle-ready M hardware to lean on, including the Active M Differential and large 15.6-inch front and 14.6-inch rear cross-drilled rotors, clamped by four-piston calipers in the front and single-piston units in the rear.

Managing the SUVs’ mass is a bespoke, M-specific adaptive suspension, arriving as standard on both regular and Competition models, though the latter gets the aforementioned bigger anti-roll bars. If you’re familiar with BMW M’s driving modes from the last five years, there aren’t any surprises here: drivers toggle the suspension, powertrain, and steering between Comfort, Sport, and Sport+ settings, while the transmission offers six distinct levels of shift aggression. There are two glossy red “M” pushers on either side of the steering wheel that allow drivers to swap between two stored profiles.

Inside, the cabin is moderately upgraded over a loaded M40i’s, with carbon trim, an M-spec steering wheel, and brushed aluminum surfaces. The exterior is a bit more distinctive, sporting chiseled front and rear fascias in the same open-maw style as seen on other M cars. Competition models get glossy black trim to match blacked-out badging.

The Experience

The result of all this extra weaponry is profound. We’ve come a long, long way from the early days of hopped-up SUVs; those first couple waves of hard-charging, high-riding leviathans felt more like cobbled together parts-bin afterthoughts than cohesive performers. Like others in the fast SUV space, the X3/X4 M drive more like heavyweight athletes in their prime than bodybuilders on rocket-powered roller skates.

Our first taste of the pair came on the craggy and traffic-clogged rural roads weaving from northern New Jersey and southern New York state. More often than not, we found ourselves stuck behind some New Englander lazily cruising through the tree-lined streets, so most of the 503 horsepower went untapped. No matter; the GPS was set for a race circuit, so this was a perfect opportunity to explore ride quality and refinement. Much to our surprise, our X4 M Competition rode beautifully—relatively speaking given its aggressive mien—and if you stay in Comfort mode and avoid the far end of the tachometer, the experience isn’t discernably harsher than in an M40i.

At the very lovely and very green Monticello Motor Club, we engaged in lead-follow laps in the X4 M Competition. Drivers were advised to keep everything in Sport, with the exception of the electric-boosted steering, which the resident hot shoes recommended remain in Comfort for the duration of the session. We were free to use the heavier Sport or Sport Plus, but as the instructors put it, “Why work harder for no reason?”

On the 1.5 total miles of straights, we called upon all 503 horsepower. From a dig or exiting an apex, the S58 is ferocious, and serves up claimed zero-to-60-mph sprints of 4.0 seconds (4.1 seconds for the non-Competition). It continues to pull hard even after the speedo spins past 130 mph; given enough space, the Competition’s higher 177-mph top speed is no doubt quickly attainable. Shifts are snappy enough that you forget they’re being handled by a traditional automatic, even when left in auto mode.

Dynamically, the X4 M is about as sharp as any performance SUV needs to be. It feels lighter and much, much more track-friendly than the bigger, faster X5 M/X6 M, especially as it scrambled through Monticello’s tighter stuff. It’s not an easy track, but the X4 M was an easy learning partner, soaking up mistakes and shrugging off any mid-line corrections. In the most aggressive setting, it steers quickly and corners flattish; more than what is expected of any SUV, and right on-par with the best of the segment, including the Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio and Mercedes-AMG GLC63 S.

It certainly doesn’t hurt that it sounds uproarious as well. It’s nice to know that when the V-12s have gone and the V-8s get smaller and less prevalent, the six-cylinder will be with us for a while longer. That trademark BMW six-cylinder rasp is back, even when augmented by twin turbochargers. Deep upshifts are rewarded with a thundering snort, accented by a rumbling overrun. When the rev-happy, sweet-sounding S58 hits the M3/M4, all the criticism and derision levied at the locomotive-spec S55 is likely to be forgiven.

As fun as the romp was at Monticello, the track is not where these siblings will live their lives. On ramps, highway passes, and an occasional ridge road will be their most aggressive environs, but it’s nice to know what they’re capable of. Hot laps completed, we commandeered a white X3 M for the journey back to Newark. The roads were mostly clear at this point and 503 horsepower was ours to unleash. Even judicious throttle usage blurred the clusters of colonial-style homes as we blasted through the countryside, diving into sweeping curves and rolling dips with the grace of something much, much smaller.

On this first exposure, the X3 and X4 M fall among the most well-rounded and cohesive sporting SUVs we’ve ever driven. They’re fast, sound great, and have enough backroad poise to embarrass a VW GTI. You will pay for the privilege, however: The regular X3 M and X4 M start at $69,900 and $73,400, while the Competition versions start at $76,900 and $80,400. Save your pennies.

2020 BMW X3 M/X4 M Competition Specifications
ON SALEJuly 2019
PRICE$76,900/$80,400 (base)
ENGINE3.0L DOHC 24-valve twin-turbo Inline-6; 503 hp @ 7,300 rpm, 442 lb-ft @ 2,600 rpm
TRANSMISSION8-speed automatic transmission
LAYOUT4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD SUV
EPA MILEAGE14/19 (city/hwy)
L x W x H186.2 x 74.7 x 65.7 in (X3 M)/187.5 x 75.9 x 63.8 in (X4 M)
WEIGHT4,620 lb (X3 M)/4,590 lb (X4 M)
0-60 MPH4.0 sec (mfr.)
TOP SPEED177 mph (mfr.)

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