Every time we write anything related to the BMW M3 xDrive, two common threads of protest appear in the comments: the grille's ugly and it's too heavy. Now, I'm not going to pass comment on the former. There's no right or wrong answer as far as looks go: I might not fancy your wife or husband, but it doesn't mean you are wrong to. However, on the subject of weight, I agree 1,855kg is heavy. Yet despite this ball and chain (and I'm not on about partners again) it is fabulous to drive. Properly fabulous. If you disagree with that, I am afraid you are just plain wrong.
Am I wrong to suggest that if you're still unpersuaded by the M3's brilliance, you're going to hate the latest BMW X3 M Competition even more? Possibly not. After all, it adds another 200kg of portliness, and some of this extra timber is inevitably perched 235mm higher up. On paper then, this doesn't bode well. But the question is this: has BMW's M division managed to mask the manacles thrown down by the X3 M's design in the sublime way it's done with the M3? The simple answer is no. If you want the protracted one, keep reading.
As with the M3, it feels like there are quality components lurking beneath the X3 M's taller body. I'll point to its wheel control over sharp obstacles as an example. It manages its unsprung mass very well so there's no crashing and resonating post impact. Instead, it's the initial impact that's the problem, which can be quite punchy around town. This is not surprising, really. To keep the lofty body upright through corners - something it manages to do very effectively it has to be said - the X3 M is noticeably firm. Although, to be fair, by the time you're on an A-road with a bit of speed in the car, those impacts are less of a problem.
There's a degree of deftness about the flagship model's body control, yet here it flatters to deceive. It might be tight enough over mild peaks and troughs, but it runs right out of ideas when the rucks grow to sufficient magnitude. They induce bouts of heave and sway in the Comfort setting, which Sport mode tempers but doesn't fully remove. Nor does the stiffest Sport Plus setting for that matter, although it does make the ride even worse. This unwanted movement is annoying when you're travelling in a straight line because as the car moves so do you. But it's the unsettling response mid-corner that's more frustrating.
Does the rear-biased xDrive and M Sport e-diff make up for the suspension's shortfalls? Well, you can certainly provoke the rear on the throttle. It's predictable, easy to catch and pleasing. Yet the X3 M's handling isn't beautifully balanced like an M3's. I've searched the specification for its weight distribution, but it's not listed in the official blurb. Of course, even if it's somewhere near that fabled 50:50 there's more to getting the front and rear to slide as one than an even number of kilograms sitting over each axle. And whatever the cause, the X3 M does push. Most obviously in faster, long-radius turns but, to an extent, in the slower stuff as well. Not alarmingly so, but enough that you often find yourself waiting for the front end to find grip. Naturally you can encourage this by lifting off, which will result in the X3 M rotating obediently around its nose. You can also quash the understeer with the throttle, but the results are variable. If there's enough bite at the front to swing from it will; if not, you simply plough a wider arc.
The good news is the steering tells you a surprising amount about what's happening at the front contact patches. And it's quick without being flighty, connected around the straight ahead and develops a good rate of response thereafter as you add more lock. Keep it on the lightest setting and the weight builds nicely, too - for my taste the other modes are too heavy. And the brakes are generally strong, as long as the ABS doesn't trigger over a surface imperfection. As is often the way with BMWs, though, they're also a touch grabby in traffic.
You get a lot more resonance coming through the suspension than you would in a regular X3. I presume this is to do with stiffer bushing but the upshot are some hollow twangs over cat's eyes and more graininess on coarse surfaces - the sort that starts your keys buzzing if they're in one of the oddment trays.
And speaking of buzzing - well, booming, actually - the engine noise in Sport Plus mode is just silly. It's so obviously fake, so clearly emanating through the speakers, and so horrible that I frankly couldn't switch it off quick enough. In normal mode it's still enhanced but palatable - boomy, but somewhat like a BMW straight-six diesel. Now, while that's not a bad noise, it would be nice to have something a bit more special in an M model. I could be wrong, but I swear the M3 sounds less enhanced - although I am doubting myself now because you'd imagine they'd simply plug the same amp in on both.
Soundtrack aside, the engine's performance is unquestionably good right across the board. It works in perfect harmony with the eight-speed gearbox to produce relaxed progress when you drop into the lazier modes, while those at the other end of the spectrum might as well be labelled 'Blitzkrieg'. My goodness, the gear changes come quick and hard, and the engine delivers an almighty surge from around 2,500rpm that carries you, uninterrupted, into the power band that peaks at just over 6,000rpm. And at this point you will be motoring very quickly indeed.
As well as the M3's mighty engine you get its centre console as well, which includes the bespoke M gear selector and setup buttons. These work well for quick tweaks, as do the M1 and M2 switches on the steering wheel that let you save your ideal mix-and-match modes. Around this functionality the interior feels well-dressed on the bits you can see. There's extended Marino leather as standard, which covers the excellent M Sport seats, the door handles and door inserts. There's also some carbon trim, and everything feels sturdy. The let-downs are the lower trims, which are hard and unappealing plastic - and this, remember, is an £86,500 car.
In some ways, I feel like I am being hard on the X3 M. Is it any worse than the sporty SUV products from Alfa Romeo, Audi and Mercedes-AMG? No, although I'd say the Audi SQ5, while slower (and considerably cheaper), doesn't suffer with understeer to the same degree. And the latest Jaguar F-Pace SVR is head and shoulders superior. Of course, the real trouble here is that the M3, which this car mimics in high-rise form, is so unbelievably compelling that, when I drive the X3 M, I cannot shake the thought that it's an M3 that's been sabotaged. So yes, it's fun for a performance SUV - one of the better ones, actually - if that's what you're after. But it's not a great performance car. Not by a long way.
Specification | BMW X3 M xDrive Competition
Engine: 2,993cc, straight-six, twin-turbocharged
Transmission: 8-speed, automatic, four-wheel drive
Power (hp): 510 @ 6,250rpm
Torque (lb ft): 479lb ft @ 2,750-5,500rpm
0-60mph: 3.8 seconds
Top speed: 155mph
Weight: 2,085kg (unladen)
Price: £86,425 (price as tested: £92,935)
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