BMW, as with so many manufacturers nowadays, feels like it’s not enough to offer simply one level of high-performance machines. So, just as Audi has S and RS, and Mercedes-AMG utilises ‘43’ and ‘63’ tiers of power, BMW now delivers a ‘halfway-house’ grade of fast cars in the form of M Performance models, which are supposed to serve as an entry point into the full-blooded world of pure Ms, such as the M2, M4 and, um, X6 M.
However, vehicles like the M240i Coupé are so blisteringly good as to convince you that a full M car might not strictly be necessary, and here’s BMW pulling off the same trick again. This is the all-new X3, the company’s mid-sized premium SUV, and for the first time in its 14-year model life, the high-riding machine is being subjected to proper M Performance treatment to give us the range-topping M40i. It uses the familiar 3.0-litre turbocharged straight-six petrol, as employed in other ‘x40i’-badged Beemers, to deliver robust outputs of 355bhp and 500Nm.
That’s enough for the M40i, despite weighing the best part of two tonnes, to utilise its standard-fit xDrive all-wheel drive and the workings of its sublime eight-speed Sport Steptronic auto to fire the X3 from 0-100kph in just 4.8 seconds. To put the M40i into some kind of perspective, that’s the sort of speed the M5 was achieving with 501bhp and a V10, not a decade ago...
Of course, M Performance doesn’t just mean a load of extra straight-line go and no cornering show, so the suspension is beefed up to cope with the higher lateral g-forces the M40i can generate over its lesser siblings, stronger M Performance brakes with blue callipers handle the retardation, there’s a Sports exhaust to provide what has to be one of the best soundtracks on any SUV at any price and you get the subtly enhanced exterior looks, with an M Performance lower body kit plus a boot spoiler and those lush 20in alloys on low-profile tyres.
All of this adds up to a performance SUV that should give a Porsche Macan something to seriously worry about; that’s how good the X3 M40i truly is. There are a few niggles from the handling, such as steering which is way too heavy in Sport+ mode and a feeling of all-corners neutrality from the xDrive underpinnings, rather than genuinely rear-biased driver fun, but in all other respects the BMW is a marvellous machine.
There’s simply no doubting any of its performance claims, as it hauls ferociously hard through most of the gearbox’s ratios, the six-pot engine singing a wonderful tune that’s overlaid with the crash-bang-pop percussion of that naughty exhaust system. The brakes do a fine job of reining the M40i in from higher road speeds time and time again without any signs of fade, and although that steering needs some serious heft, it is precise, accurate and faithful enough to allow you to throw the X3 into bends as if it were two-thirds the weight and height that it actually is.
What you find once you’re into the corners is minimal body roll, equating to limits of grip so exceedingly high that you shouldn’t breach them unless you’re on a race circuit. The leading axle of the X3 is extremely keen to slice into corners in a manner that would befit an M3, never mind an SUV, and once correctly driven and loaded up, the M40i refuses to understeer on the way into, through and out of corners. This, coupled with that mighty motor up front, makes for a tremendous amount of cross-country pace and a thrilling driving experience that is wholly at odds with the X3’s somewhat ‘family image’ across wider global markets.
Thankfully, it still functions perfectly smoothly as a sedate commuter, providing a comfortable if marginally firm ride on its multi-stage adaptive dampers...
Thankfully, it still functions perfectly smoothly as a sedate commuter, providing a comfortable if marginally firm ride on its multi-stage adaptive dampers, managing to suppress most external noise contributors from entering the cabin, and providing an amiable set of controls to allow it to handle urban driving and general freeway cruising with equal aplomb. BMW has also worked on the interior of this generation X3, upping the ambience levels considerably with extra premium materials and that new 10.25-inch touchscreen-capable iDrive display on the dash, too, making it easily the nicest X3 in which to sit.
The problem for the M40i, though, is that while it is unquestionably BMW’s most rounded performance SUV yet — proving itself far better to drive than any X5 M or X6 M which has gone before — there could be more performance on the way. BMW representatives on hand coyly avoided questions on a potential X3 M in the near future, although watching Mercedes-AMG punt out a GLC 63 with the 4.0-litre biturbo V8 must surely have got Munich’s most famous marque simmering.
So do you hold out for an unconfirmed M version of this appealing SUV, or just plump for the M40i now? Well, if it were our money, we’d have this scorching M40i. It’s almost as sharp as a Porsche Macan Turbo for handling and it’s terrific to listen to, making this a BMW that’s very easy to love. There’s definitely no feeling of half-measures being employed on this M Performance X3, that’s for sure.