Given that the best-selling BMW M-developed car of recent times is the X3 M40i 'M Performance Vehicle', it was a no-brainer to develop a full-on M version of the X3 SUV. But this is no half-hearted effort to appease the market; the X3 M deserves its badge.
In the Metal:
The BMW X3 M gets an added dose of visual aggression to set it apart from the rest of the X3 line-up. It's characterised up front by much larger air vent openings and a new bumper, along with a high-gloss black finish for the kidney grille (this is actually part of the X3 M Competition version, but BMW Ireland is not likely to offer the 'entry-level' variant), which features an 'X3 M' badge. That's repeated in the side gills, which form part of the aerodynamic 'Air Breathers', found below redesigned door mirrors that are again glossy black. A set of 21-inch alloy wheels is standard, as is a new design of roof spoiler and rear bumper. Naturally, the latter houses BMW M's signature four exhaust outlets, finished in Black Chrome. An M Carbon exterior package is offered on the options list.
Inside, the X3 M Competition gets the same treatment as the X4 M, which means a set of fantastic M Sport seats up front, bespoke instruments, bright red M buttons and the BMW M5's squarish transmission shifter and drive systems setting buttons. The X3 has more room in the back than its X4 sibling of course, and a 550-litre boot. Fold down the 40:20:40 seat back and it'll swallow 1,600 litres of stuff.
There's a modest step up into the X3 M, enough for you to realise that you're not getting into a BMW M3, for instance. That elevated position gives you a great view out all-round and there's a huge amount of adjustment in the driving position too, should you wish to sit higher again, for example.
Personally, I prefer the lowest setting of the seat, and it feels even more appropriate when you press the big bright red start button and hear the engine clear its throat for the first time - through the standard M Sport exhaust system (there's a button to quieten this down if you're feeling kind to the neighbours). It's menacingly purposeful, even at idle. Sure, it's a turbocharged 3.0-litre straight-six petrol engine, a familiar layout from BMW, but it's a very new unit with plenty of core changes to allow it produce up to 510hp and 600Nm of torque. There are two turbochargers (each feeding three cylinders), a forged crankshaft and even a special oil system to allow the X3 M be driven hard all day on a racetrack. Yes, we realise that few buyers are every likely to do that, but BMW M has a reputation to maintain.
And while we took the BMW X4 M on track (read all about that here), we stuck to the public road in the X3 M. What's more, in a few hours of driving through the states of New Jersey and New York in America, the speed limit rarely rose about 55mph (just over 88km/h). Obviously, this was never going to be a dynamic test for the car's high limits, but it did serve to show what it would be like to drive in normal traffic like normal people.
The road surfaces were particularly bad, which didn't suit the X3 M's bespoke suspension set-up at all. It gets adaptive damping and steel springs, and even in the Comfort setting the big wheels thumped through imperfections in the tarmac and, in return for zero body lean in the corners (or dipping or diving under acceleration and braking), the suspension felt too firm for long-distance enjoyment. This was a little surprising given that the M5, for example, can play the cruising role quite convincingly.
Nonetheless, the eight-speed transmission, as ever, is very well-mannered, allowing super-fast and super-smooth changes as required and making the X3 M a doddle to amble along in traffic in. Likewise, the accelerator and brake pedals are perfectly weighted and easy to modulate. Saying that, it's best to leave the engine set to Comfort when tackling stop-start traffic, as the Sport Plus setting means a razor-sharp throttle pedal that takes a little getting used to.
What you get for your Money:
At €128,240, the new X3 M is substantially more than the current X3 M40i, which is priced from €86,765, making this a very expensive SUV indeed. At least it's well-equipped for the price, including everything mentioned above, plus three-zone climate control, ambient lighting, electrically adjusted and heated front seats, Parking Assistant and a 10.25-inch colour touchscreen. The latter features the full suite of BMW Professional Multimedia, including satnav and BMW ConnectedDrive Services.
There's no doubt that BMW M has made the X3 worthy of its hallowed badge. This is a seriously fast, engaging and capable SUV, which in turn makes it a seriously desirable vehicle for those with the means, even if few will ever get near its exceedingly high limits. BMW M's boss told us that the buyer of this car is also likely to have a BMW M sports car in their garage for occasional use, and so, the X3 M is likely to be one of the most-used M cars produced in a long time, as it's suitable for all-weather enjoyment.