The newest M Performance BMW might be worrying Audi bosses
Even the least petrolheady person you know could probably have a stab at guessing that the ‘M’ on BMWs means Motorsport. BMW has been a little bit guilty of overplaying the badge of late, gluing it onto models whose sportiness might be something below obvious, but ultimately the company’s M division does still build the most exciting model variants.
In BMW’s large SUV range, that honour goes to the X3 M40i. It doesn’t have the full-on M attributes and attitude of an M3 or an M5, but it does have a modified engine – 355bhp from its turbocharged six cylinders – and a twiddled chassis – stiffer springs, with an adaptive damper option. The styling reflects the raciness.
BMW X3 M40i
Engine: 3.-litre, six-cylinder, turbo, petrol
Torque: 369lb ft
Gearbox: 8-spd automatic
Top speed: 155mph
Official economy: 34.4mpg
CO2, tax band: 188g/km, 37%
At just over £50k it’s aimed straight at Audi’s intimidatingly accomplished SQ5, a car that’s more than capable of seeing off higher-priced rivals. Is there a new champ in the playground?
The BMW hits the ground running with the same excellent engine that’s used in all other 40i BMWs. It smoothly fills the dual role of explosive performance (0-62mph in 4.8sec) and, when there are no schedules to be met, hushed refinement. The eight-speed automatic gearbox is smart enough to cosy into the highest gear the engine will pull, or to change down quickly when a spurt of speed is demanded. In those circumstances, downshifts aren’t always executed because the engine will haul high gears with little effort.
Pick Sport or Sport Plus mode however and the drivetrain will get up on its toes, forcing the gearbox to cling onto ratios for longer and pumping new cogs into place a lot more promptly, with plenty of background crackle thrown in for good measure. On character, it’s got the beating of the Audi SQ5’s V6.
You’re always aware of the X3 M40i’s sporting posture even if the £530 adaptive suspension is on full soft, because even on smooth surfaces it’s a bit fidgety. It’s more of an annoyance than a dealbreaker, but in the long-distance journey stakes the brilliantly air-suspended SQ5 does claw back some ground.
On the positive side, the BMW’s sternish ride results in saloon car-like body control, even in Comfort mode. Low roll is delivered without giving the driver the impression that one untoward bump might have the X3 M40i paying an impromptu visit to the nearest hedge.
Bulletting out of corners is equally assured thanks to the massive traction made possible by standard four-wheel drive. Detune or disable the stability control and line-tightening by throttle becomes part of the menu. It’s more fun than the safe neutrality of the SQ5, but the X3 M40i narrowly loses out to the Porsche Macan on steering precision and communication. You never forget that it’s a big SUV.
BMW interiors are functional rather than frolicsome, but it’s tough to criticise the driver-focused nature of the X3’s cabin, the plush damping of its switchgear and the efficient cloaking of the harder plastics. Even so, the SQ5 edges it, but there’s very little in it. Four adults should enjoy long trips by X3 M40i, and they’ll be happy with the boot space arrangements too.
It’s good news if you’re looking for a quick and ‘premium’ petrol SUV just now. The Mercedes-AMG GLC 43 is decent enough. The Audi SQ5 is a known quantity: it’s generally excellent, with a slightly nicer cabin than the BMW’s and a little extra practicality.
But the X3 M40i is more up for a hustle, and doles out more character per pound. The buying decision might boil down to ride comfort. If you don’t mind constant reminders that you’re buying into a sporting proposition, the X3 M40i should float your boat. If you hanker after a more serene, swan-like experience, the SQ5 is more likely to steal your heart.