They’re a bit of a strange thing, these performance SUVs.
Not so long ago, the concept was unthinkable. SUVs were too tall, too top-heavy, and too focused on all-terrain ability for anyone to even contemplate the idea of putting one on a racetrack.
But here we are, living in an era where SUVs are dominating the market, and technology has changed the game. Perhaps it was inevitable, this advent of high-powered SUVs sporting trick parts typically reserved for track-focused cars. These days, it’s really more a matter of giving the people what they want.
It would be one thing if that meant accepting huge sacrifices, but it doesn’t. They really do drive exceptionally well and only exhibit the drawbacks of their body style in the most extreme of circumstances, such as ripping around an autocross track at full tilt. And anyone who’s buying one of these with that intention is an outlier, to put it mildly.
So, if you count yourself among those who want the looks and diverse capability of an SUV but the cachet of a performance-oriented luxury vehicle, here’s a closer look at five things to love – and, for balance, a few not-so-great things – about one of the newer options on the market, the 2020 BMW X3 M Competition. At $101,395 as tested including delivery fees, it’s hardly a frugal choice. But it’s as deserving of the M badge as any BMW ever was. Yes, really.
1. More than 500 hp? Yes, please
The X3 M Competition gets a power bump over the standard X3 M, just like very other Competition model. Its 3.0-litre twin-turbocharged inline-six-cylinder engine puts out a total of 503 horsepower, an increase of 30 hp; and while torque output is the same at 442 lb-ft, the curve peaks later at 5,950 rpm. This all works its way through an eight-speed sport-calibrated automatic transmission and a heavily rear-biased all-wheel drive system that can be coaxed to favour the back wheels even more through a 4WD Sport mode.
2. It handles far better than you think it will
The adaptive suspensions found in BMW’s M cars these days are magical. They go from smoothing over rough roads in comfort mode to track-ready uber-taut at the push of a button. The variable-ratio speed-detecting power steering is natural and seamless. And the 2,171 kg weight, near-perfect 50–50 front-to-rear weight distribution, and low centre of gravity play their role as well. Put together, the X3 M Competition really does handle very nearly as well as a car does. To detect the difference, you’d need to push it much farther than most owners ever would.
3. It sports all the same M tricks
BMW hasn’t left anything from its M toolbox off this car just because it’s an SUV. The aforementioned dampers, steering, and gearing can all be adjusted individually or stored in preset buttons mounted on the steering wheel and communicated through the fully digital gauge cluster. By default, the M2 button turns stability control off entirely, just as in other M vehicles. And yet, you’ll still find hill descent control among the functions on the centre console, lest you forget precisely what you’ve purchased.
4. It’s all that but doesn’t flaunt it
If you’re one of those folks willing to pay for performance but not particularly prone to flaunting it, the X3 M Competition has you covered. From the outside, it doesn’t look so terribly different from the more pedestrian grades your friends are getting their kids to hockey practice with. It takes a sharp eye to notice the larger air intakes, gloss black accents, and quad tailpipes, which are the only distinctive features apart from the badging. This makes it a great under-the-radar option for the less ostentatious among us.
5. One gorgeous interior
Style is a matter of taste, and I’m not sure the appearance of this car’s interior comes across as well in photos as it does in person, but I find the latest M interiors to be very well done, this one included. The tri-colour stitching on the steering wheel, illuminating headrest logos, optional carbon-fibre inserts, and layered Merino leather and Alcantara come together into a decidedly upscale look and feel that stand up to this car’s high cost.
In the interest of balance, however, there are some questions that the X3 M Competition leaves me with.
1. Can this justify its existence in a world fighting climate change?
This is one toy that’s not cheap to keep fuelled up. The Natural Resources Canada ratings of 16.6 L/100 km in city driving, 12.1 highway, and 14.6 combined – which I came close to matching with my 14.2 average over a week – easily justifies itself via the fun factor. Anyone considering this car can well afford to ignore those fuel bills and the environmental implications of choosing a gas guzzler, but does that mean they should? This is hardly an issue that’s unique to this car, of course, but it stands to be asked nonetheless.
2. Just how tolerant are luxury buyers of being nickel-and-dimed?
It makes my head spin to think that someone would pay nearly six figures for a vehicle like this and then feel good about being charged an extra $3,300 for ventilated front seats, heated rear seats, and a surround-view parking camera. Maybe my perceptions are off and these buyers truly don’t care either way, but it feels to me as though in a niche vehicle like this there’s really no need to offer anything less than fully loaded.
3. If SUVs are getting this good, how can the cars survive?
As these vehicles get better, it’s less difficult by the day to envision a dystopian future where everyone is driving identical SUVs that can do absolutely everything a driver would ever need a car to do, sending the world’s wonderfully interesting convertibles, coupes, and executive sedans to the wayside. Or perhaps this is simply a matter of fashion trends and this, too, shall pass. As excellent as this car is, let’s hope it remains one among a broader and more diverse sea of options.