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2018 BMW X3 M40i: A 355-horsepower SUV worthy of the M badge

BMW's first M-tuned X3 is a thrilling and practical SUV.

Jon Wong/Roadshow

Along a coastal road overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in Portugal's Sintra region, the BMW X3 M40i's exhaust braps and pops like a performance car when lifting off the throttle. The noises plant a grin on my face mostly because it is a bit unexpected from a small SUV, but then again this is the first X3 M performance vehicle, which is part of an all-new third-generation X3 family debuting for 2018.

And like a proper M, it moves when you drop the hammer. A 3.0-liter turbocharged inline six-cylinder sits under the hood cranking out 355 horsepower and 369 pound-feet of torque, with the latter present between 1,520 and 4,800 rpm. An eight-speed ZF automatic transmission routes power to all four wheels getting it to 60 mph in just 4.6 seconds to beat out other midsize performance crossovers like the Porsche Macan S (5.2 seconds), Audi SQ5 (5.1 seconds) and Mercedes-AMG GLC43 (4.8 seconds).

Fuel economy numbers aren't available yet, but the outgoing X3 xDrive35i with a 300-horsepower version of the 3.0-liter turbo six-cylinder and eight-speed automatic gearbox carried a 19 mpg city and 26 mpg highway ratings. It won't be too surprising if the X3 M40i returns similar levels of efficiency.

A 60 mph time of 4.6 seconds puts the X3 M40i ahead of its direct competition.

Jon Wong/Roadshow

For the twisty sections of the two-hour drive route, I toggle the car into the Sport Plus detent for more aggressive drivetrain and adaptive suspension settings. Immediately the engine livens up more with instant power delivery. Gearbox shifts are quick in both full automatic mode and when manually choosing gears with the steering wheel paddles.

Entering corners reveals strong brakes, sharp turn in response, very little body lean and gobs of grip from the 20-inch Pirelli P Zero tires (19s are standard). Some credit for the M40i's impressive cornering capabilities also goes to an updated xDrive all-wheel-drive system that gets a lighter rear differential, updated transfer case and more rear torque bias.

The downside to Sport Plus is a bumpier ride over ruts and potholes, and overly heavy steering that is excellent for working out forearms, but annoying after awhile.

Sport Plus optimizes drivetrain and suspension performance best for twisty roads.

Jon Wong/Roadshow

Thankfully, there is a Comfort mode for the times you don't feel like attacking every corner, but instead just want a relaxing drive experience. A much more compliant suspension does a better job of smoothing out impacts, steering loosens up and the exhaust note becomes less apparent. This along with an excellent adaptive cruise control system makes for comfortable rides down the expressway.

A well-trimmed and more spacious interior thanks in part to a 2.2-inch longer wheelbase also improve the X3's daily driver game. Leather sports seats not only hold you in place during spirited driving, but are supportive in all the right places for exceptional long distance comfort.

A wrapped and stitched dashboard and door panels provide a premium feel, while practicality comes in the form of 28.7 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seats. With the backseats folded, space grows to 62.7 cubic feet to better the Macan (53 cu. ft.), GLC43 (56.5 cu. ft.) and SQ5 (60.4 cu. ft.)

The latest iDrive 6 is quick to respond to commands and intuitive to work through.

Jon Wong/Roadshow

The X3 is the first BMW crossover SUV in the US to come with a factory-installed 2-inch trailer hitch for a 4,400-pound towing capacity for even more practicality.

BMW didn't forget about bettering the X3's technology game, either. The latest iDrive 6 system with a 10.2-inch center touchscreen and 12-speaker audio system comes standard. Working through iDrive's various menus is quick and intuitive using the controller or touchscreen, while the optional navigation system boasts nice map imagery and directs me to all route waypoints without a hiccup.

Crisp and clear music plays over my test car's available 16-speaker Harmon Kardon surround sound system. With responsive gesture controls, controlling audio volume with spinning finger commands is trick. There are also gesture control movements to accept and reject phone calls and maneuver the view of the 360-degree camera, and there's a programmable one for a function of your choice.

Other tech niceties include a 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot that can support up to 10 devices and a wireless charging pad, which is sure to be in demand since the X3 only comes with two USB ports. Apple CarPlay is a $300 option if you prefer to let your phone handle infotainment duties, but sadly Android Auto is not available. That good news is that BMW says they are studying the Android system for potential future implementation.

On the safety front, in addition to the aforementioned active cruise control, blind spot detection proves handy on crowded Portuguese roadways for extra assurance while changing lanes. Parking sensors and the rearview camera are great tools for getting in and out of a tight parking spot at our lunch stop without bending any sheetmetal.

When the X3 M40i goes on November 11, it will begin at $55,295 including destination fees. That pricing puts it on par with $55,275 SQ5, $56,450 Macan S and $57,245 GLC43.

A diesel engine will be available in the X3 later on during the 2018 model year.

Jon Wong/Roadshow

For the majority of X3 shoppers, the xDrive30i likely will be of greater interest when it goes on sale alongside the M40i next month. Powering the base car is a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder with 248 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. Disappointingly, that wasn't available for testing during the BMW sponsored drive event in Portugal.

BMW has also confirmed that it will offer the new X3 with a diesel engine later in the 2018 model year. A brief off-road excursion in a European-spec X3 xDrive30d put the diesel's torque in the spotlight scurrying up steep inclines without issue on pavement-focused P Zero tires. Only a small percentage of X3 shoppers are likely to venture off paved roads, but for those who do it's quite capable and fun.

However, for the most fun in the X3 lineup, springing for the M40i is a no brainer. Bimmer's M division rarely disappoints and it's the same story here with class-leading acceleration and tight handling reflexes.