2020 BMW X3 M Competition review: Crazy-fast crossover is just plain crazy
The 2020 BMW X3 M Competition is, perhaps, the answer to a question no one was asking -- at least, no one that I know, anyway. BMW's engineers have managed to imbue the upright, doughy chassis of the X3 compact SUV with the athletic soul of the legendary M3 sport sedan, then went on to kick it up an extra notch with Competition-spec power and grip. Perhaps most impressively, this bizarre chimera doesn't feel like a hot mess when pushed to its limits; it's actually a competent performer.
But at what cost? In the pursuit of class-bending performance, the brutal X3 M Competition must delicately balance comfort compromises, a hefty price tag and the realities of physics. Yes, it's a silly good time, but it's also tough to recommend with a straight face.
BMW's most powerful six-cylinder
The 2020 BMW X3 M and the more hardcore M Competition are both powered by BMW's 3.0-liter twin-turbocharged six-cylinder engine. The X3 M makes 473 horsepower and 442 pound-feet of torque. The M Competition steps up to an even more epic 503 ponies thanks to increased boost pressure (18.9 psi vs. 17.4 psi) and a freer-flowing exhaust. In Competition tune, the so-called S58 engine is the most powerful production I6 engine BMW has ever built.
Either way you go, the straight-six is mated to an eight-speed, ZF-sourced automatic transmission -- the very same gearbox, I'm told, as the M5 sedan -- and an "M-tuned" version of the automaker's xDrive all-wheel-drive system with a rear-biased torque split and a rear limited-slip differential. Unlike the M5, the X3 M does not feature a 100% rear-drive mode, and that's fine. I don't think anyone is going to be drifting a compact SUV.
Satisfying exhaust pops and crackles during shifts and throttle lifts let everyone else in the preschool drop-off queue know that you mean business, hinting at the generous thrust and a satisfying roar that the X3 M responds with when you floor the gas pedal. In Competition spec, the X3 M will sprint to 60 mph in 4 seconds flat -- one-tenth of a second faster than the non-Competition model -- before going on to a 155-mph top speed. Check the box to remove the electronic limiter and the top speed rises to 177 mph. Not bad for a grocery-getter.
BMW didn't just upgrade the engine and call it a day. The X3 M Competition also features M-specific chassis components to match the incredible straight-line performance.
The wheel arches are filled with huge, staggered, 21-inch rollers shod with summer tires -- 9.5-inch wide wheels with 255/40 tires in the front and 10-inchers with 265/40 rubber out back. Peering from behind the spokes are M-compound brakes with cross-drilled rotors and shiny blue calipers.
The X3 M Competition rides on an adaptive suspension with dynamic dampers that toggle between Comfort, Sport and Sport Plus firmness settings at the touch of a button. Aiding in dynamic handling is special "M-tuned" software for the traction and stability control. With gobs of mechanical grip and a firm suspension setup, the X3 M Competition stays remarkably flat when cornering, inspiring confidence and encouraging more speed through each corner. (Maybe there should be a drift mode?)
An oft-neglected part of any vehicle suspension is the connection between butt and seat, and I'm pleased to see that BMW has outfitted the X3 M Competition with a solid set of M Sport buckets. With 14-way adjustability, it's easy to find the perfect seating position and -- with grippy perforated trim, power-adjustable seat back bolsters and firm hip bolsters -- to stay locked firmly in that seating position while chucking the X3 around. I find the lower bolsters a tad too narrow and tight around the hips for comfort, but I'm sure glad they're there when loading up the g-force.
The X3 M Competition seems to thumb its nose at the laws of physics, but the high-ish center of mass and hefty curb weight are still bound by them. At times, the X3 M can feel a bit imprecise and a little ungraceful. When really getting after it, the tall seating position feels a bit weird, amplifying the feeling of body roll when it finally happens. (Editor-in-chief Tim Stevens also noted this during his turn on the track last year.)
And yet, the X3 M Competition always feels eager to please and to push just a bit harder. The SUV is happy to charge up and down my favorite twisty mountain road over and over again with a zest and zeal for the drive that is rare to find among modern sports cars -- to say nothing of "sporty" compact SUVs.
M1 and M2 custom modes
My favorite cabin tech and ergonomic detail is, once again, one borrowed from the M5 sedan: the M1 and M2 thumb toggles on the steering wheel.
Via the M Dynamic menu on the main infotainment screen, you can mix and match Comfort, Sport and Sport Plus settings for the throttle response, transmission, chassis and steering and stability control, assigning your favorite combinations to M1 and M2 drive modes that correspond to the M1 and M2 buttons. Thumbing one of these bright red toggles instantly recalls the preset.
I set M1 to all Sport settings and M2 to Sport Plus. I enjoyed how I could turn onto a good driving road and instantly adjust the attitude of the X3 M from Comfort to Sport without ever letting go of (or even shuffling my hands on) the steering wheel. It would be better, I think, if there was some way to tie the seats into these modes -- even something as simple as tightening the bolsters in my M2 Sport Plus setting and relaxing them when I return to Comfort mode would be appreciated.
There is no question, the 2020 BMW X3 M Competition is an absolute blast to drive. The sheer the audacity of it makes taking a spin worth it just for the lulz. However, I have a hard time figuring out who this vehicle is for -- well, beyond people with more money than sense -- which makes it very difficult to recommend to your average consumer. On one hand, I can understand the appeal of one do-it-all vehicle that can haul groceries, fit car seats and hit the track on the weekend. On the other hand, this ain't it, chief.
The suspension, even in its Comfort setting, is firmer than many cars' Sport setting, and far too harsh for my taste as a daily driver. The firm ride also creates more road noise that, when amplified by the SUV's cabin, creates loud booming over bumps and highway expansion joints. And those M Sport seats that keep me so planted in the corners are too firm, bordering on painful, for longer hauls. Once the adrenaline rush is over and I actually have to live with the X3 M Competition, it can, at times, be an unpleasant daily driver.
On the performance side of the equation, I haven't been to any enthusiast track day events that will allow even a "competition spec" SUV to participate -- maybe things are different in your neck of the woods -- limiting the X3 M Competition owner's access to track time. And yeah, the Competition is still 4,620 pounds of fun on public roads, but you really need a track to experience all that this M vehicle has to offer, not to mention justify its $20,000-ish price premium over the base X3.
Pricing and competition
The 2020 BMW X3 M starts at $69,900, but the more powerful and potent X3 M Competition starts at $76,900. Aside from $550 for paint, my example doesn't have many options, but boasts a generous loadout of standard features at that price. I'd recommend considering a $1,700 driver aid suite that adds stop-and-go-capable adaptive cruise control and extended collision mitigation, making it a safer and more convenient daily driver. That'll bring you to a recommended price of $80,145 including a $995 destination charge.
This class of high-performance SUVs is a growing one. No surprise, crossovers and SUVs are the hottest automotive segment. The X3 M Competition is joined by vehicles like the 434-hp Porsche Macan Turbo, Alfa Romeo's 505-hp Stelvio Quadrifoglio and the 469-hp Mercedes-AMG GLC63 (or the 503-hp GLC63 S Coupe). Among this small-but-fierce class, the X3 M Competition is competitively priced and stands out as one of the sharpest options... if you're into that sort of thing.
Personally, I'm placing the X3 M Competition -- and its near-identical sibling the BMW X4 M Competition -- squarely in the "love to drive it, but wouldn't buy it" category. It's an amazing feat of engineering, but for my hypothetical 80 grand, I'd rather have two cars: a more reasonable and comfortable daily-driver SUV and a dedicated sports car for the weekend. For this kind of money, you could buy a Toyota Supra and a RAV4 Hybrid, an M2 Competition and a Mazda CX-5, or any of a dozen other combos that will be more fun on a track and more comfortable on the way to work.