by Sebastian Cenizo
What do we think of the BMW X3 M? Well, not too long ago, the idea of a performance-enhanced compact SUV from BMW was appalling to purists. Yet the X3 M and its X4 M sibling are among the best performance products that BMW makes at the moment. Part of this is down to the fact that the X3 M is fitted with a 3.0-liter straight-six twin-turbo engine that BMW actually developed for the upcoming M3 and M4, using the X3 M as a testbed. In addition, the regular X3 is a great compact luxury SUV, so some proper M power under the hood can only make it better. Naturally, stiffer suspension and an active differential help make the best use of 437 horsepower and 442 lb-ft of torque, with an extra 30 horses available if you spec the Competition package. But is all this still enough to stave off competitors like the Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio and Mercedes-AMG GLC63?
The Competition no longer exists as a separate trim, but is now an optional package on the 2021 BMW X3 M. Other minor changes for 2021 include standard SiriusXM satellite radio and WiFi hotspot capability, while the 12.3-inch Live Cockpit Professional driver info display is also added. A new interior trim finish is now available, while the big news for Apple haters is the inclusion of Android Auto on the model for the first time, an all-new experience for many BMW owners.
3.0-liter Twin-Turbo Inline-6 Gas
The exterior of the X3 M features the typical M Sport upgrades that you expect on a high-performance Bimmer, with unique front and rear fascias and large blue brake calipers behind 20-inch wheels. 21-inchers are available too, but a roof-mounted spoiler, rear diffuser, and quad-exit exhausts are standard. If you opt for the Competition package, you get Extended Shadowline trim, which adds more black accents. These are most notable in the fender vents and kidney grilles, where chrome is replaced by gloss black detailing. A panoramic sunroof is optional.
The X3 M has dimensions that you'd expect of a car in this segment and is neither too big nor too small. It measures 186.2 inches in length, while the width is 74.7 inches and the height is 65.6 inches. The wheelbase measures 112.8 inches, and curb weight starts at 4,620 pounds, making it 74 lbs heavier than the Mercedes-AMG GLC63. Ground clearance is eight inches.
If you're looking to save money on paint, you may be disappointed to find that only one finish is free: Alpine White. If you're willing to spend $550, you can have access to metallic colors like Black Sapphire, Dark Graphite, Phytonic Blue, Donington Grey, and Toronto Red. Sunstone is another metallic option, but this one costs $1,950. If the Competition package is specced, there are more gloss black elements added to the exterior, but carbon fiber exterior pieces can be had, too.
If you're going to buy a performance car, you may as well go for the best available. In the case of the 2021 BMW X3 M, that means specifying the addition of the Competition package. This boosts the 3.0-liter twin-turbo straight-six from 473 hp to 503. Torque is rated at 442 lb-ft on both versions, with the standard X3 M capable of launching from 0 to 60 mph in just 4.1 seconds. No official claims are made for the Competition pack's acceleration besides to say that it is "quicker", but you can expect last year's figure of four seconds flat to carry over. That incredible acceleration is partly a result of the impressive engine, but the eight-speed automatic transmission and the X3 M's xDrive all-wheel-drive system certainly play their part too. Top speed is limited to 155 mph, but the addition of the M Driver's Pack with its high-performance tires will allow the limiter to move up to 174 mph. However, if you're after bragging rights, both Merc's GLC63 and Alfa's Stelvio QV are quicker off the line in comparison, boasting sub-four-second sprint times.
The X3 M's S58 straight-six is augmented by two turbos to produce an incredible 473 hp and 442 lb-ft of torque, or 503 horses in Competition guise. Despite such phenomenal power, the system is remarkably lag-free and will accelerate like a bat out of hell on the smallest of whims, whether you're leaving the traffic lights and shocking sports car owners, or overtaking them on the freeway. You don't even have to take manual control of the transmission to decimate your competition as the eight-speed auto is remarkably well-tuned, with perfectly timed upshifts and downshifts that are both crisp and smooth. Naturally, flicking the gear-lever into manual mode and taking controls via said lever or the steering-mounted paddles offers greater control, and manual gear changes are certainly more involving and enjoyable for spirited driving. Fortunately, this doesn't detract from the silkiness of the transmission and makes the car feel all the more eager to keep going.
While the gearbox may be smooth as silk, the suspension is not. Driving over corrugated or cracked pavement is a workout for your vertebrae. Although this is improved thanks to the adaptive suspension's comfort setting, it's still not what you'd call luxurious. The payoff comes when you're taking corners. This is one of the best-handling SUVs on the market and defies physics with its seemingly limitless grip and brilliant composure through even the sharpest of corners. The steering is pleasurably weighted and direct, giving you confidence when placing the car's extremities on a tight back road. The brakes are similarly excellent and have proved fade-free for the most enthusiastic road driving while remaining easy to modulate. If you get to know the car well enough, some four-wheel sliding is also possible, but our overall impression remains that while the X3 M's ability on track is stunning for an SUV, such vehicles are rarely seen in that environment. Hence, we would have preferred a slightly more compliant setup for daily comfort with a small sacrifice in terms of performance.
BMW claims that the X3 M will return 14/19/16 mpg on the EPA's city/highway/combined cycles, considerably worse than the Merc-AMG GLC63's 16/22/18 mpg. Thanks to a 17.2-gallon gas tank, you can expect reasonable gas mileage of around 275 miles of range in mixed driving conditions.
The interior of the X3 M is undoubtedly pretty. A new 12.3-inch driver info display dominates the driver's view behind the steering wheel, which is nicely shaped and feels good in the hands. A Sensatec (faux leather) dash adds a premium touch, while physical kobs and buttons for the tri-zone climate control system feel just as good. Aluminum offsets the leather upholstery on the power-adjustable seats and there are plenty of storage options here too. Configurable ambient lighting is another nice addition, and the entire cabin feels classy, stylish, and comfortable.
The X3 M, just like its regular X3 sibling, can only seat five individuals - provided that the middle passenger on the rear seat is fairly small. Headroom and legroom are great in all outboard positions, and forward occupants get power-adjustment along with adjustable bolsters and variable thigh support. In the driver's seat, the steering wheel and all buttons are in perfect reaching distance, which is ideal for an enthusiast's car. However, some larger individuals have found that long journeys can be uncomfortable unless the Competition pack's bolsters are entirely deflated. For those of an average to small frame, that body-hugging support is ideal.
As standard, one gets Vernasca leather in Black or Oyster coloring, each with contrast stitching, but those who want more supple leather can spec the Merino type in plain black, Sakhir Orange & Black, Adelaide Grey & Black, Ivory White, Tartufo, or Black Alcantara with Midrand Beige contrast stitching. However, these options will add a thousand bucks to your build price.
In terms of trim elements, carbon fiber is standard, but Grey Poplar wood or Aluminum Carbon Structure trims can also be fitted. Fineline Cove matte-finish wood is also available and is new for the 2021 model year. Equipping the Competition pack will also add black seatbelts with the famous M tricolor detailing.
When it comes to cargo space, the X3 M offers a trunk area that is larger than it looks and has been designed with practicality in mind, boasting a hands-free power tailgate and no lip on the cavity entrance. 28.7 cubic feet of volume is available behind the rear seats - enough for two to three medium-sized suitcases. If you need more space, the rear seats fold in a 40/20/40 split to open up 62.7 cubic feet.
In the cabin, all four doors feature large pockets, and four cupholders are provided. The glovebox is large too, while a cubby ahead of the gear-lever is large enough for your phone and wallet with space to spare. Center armrest storage is also included.
The X3 M ships with a long list of standard features, including heated power-adjustable front seats and wing mirrors, hill descent control, adaptive suspension, and dynamic cruise control. Convenience is augmented further with keyless entry with push-button start, a hands-free tailgate, tri-zone climate control, a rearview camera, rain-sensing wipers, and automatic Icon adaptive LED headlights with auto high beams. Parking sensors are included at the front and the rear, while forward collision detection with autonomous emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring, crash preparation with post-collision braking, and a driver condition monitor aid the driver. A head-up display, adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go, extended collision mitigation, automatic parking, heated rear seats, ventilated front seats, a heated steering wheel, a panoramic sunroof, and wireless charging can also be specified. Manual sunshades for the rear side windows are also available.
The X3 M is blessed with BMW's latest iDrive 7.0 system, which finally boasts Android Auto as of the new model year. Apple CarPlay is still there, along with standard SiriusXM satellite radio and a Wi-Fi hotspot. Other notable features include a pair of USB ports, Bluetooth connectivity, HD Radio, and voice control. You can use either the iDrive controller, the steering controls, or the 10.25-inch touchscreen display to make most commands, but if you spend a little extra, gesture control is available too. Although the gesture control aspect can be a little tricky to get used to initially, the system works very well. However you choose to select your music - even if that means inserting a CD - the 16-speaker Harman Kardon sound system plays clearly and cleanly.
The reliability of modern cars is rarely an issue, but it's worth checking if there have been any recalls to make certain that you're buying a suitable vehicle. Thus far, 2021's X3 M hasn't had any issues. Unfortunately, the almost identical 2020 variant has suffered seven recalls. The first was in October of 2019 and was for a potentially faulty steering rack. Fortunately, this was the worst of the recalls, with other recalls over the first half of 2020 pertaining to issues like rearview camera software that wasn't installed.
Should anything go wrong with your new 2021 X3 M, a limited warranty covers the car for the first four years or 50,000 miles, whichever comes first. Four years of roadside assistance are also included with no mileage limit. A 12-year/unlimited-mileage rust perforation warranty is in place.
Safety is of paramount importance in a vehicle that you will likely use to transport your family. Unfortunately, neither of the big crash testing agencies in the US have tested the X3 M. However, the IIHS did award the regular 2020 X3 with a Top Safety Pick+ award - the highest honor that the agency offers - after its review of the BMW X3 M. The NHTSA's review reflected similarly good impressions, with the X3 achieving a full five-star rating in its tests.
Ample safety features and equipment come standard-fitted to the X3 M, including dynamic cruise control, rain-sensing wipers, automatic headlights with auto high beams, a rearview camera with front and rear parking sensors, lane departure warning, forward collision alert with automatic emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring, and a drowsy driver monitor. The standard consignment can be further augmented with options such as a head-up display, an automatic parking system, extended collision mitigation, and adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go. If none of these are capable of preventing an accident, six airbags, including side curtain airbags, will cushion the blow.
As a vehicle tester with so many reviews to do over just one month, it can be difficult to single out special cars. However, this BMW stands out as a surprisingly excellent drive for the enthusiast. It handles unlike anything this size should have a right to, and that M xDrive all-wheel-drive system is remarkably capable, whether you're launching from a dead stop or tearing around corners. There are many standard convenience and safety features too, and the cargo area is remarkably cavernous. However, it is questionable how much of the X3 M's handling ability will ever be fully exploited by most owners. For the majority of the populace affluent enough to afford one of these, straight-line performance is generally the only real concern for a high-performance SUV's ability. After that, people want comfort and luxury. While the X3 M does offer many features for the price, such harsh ride quality should not be a factor that you need to consider when spending 70 grand on a car in 2021. For this reason, we'd recommend a test drive before pulling the trigger, especially if you select the Competition pack additionally.
Unlike last year's version, there is no base model with a Competition model above that. Instead, you get one trim in the BMW X3 M series with the option of adding on more performance via packages. The base price for this is $69,900 before a $995 destination and handling fee in the USA. Plenty of different configurations are possible, but the most expensive fully loaded model will set you back considerably more, with an MSRP of $86,950.
For 2021, the BMW X3 M has one price and one trim, although you can add on a variety of options. The major talking point of the performance SUV is its S58 twin-turbo straight-six that develops 473 hp and 442 lb-ft of torque. Spend extra on the Competition package, and that first figure rises to 503. M xDrive AWD is the only configuration available and comes attached to an eight-speed automatic gearbox.
Inside, leather upholstery is standard along with adaptive LED headlights and brake lights, tri-zone automatic climate control, adaptive suspension, dynamic cruise control, an Active M Differential, heated front seats, a hands-free power tailgate, keyless entry, push-button start, rain-sensing wipers, parking sensors, configurable ambient lighting, and a Harman Kardon sound system connected to a 10.25-inch touchscreen infotainment display with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Options include heated seats for all passengers, a head-up display, ventilated front seats, and automatic parking. A panoramic sunroof is also available.
By now, you may be wondering what the oh-so-talked-about Competition Package costs. If you're not already testing the cushioning ability of your glutes, we suggest sitting down. It costs a whopping $7,000, but it's worth noting that despite the updates to this year's variant, this is no more expensive than an X3 M Comp would have cost last year when it was its own model derivative. The package adds M Sport seats, M seatbelts, extended Shadowline gloss black trim, an M Sport exhaust system, and 30 extra horses under the hood. If you're looking at maximizing your car's potential with performance tires, you can spec the M Driver's Package and move the limiter from 155 mph to 174; this will cost $2,500. If safety is more your concern, the Driving Assistance Plus package costs $1,700 and adds adaptive cruise control with traffic jam assist and extended collision mitigation. The Executive Package is also attractive with an automatic parking system, gesture control for the infotainment system, a panoramic sunroof, a head-up display, wireless charging, heated rear seats, a heated steering wheel, and manual rear side window shades - all for $3,900. Notably, the Executive Package and M Driver's Package cannot be equipped simultaneously.
If you're looking to use the car as a fast and fun runabout, we'd suggest avoiding the available 21-inch wheels and the Competition pack's more snug seats. We'd also avoid the M Driver's Pack, but bear with us: fitting the higher speed limiter takes away the opportunity to have the Executive Package and its comfort-enhancing delights. Instead, we'd spend on that Exec package and the Driving Assistance Plus package, giving you a fast, safe, comfortable, and user-friendly experience for under 80 grand.
The Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio is rather pricey. It starts at a base price of $80,750 before you tick any options boxes. However, its 2.9-liter Ferrari-derived twin-turbo V6 produces a stunning sound, as well as 505 hp and 443 lb-ft of torque. This means that it can launch from 0-60 mph in just 3.6 seconds. It also has a top speed of 176 mph. Like the Bimmer, it has an eight-speed automatic and all-wheel-drive, but although it's quicker and faster than Munich's sports activity vehicle, it rides sublimely, thanks to a bumpy road suspension setting on the active dampers. It's also just as good in the corners as the X3 M, if not better. Sure, the cargo area is small, and you have to deal with sub-par Italian quality, but the latter issue is only noticeable as poor when you've just hopped out of a German vehicle. Unless you value trunk space and features, the Alfa is a lot more enjoyable in most scenarios.
Another of the Bimmer's rivals is the Mercedes-AMG attempt - the GLC63. Just as there's an X4 M, there's a coupe version of Merc's most fun luxury compact SUV. Regardless of body style, it's powered by a 4.0-liter twin-turbo V8 with a nine-speed automatic and sends 469 hp and 479 lb-ft of torque to the AWD system. Despite its power deficit, it's quicker than the X3 M to 60 thanks, in part, to a lower curb weight. However, the BMW is still better in the corners, as Merc's performance compact is more focused on ride comfort. It's arguably the best for long road trips and has a stunning cabin, just as many features and options as the Bimmer, and a menacing exhaust note. However, the trunk is tiny in comparison, at only 17.6 cubic feet, it costs more, and the warranty coverage is less impressive. For comfort and noise, it's better. For most other metrics, the Bimmer wins.