And two reasons why it isn't.
The world has gone mad. We've traded in sensible sedans for high-riding crossovers. Worse, still, we've then gone and confused them for sports cars, dropping big, powerful engines into high-riding machines that were never built with cornering in mind. But the thing about technology is that it never stops evolving, and with its evolution, it becomes more and more capable, turning what was once an off-road utility vehicle into something that could be considered a sports car. I for one have never been much of a believer in this notion, but after a recent week with the BMW X3 M, I was proven wrong. The BMW X3 M isn't just a fast SUV - it's a sports car. Here are five reasons why (and a couple why it isn't).
Some say that BMW no longer builds great cars, but rather great engines; and that's somewhat true. Gone are the days when the brand's focus was on driver's cars, but the automaker is yet to fail at delivering an absolutely spectacular engine, in our opinion. The S58 is no exception and is arguably one of the best engines currently available. Based on the B58 inline-six, the M Division has overhauled it to produce a turbocharged monster capable of delivering up to 503 horsepower and 442 lb-ft of torque in Competition guise. But it's more than just numbers on paper.
The S58 pulls hard, readily reaching for the redline and delivering a solid slug of power. When in full boost, it responds quickly to inputs as well, with minimal turbo lag delaying proceedings. It's more than just a powerful engine for a big SUV, as this powerplant will also do duty under the hood of the M4. If that doesn't make it a true sports car engine, we're not sure what does.
BMW used to produce cars that spoke to you as a driver, through the engine, through the chassis, through the driver's seat, and crucially, through the steering wheel. But the advent of EPAS systems has ruined that. The X3 M goes some way to what we might describe as a return to form for the brand. The steering doesn't drip with feedback, and it's very simulated, particularly in Sport and Sport + modes where it's artificially heavy - more so than even a non-power-assisted setup would ever be. But the weighting is sublime, and the responses are excellent. There isn't a dead patch around center, and the rack and front end are quick enough to change direction on a dime. We'll always ask for more feel, but from a weight and response perspective, this is BMW's best effort in a long while.
My argument against performance SUVs has always been that they simply cannot attain the same levels of grip and handling as a low-slung sports car. Somehow, the X3 M defies this, gripping until you ask it not to with a heavy dose of throttle. Sure, much of this comes down to broad performance tires that stick to the road like glue, but a lot of it also has to do with the suspension. It's firm and unyielding, but not in an overly-hardened attempt to defy physics, but rather in the way you might expect a 500-hp sports car to ride.
The suspension and tires work in unison to pull as much grip from the tarmac as possible around corners, with a mild amount of body lean to soak up mid-corner undulations. But push too hard, and the front doesn't wash away in understeer. Instead, the rear-biased AWD system sends more power to the back for some power-on oversteer - getting the chassis to respond just like a sports car should.
This one is key to the X3 M's credentials as a sports car. The best sports cars always feel smaller than their dimensions suggest, allowing the driver to seemingly thread them through the eye of a needle. If a car feels ungainly, it doesn't matter how much power or grip it has, it'll never inspire you to find that perfect line through a corner as you never have full faith that you'll actually make it. The X3 M shrinks around you, feeling a lot smaller than its 186.2-inch length and 74.7-inch width suggests. Through tight back roads when you need to be inch-perfect on your vehicle placement, the X3 M feels more like a hot hatch than a big family SUV.
Influential types trying to drive the change towards electrification will have you believe that electric cars can be sports cars, despite not having the soul of an engine. While we'll concede that the performance and other sensations from an EV can match a sports car, there's a certain soulfulness in the sound of a combustion engine that simply can't be engineered from electric cars. The X3 M has all the right noises, particularly with the M Performance exhaust. From the bellowing cold-start to the subtle pops from the tailpipes when trundling along innocently. Really give it a go, and there are pops and bangs and, of course, the unmistakable wail of a straight-six - buttery smooth and truly a treat for the ears.
The engine may be a marvel, but as a counterpoint to that, you have to work hard to truly experience it. That's because where most sports cars display their potency the easiest - launching from a standstill - the X3 M is somewhat underwhelming. In order to protect the gearbox from crunching itself under hard launches, it seems torque is limited - at least in first gear and lower down in the rev range. Engage launch control, and it's less of a leap off the line as much as it is a gradual shift, followed then by a sudden surge forward. Ignore the somewhat underwhelming sensation, though, and the X3 M still rockets from 0 to 60 mph in four seconds flat in 503-hp Competition spec.
The X3 M is a sports car up until the moment it's not. What on earth do I mean? Well, it handles sublimely, hauls like a bullet train, and oversteers almost on demand. It even grips like a sports car. But there can be no denying that when you exceed the limits of grip, and sanity, and go too far, the X3 M is still subservient to the same laws of science as any other car on the road. That means when 4,620 pounds of metal, glass, rubber, and whatever else decides to let go of the road at speed, you're carrying a lot more force than you would be in, say, an MX-5 Miata at the same speeds.
This writer was vehemently against the idea of performance SUVs for years, and to a large degree, I still am. But what the X3 M made apparent is that I'm only against half-baked attempts to create a sports car that's still a comfortable family commuter. The two really don't go hand in hand, and while the X3 M might have 5 seats and room for all your holiday luggage, in every other way, it behaves like a sports car. BMW threw comfort and concessions to that end out of the window and set out to make the X3 M a hardcore driver's tool, and it's a goal the engineers have achieved. Treat it with respect - as you should anything with circa 500 hp - and the X3 M is every bit a sports car as the Z4 is.