It’s hard not to see a drive in the BMW X3 M primarily as a way to preview the next M3. Under the bonnet of the X3 M and the closely related X4 M, you’ll find the brand-spanking-new S58 engine which will power the next M Division’s 3-series.
With that in mind, there’s a sense of trepidation when first pressing the starter button. The burble I’m presented with is a good start, and once we’re warmed up and moving in the X3 M’s angrier modes, the news is good. For the most part.
The mid-range isn’t quite so burly as the old S55’s, but this still isn’t an engine you need to rev out. But is it an engine you want to rev out? Kind of - it just doesn’t quite have the same relentless power of its predecessor up to the red line, seeming to peter out when you get to the high 6000s.
There’s no doubting the straight-line pace, though - whichever gear you’re in and whatever the engine speed, the X3 M will happily belt you forward with abandon. It sounds good too, if not quite S55-aggressive. In terms of stats, you’re looking at 503bhp and 442lb ft from this twin-turbo X3 M Competition (the standard single-turbo model isn’t coming to the UK), making for a 0-62mph time of 4.1 seconds.
The future of the M3, then, is in good hands. It gets better, as BMW has hinted that the S58 will be in for a little bit of work before it’s used in the sports saloon, and it may well be fitted to a dual-clutch gearbox. The eight-speed torque converter automatic it’s married to in the X3 M is a worthy enough transmission, but it’s never going to have quite the immediacy of a DCT.
Steering the conversation back towards the X3 M itself, there are more positives to report. In particular, the way it goes around corners. You can really hustle this thing, chucking it through a set of corners in a way that shouldn’t be possible for a circa-two-tonne Heffalump.
Get too ambitious with your entry speed and the laws of physics will have a word, with all that bulk pushing the front end into understeer territory. But be sensible, and you’ll be impressed with what the X3 M can do. It’ll even punt out the rear if you get greedy with the throttle on exit, so long as you’re set to the looser MDM traction control mode. This is a car that’s keen to entertain, and weirdly, it’s more fun than the M8, so is a more successful M car, perhaps because it doesn’t have an identity crisis like its V8-powered relative.
MDM is best teamed up with Sport steering (Comfort is too loose, and Spot Plus too heavy), Sport Plus for the powertrain, and Sport for the adaptive dampers. When you’re done engaging in what manufacturers like to call sporty driving in their press packs, everything can go back to Comfort. It’s once you do this, though, that you realise the X3 M’s big problem: the ride.
It’s absurdly firm. When driving fast the seemingly rock-solid damping adds an element of nervousness to proceedings, and even when you’re pootling along more sedately, you’re in for an uncomfortable time. Low-speed driving over speedbumps and potholes is borderline painful, and the body doesn’t ever settle when cruising on a smooth motorway. To make matters worse, the cabin is constantly dominated by roaring tyre noise.
The Jaguar F-Pace SVR - while massively dated inside compared to the X3 M and its tech-fest cabin - is so much smoother and more cossetting than this thing. You can say the same for all of the key rivals, in fact.
Considering the number of people who - rightly or wrongly - go for SUVs expecting more comfort when bimbling around on our broken, pothole and speed bump-festooned road network, this a problem. In the X3 M, the typical SUV buyer is going to be in for a shock.
It’s a shame, as everything else here in terms of normal driving works so well. iDrive is better and easier to use than ever, the head-up display is brilliant, and anyone into clever cruise control/lane-keeping shenanigans will be well-catered for.
The answer? Let’s wait until BMW makes an estate version of the next M3. What’s that? BMW still isn’t going to make a wagon M3? Oh…