Test Drives

BMW X3 M40i Review 2017: Into the great wide open



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Similar styling makes it hard to tell, but this is an all-new BMW X3. Can it hack it in the increasingly competitive world of posh mid-sized SUVs?

LISBON, PORTUGAL — Presumably you know what a BMW X3 is, since 1.5 million of them have been sold. This new model is the third incarnation of the car, but this particular X3 in striking blue with blacked-out trim is a bit of a pioneer within BMW.

It’s an M40i, which makes it the first X3 to be breathed on by BMW’s M Performance Automobiles division. If you had your eye on a Porsche Macan S, say, this X3 M40i is meant to draw your gaze towards BMW.

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Before we get there, there’s the model line’s newness to discuss. It’s damn hard to tell from the front (and it doesn’t help that the car is roughly the same size as its predecessor), but the X3’s been completely redesigned.

The new LED headlights are a bit smaller than before, to accommodate a bigger, broader front grille, which now has active flaps to close it off when less air is needed for the engine bay. That helps with fuel efficiency.

After staring at the thing for long enough I’ve decided that the easiest way to spot the new X3 is to look for the new bonnet, which is now textured with more muscular creases than Ben Affleck’s Batman suit, or to spot the front foglamps, which sit high on the front bumper as a strip of LEDs.

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There’s an optional new LED taillamp with a sort of 3D effect to its shape, which is another quick giveaway, as is the rearmost side window — it no longer has that double-angled line that BMW aficionados know as a “Hofmeister kink”.

If the look of the car has been gently evolved, the interior looks much more clean-sheet. The first thing you’ll notice is the new freestanding 10.2-inch LED screen. It’s a touchscreen with tile-based graphics, in line with the latest BMWs, an it has gesture controls — wave your hand in the other to change radio stations or lower the music volume, that sort of thing.

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The last X3 had analogue instruments but a 12.3-inch LED screen is now an option, along with a big, bright and full colour head-up display. You can also option rather natty-looking chrome inserts, and there are now aluminium switches all over the place, which classes up the joint somewhat.

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If you don’t like the metallic theme in our test car’s cabin, the regular X3s (that is, the non-M Performance ones) will be offered in Luxury Line trim, in which you get a much more organic looking interior trimmed in porous wood.

BMW seems to have decided to make cabin room a huge priority, because its latest cars are all seriously spacious inside. The X3 is no exception, with the amount of room in the rear particularly generous. In spite of a panoramic glass roof, there’s somehow plenty of headroom back there, too.

Unbelievably, however, although you can specify three-zone climate control so that the people in the back have their own micro-microclimate, I couldn’t find a single USB port for the rear.

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The rear seatbacks recline, but more to let you add boot space than to allow occupants to lean back for a snooze. Not that you’ll be needing to add much, because there’s 550 litres available. Rather usefully, there’s storage space under the boot floor, including a compartment for the luggage cover.

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Folding the back seats takes the total amount of room to 1,600 litres, which is something to keep in mind for your next trip to a durian plantation. You’re probably supposed to toss a mountain bike back there, I guess.

Either way, this is a car about having space for an active lifestyle, though it’s worth noting that the boot capacity numbers are equal to those for the Mercedes GLC (and slightly larger than the Audi Q5’s).

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Yet, whether your weekends are for downhill trails or durian hunting, the M40i ought to get you there in a pretty jolly state of mind.

The M Performance stuff extends to the usual areas (steering, exhaust, engine, brakes) and they make the new X3’s flagship model surprisingly potent. The 3.0-litre straight six turbo has 360 horsepower to its name (that’s a good 54hp more than the previous range-topper, the xDrive35i, had), with the bump in power over other ‘40i’ engines courtesy of extra turbo boost, as well as the greater cooling capacity needed to cope with it.

There’s also 500Nm of peak torque, and it’s enough for some properly rapid overtaking. In fact, the M40i gets to 100km/h in just 4.8 seconds, so you’ll be able to sneak up on the odd sportscar and take its driver by surprise.

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He might hear you coming, though, since there’s a flap in the exhaust to brighten up its voice a bit. A new Sport+ driving mode opens it up while sharpening up the drivetrain, and when you select that, the M40i’s exhaust crackles and pops deliciously each time you lift off the accelerator.

The engine’s note rises in intensity too, but much of the music comes from a sound generator. BMW says it only enhances what tones are already there and doesn’t add anything that’s not, but make of that what you will.

In whatever driving mode, the steering is surprisingly meaty, almost to the point of being heavy, while the suspension is noticeably firm. On bad roads you’ll feel jitters invade the cabin. But the setup obviously skews to the sporty side of things, and for a Sports Utility Vehicle the X3 is pleasantly shorn of soft, blobby behaviour. If anything, the steering and suspension work with very little slack, and the car’s balance is such that you never feel hesitant about being aggressive with it.

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The M40i doesn’t quite have that final bit of fluidity that the Porsche Macan displays through switchbacks, but it’s close, and forgivably so, given that it’s a larger car with vastly more space in the back.

My main takeaway is that I never really thought of the X3 as a car with much personality before, but the M40i is clearly quite a slyly naughty thing.

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But how much of that will extend to the more everyday models that form the bulk of sales? Good question. There’s reason to think that they’ll be more than decent to drive, at least. The new X3 is up to 55kg lighter than before, and the suspension components have shed weight specifically— losing kilos in such ‘unsprung’ areas helps the tyres to follow road surfaces better, resulting in better ride and handling. The xDrive system is also more rear-biased, to make the X3 feel more pointy, like a rear wheel-drive car.

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Ultimately it’s clear where the X3’s place is in its family: if you think the X5 is too big and too lumbering, and that the front-drive X1 doesn’t offer the handling sharpness of a BMW, this new model’s for you.

Yet, even while the X3 has made some pretty broad strides, mid-size executive SUVs in general no longer offer much novelty factor, and the segment has an excellent offering in the form of the Mercedes GLC. That happens to be the three-pointed star brand’s best SUV offering at the moment, which makes it a tough car for the new X3 to contend with. Just as well then, then it’s BMW’s best SUV at the moment, too.

NEED TO KNOW BMW X3 M40i
Engine 2,998cc, inline 6, turbocharged
Power 360hp at 5,500-6,500rpm
Torque 500Nm at 1,520-4,800rpm
Gearbox 8-speed automatic
Top Speed 250km/h (limited)
0-100km/h 4.8 seconds
Fuel efficiency 8.3L/100km (estimated)
CO2 190g/km (estimated)
Price To be announced
Agent Munich Automobiles
Available End-2017

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Leow Ju-Len
Leow Ju-Len is a lot older than he behaves. He's been writing about cars for 23 years. Someday he might do it coherently. Ju-Len believes in world peace and V8s, but not necessarily in that order.