BMW’s new M3 is due next year but we’ve already sampled its engine thanks to the X4 M Competition. With 375kW and 600Nm, it really puts the sports into SUV

Even now, more than a week after returning from the Flinders Ranges, there’s a hint of dust up my nostrils. My black leather boots sit parched and streaked in vivid pink and red dirt on the laundry floor, about a metre and a half from the polish that will rejuvenate them. Eventually. But I’m happy if the smell lingers for a while longer and the shoes remain red instead of black. I love the desert, and photographer Thomas Wielecki and I are always hatching plans to return to the dry interior of Australia. My previous trip to Wilpena Pound and the clay pans beyond was more than 15 years ago, so I jumped at the chance to return. Though 15 years ago, I never thought that my return would be at the wheel of a BMW M car.

Fifteen years ago, however, the idea of an M car was very different. Naturally aspirated engines ruled the BMW catalogue and SUVs were just starting to make their presence felt in the back of the showroom. Fifteen years ago, the archetypal M car was the E46 M3 that still had a couple of years of production left to run, while the M5 was in a brief hiatus between V8-powered E39 and manic V10-powered E60.

Since 2003, more than 132,000 BMW X models have been sold in Australia, and nowadays they represent well more than half of all local sales. For the full year of 2018, 59 percent of all BMWs sold in Australia wore an X badge of some description. Year-to-date for 2019, the figure has broken the 60 percent barrier with 62 out of every 100 BMWs sold coming from the SUV side of the brand’s product portfolio. Given the utter dominance of SUVs over the last decade or so, it’s no surprise that the X3 and X4 M Competition models have been chosen to debut the M Division’s new twin-turbo 3.0-litre six that will report for duty in the next-gen M3 and M4.

The importance of performance SUVs is underscored by BMW’s prediction that the X3 M Competition (and the non-Competition variant that is sold in many markets around the world, but not Australia) will be the number one selling M product, outstripping the likes of the M2, M3 and M4. Purists will moan about cars such as the X4 M Competition, but as Porsche explained at the launch of the original Cayenne, it’s the success of the bread-winning SUVs that continue to fund the purist flights of fantasy. In very real terms, cars such as the 911 GT2 RS, Cayman GT4 and M4 GTS simply wouldn’t exist without the on-going proliferation and sales success of Cayennes, Macans, X3s and X4s.

My crystal ball mightn’t have been too polished in its predictions of the M Division’s future, but I’d wager that few engineers and product planners within the company foresaw that in 15 short years, a medium-sized SUV would offer more power and performance than the swaggeringly fast E60 M5.

The X4 M Competition pips the M5’s V10 by just 2kW, but thumps home an 80Nm advantage despite giving away 2.0 litres of swept capacity. Of course, like just about every engine these days, the X4 M’s 3.0-litre straight six is endowed with a pair of turbochargers that huff and puff all that torque into the mid-range.

Codenamed S58, this new engine is the M Division’s replacement for the S55 that presently sees duty in the M2 Competition and the full M3 and M4 range. Both engines displace 3.0 litres and both are fed by a pair of single-scroll parallel turbochargers, but BMW says that 90 percent of the new engine is… er, new. Tech highlights include a closed-deck block, forged crankshaft and, the biggie, a 3D-printed cylinder head.

The results really are something for a relatively small capacity engine. The 375kW is available at 6250rpm and the 600Nm from 2600-5950rpm. It’s a long bow to draw, but it is worth looking at the E60 M5’s delivery. Its 5.0-litre naturally aspirated V10 made its 373kW at 7750rpm and its 520Nm peak at a very peaky 6100rpm, just 150rpm shy of the X4 M Competition’s max power. Maximum engine speed is 7200rpm, so while the spec sheet stays true to type, this is a heavily turbocharged engine that doesn’t mind a good stretch. In fact, during our afternoon of sideways hilarity on the clay pan, the engine’s keenness to rev meant that you needed to stay on top of your shifts to prevent the tacho needle bouncing into the engine cut.

The delivery from the engine is both crisp and creamy, with fast response to throttle inputs blended with a smooth and robust mid-range. And there is serious shove when the turbos fill their lungs, with BMW claiming a 4.1-second sprint to 100km/h. Despite the hushing effects of turbocharging, the straight six has a voice as well. It doesn’t howl like an E46 engine, but there’s a sharp edge to the sonics as the engine speed moves through the mid-range.

Our first taste of the X4 M Competition was limited to an entertaining session lapping a motorkhana course etched into the clay pan by Cody Crocker (three-time Australian Rally Champion and four-time Asia-Pacific Champion). As such, our dynamic assessment was limited to an environment and driving style that is unlikely to be replicated by many customers. That said, the loose surface did present the opportunity to test the two-mode all-wheel-drive system. Torque is sent through an eight-speed torque-converter automatic gearbox to all four wheels (21-inch front and rear). The default drivetrain mode (4WD) plays things safer with a more neutral set-up that pulls you straight once the rear starts to slip. Bump up the aggression a notch with 4WD Sport and the X4 M Competition was eager to hang the tail on the clay, with more torque bias hitting the limited-slip diff at the rear and driving the SUV off the corners. The system is similar to that which debuted in the current M5 and that is likely to underpin the new-gen M3/M4. Unlike the seminal sports sedan, however, the X3/4 M Competition models do without the rear-drive mode. How all of this translates to the road is yet to be discovered but the system works a treat in the M5.

Again, given the nature of the drive programme, it’s impossible to make a definitive call on the efficacy of the steering, brakes and suspension, but the course was no walk in the park. At over 2.5km in length, the course was primarily tackled in third and fourth gear, with speeds peaking somewhere around 150km/h. Each lap, that 150km/h had to be chopped into a more manageable size in order to negotiate the second-gear hairpin that set you up for a series of third- and fourth-gear transitions. The braking hardware was more than up to the task, as you’d expect of 395mm front rotors clamped by four-piston calipers (the 370mm rears use a single-piston floating caliper). And through the high-speed and high-angle changes of direction, the X4 M Competition managed its weight with ease.

Given the burgeoning popularity of performance SUVs, it’s little surprise that the X4 M Competition has plenty of it. At $164,900 ($157,900 for the X3), the new BMW lands among Alfa Romeo’s Stelvio Quadrifoglio (375kW, $149,900), Jaguar’s F-Pace SVR (405kW, $140,620), Mercedes-AMG’s GLC 63 (375kW, $172,400) and Porsche’s Macan (new GTS and Turbo models are due soon). Given our limited exposure to the new kid on the block and the firepower within the segment we can feel a group test coming on. Jesse Taylor

BMW X4 M Competition
Engine 2993cc in-line 6-cyl, twin-turbocharged
Power 375kW @ 6250rpm
Torque 600Nm @ 2600-5950rpm
Weight 1970kg
Power-to-weight 190kW/tonne
0-100km/h 4.1sec
Top speed 250km/h (limited)
Basic price $164,900