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Road test: BMW’s X3 M40i

X3 M might be BMW’s most powerful mid-sized SUV, but is the M40i version, possibly better. After a week with one, we draw some unexpected conclusions.

Although BMW’s first-generation X3 was often unloved, due to its indifferent ride quality on gravel roads, the current version is superb.

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Proudly local, too, being produced at BMW’s South African assembly asset, in Rosslyn, Tshwane.

There is a particular design and utility risk with SUVs, as they grow larger with each generation. At a specific size, they risk irrelevance – outgrowing parking and garage infrastructure.

And BMW’s luxury SUV line-up is a case in point. The current X5 is 4.92m long and 2m across. Making it quite a substantial and intimidating vehicle to pilot when kerbs and parking booms come into view. By comparison, the third-generation X3 is 4.7m long and only 1.9m wide.

And if kerbing expensive alloy wheels are an anxiety trigger to you, having a car that is 100mm narrower makes a big difference. And that is where the question of choosing between an X3 and X5, becomes relevant.

M40i is a real-world performance SUV

Extract the numbers and you’ll notice that BMW’s current X3 is the size of an original X5 – a luxury SUV that set standards for driving feedback and comfort, when it launched in 1999. And a vehicle that was to many, perfectly sized as a luxury gravel travel vehicle.

X3 is where the smart money goes when considering a BMW SUV vehicle investment nowadays. And if you want to add performance to that equation, the best option is not necessarily the X3 M Competition edition.

As with digital devices. As with cars. The best buy is always one derivative below the halo version. And in the case of BMW’s X3, that is the M40i version. It has nearly all the dramatic styling details you’d want from an X3 M, but without the day-to-day driving compromises.

And let us be honest, anywhere beyond a race track, any stiffly spring high-performance SUV isn’t ideal. Especially on chipped or ridged road surfaces – of which there are many in South Africa.

A great balance of performance

Powered by BMW’s vaunted 3-litre in-line six engine, the M40i does not lack for power. Loyal followers of BMW technical codes will know this to be the B58 engine. The latest in a distinguished legacy of in-line six-cylinder engines from the German brand.

BMW’s six-cylinder engines are renowned for their smoothness at all throttle openings. And they remain terrifically smooth, even when throttle demands call for peak acceleration.

It might not have the X3 M Competition edition’s 375kW, but acceleration is between usable and dramatic, thanks to 265kW and 500Nm of torque. This BMW luxury SUV will run a benchmark 0-100km/h sprint in only 4.9 seconds. Faster than a Golf8 GTi.

Weight negatively influences all aspects of any vehicle’s driving experience and although the X3 M40i is heavy (1985kg), it is 100kg lighter than an X3 M Competition. And being a touch lighter, does tax the brakes less. And make M40i feel that bit more agile through tightening radius corners.

Despite being powerful and capable of strong performance, the M40i is less compromised than an X3 M in everyday driving. It has a less frantic throttle response, with smoother calibration between the turbocharged engine and that ZF eight-speed automatic transmission.

The M40i’s ride quality is better, too. And that’s significant. BMW’s most extreme M-Division vehicles are immensely capable of a perfectly surface racetrack. But add some real-world mid-corner bumps, and something like an X3 M requires more driver concentration.

Android Auto onboard

BMW’s transition to digital instrumentation has revitalized the brand’s interior design. The latest BMW 7.0 operating system powers a 12.3-inch infotainment system.

As part of the X3 range’s product update in October last year, Smartphone convergence and pairing benefit from all X3s now featuring Android Auto and Apple CarPlay.

There is inductive charging, too, if you can’t be bothered with unsightly cables to keep your Smartphone powered-up while on a long drive.

iDrive abides for those who prefer touch, to gesture control

Selectable display themes are great and the iDrive controller features sensible haptics and hard buttons for those who aren’t intuitively comfortable with a pure digital infotainment experience.

Part of the X3 M40i equipment is a Harman Kardon surround sound system. It relays through 16-speakers, with a 600-Watt amplifier supporting excellent sound quality.

Listening to your favourite playlist or podcast is an absolute joy, inside this BMW SUV.

Enough space for all your lifestyle gear

Although the primary offering of this BMW SUV is powerful acceleration and overtaking performance, it does retain great usability.

The luggage area is 550-litres, expandable to 1600-litres, with the rear seat folded. And truth be told, you don’t require much more than that. It is comfortably more than a 3 Series sedan’s 480-litre boot capacity.

X3 is a bedrock of BMW’s model range. If you want to experience the legacy BMW tagline of ‘sheer driving pleasure’ in a luxury SUV configuration, the M40i is exactly that. Notably fast when required. Comfortable everywhere else.With more utility space for luggage and outdoor gear, than its sedan twin, the 3 Series.

For local roads and driving conditions, it is a more sensible and less compromised choice than the X3 M products. And the value offering, is notable, too. Priced at R1 415 042, the X3 M40i is far less than a R1 950 000 X3 M.

Images: Lance Branquinho & BMW SA

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