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We drive the BMW X3 M and X4 M Competition on the track, proving that BMW knows a thing or two on how to make a fast SUV.

14 Nov 2019

In motoring circles, it is almost a sin to like an SUV. Thus, I have a confession to make. I like them. Performance SUVs? Even better.

Yes, a low slung sedan or coupe will be dynamically better to drive. But for actual on-road fast driving duties, I trust the SUV. Tall ride height? Easier to place on the road. And with more space inside, they're easier to live with.

As quick as they may be, a performance SUV was never suited for track use, until now
So, the BMW X3 M Competition is certainly something I can appreciate. Heck, even the X3 M40i - which I drove from Ipoh to Singapore once - is a companion I could see myself living with every day.

"But it isn't nice to take corners in," says the car purist in me. True, if I ever find myself picking a car for the track, I'd skip the X3 M for an M3. Easy choice.

But the question remains: How would an SUV do on the track? During the BMW M Festival in South Africa, I had the opportunity to find out. With Kyalami Circuit to conquer, the tools for the job were the X3 M and X4 M Competition.

And it isn't a circuit to be taken lightly. The 15-turn, 4.5km circuit has played host to Formula One and South Africa's own production races. Fast and narrow, it features blind crests and turns, with over 40m in elevation changes.

Really? An SUV on a track?!

Kyalami is a fast but technical circuit, with significant elevation changes that will catch you off guard
So how will BMW M's latest performance SUV fare? Quite well actually. The X3 M was the first car we took out to the track.

With 503bhp and 600Nm of torque, there's no denying the pace of this thing. We were easily touching 200km/h on the main straight and soon enough we're hard on the brakes for the first corner.

Here is where you start to question your decisions of hurtling a two tonne SUV on a track. You can feel the car's heft, and at that speed and height, a little unsettling with a sharp left approaching fast. But thanks to the big M brakes up front, speed is reduced considerably before the corner.

No fear

The X3 M will still offer tremendous amounts of grip despite you feeling the laws of SUV physics kicking in, which is a remarkeable feat
But then comes the roll. It isn't a significant amount, mind you. But enough body roll for you to notice. It is an SUV, after all.

And at this point, you assume you've reached the limits of grip. Yet, the X3 M's traction control system offers plenty more, and the car just pulls you into the corner with the sort of verve you expect a sports sedan will do.

By then, you touch the corner kerbs and expect an unsettling flutter through the cabin. But there is none - it is smooth as silk.

The X3 M defies the SUV physics we've grown used to, offering a spirited and entertaining drive around Kyalami. By the next 14 turns, I had a big smile on my face.

Then there's the coupe-like brethren of the X3 M. It is the X4 M Competition. But aside from looks, both cars share the exact platform.

X4 M, just looks?

Even though they share the same platform, the X4 M Competition handles corners with a sharper foot on the track
With that in mind, I assumed it to be the same drive - with more style and a little compromise in practicality. But I was wrong.

Despite having the same platform, the X4 M obediently follows your every direction through the apex with no protest. There isn't as much roll as the X3 M, and there wasn't a time when we felt an obvious understeer.

It even carries more speed through corners, but that might be because I already learnt a thing or two about driving an SUV fast with the X3 M earlier.

This had me confused. In the spirit of automakers sharing platforms between models, the common complaint is always about cars essentially feeling and driving the same. But this isn't the case for the two M SUVs.

From what I understood from my instructor during the drive, it is all thanks to the X4 M's shape. It is wider, lower and longer than the X3 M - properties that give it better stability and driving feel.

The reason for the X4 M's cornering abilities lies in its shape
There is also less weight on the rear axle, thanks to the tapered greenhouse at the rear.

That offers the X4 M better steering feel, and behind the wheel, it certainly is confidence-inspiring.

Perhaps if you want a performance SUV with occasional plans to hit the track, the X4 M might just be it.

Here's the fast SUVs to go for

I've mentioned how the SUV is the car for the road. The X3 M and X4 M take the road-going SUV to another level by actually doing well on the track.

But with these two cars, it is a different game. They challenge your beliefs on vehicle dynamics. With immense pace and corner carving abilities, they both leave you with a sense of accomplishment no sedan or coupe could ever give.

And in our world of performance and everyone's palate for SUVs, it is absolutely perfect.

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