The 2020 BMW X3 M Competition is both impressively capable and deeply unsatisfying

The future is an unpredictable place, full of unforeseen hazards and shocking twists and turns in roads that looked straight and narrow when seen from the present day. Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent in the auto biz than when examining the current state of the sports car segment.

Who could have divined a decade ago that within a very short space of time showrooms would be packed to the gills with high-horsepower hatchbacks-on-stilts balancing out their two-and-a-half-ton curb weights with ferocious 500-horsepower engines? And that these unlikely beasts would have largely crowded out traditional coupes and roadsters to the back eddies of each month’s sales tally?

As far as performance SUVs go, the all-new 2020 BMW X3 M Competition doesn’t deviate from the above formula in any appreciable way, making it yet another formidable entry on a long list of Herculanean haulers that happen to wear excruciatingly high price tags. That this vehicle, and others of its ilk, are beginning to stake a claim on the mental real estate of the next wave of automotive enthusiasts is something altogether more startling.

Like an M3, but…bigger?

2020 BMW X3 M Competition
Benjamin Hunting

BMW’s engineering teams have done exactly as their marketing department has commanded, pouring their hearts and souls into the X3 M Competition in order to create a terrifyingly quick family hauler that will resonate with the enormous segment of the car-buying public now programmed to prize ground clearance and cargo space above all else.

Perhaps that’s not entirely fair, as much of the X3’s mechanical mojo will also be used to underpin the upcoming M3 sedan and M4 coupe, which represent a more traditional take on track-ready speed from the German automaker. The vehicle’s fancy rear-biased all-wheel-drive system is making the transition, as is the 3.0-liter turbocharged engine —and it’s a hell of a combination.

Forget what you know about the existing, similarly-sized power plant found in models like the M340i, or even the previous-generation M3: this new, lighter unit is a virtual clean-sheet design that is good for a whopping 503 horses and 442 lb-ft of torque in the X3 M Competition and a still-respectable 473 ponies in the “base” X3 M. It does this while barely breaking a sweat, unlike past M sixes that needed all manner of trick technologies added into the mix to maintain their composure.

2020 BMW X3 M Competition
Benjamin Hunting

An eight-speed automatic transmission is required in all X3 M models, and when walloped the crossover will kick it from 0-to-60-mph in a mere 4.0 seconds. Again, that’s in keeping with the rest of the over-buffed crew from Mercedes-AMG (the GLC 63) and Alfa Romeo (the Stelvio Quadrifoglio), each of which offers similar speed and strength under the hood.

In addition to its all-wheel-drive system, which does an exceptional job of corralling the vehicle’s prodigious output, the BMW has also afforded the M-flavored X3 with an adaptive, multi-mode suspension system and several steering settings to match. This is on top of all of the additional bracing and bracketry required to give the X3 chassis more than a passing capacity to control its substantial heft when hurtling through corners.

All beef, no spice

2020 BMW X3 M Competition
Benjamin Hunting

The above reads like a litany of legitimately exciting hardware, and were it installed on a vehicle half the weight and a third the ride height of the 2020 BMW X3 M Competition it would certainly be enough to boil nearly anyone’s blood. In the case of the SUV in question, however, the combination creates one of the most confusing vehicles in recent memory.

Simply put the X3 M is trapped between worlds, and while it certainly makes a statement on paper, on the street it’s more difficult to get excited by the flash-bang performance on tap. Yes, this is a very, very quick SUV, but at no point does it really delight you to mash the pedal and grin for days. Even its sport exhaust system is modest in terms of burble and pop, failing to match older M models in terms of aural satisfaction. The Competition simply delivers, clinically, the exact level of straight-line performance as advertised in the brochure.

Changing direction is even less engaging due to the insulating effects of the vehicle’s mass and its numb steering. Relentlessly stable, the X3 M may be apex-friendly but the price paid is a stiff ride even with the adaptive dampers set to Comfort mode.

Out with the old

2020 BMW X3 M Competition
Benjamin Hunting

In any case, it’s all theoretical, as practically no X3 owner will be using it to turn in hot laps. As with all hi-po people movers, attitude is everything, and if proprietors are really track rats they’ll already have something truly sporty sitting in the garage at home for weekend duty.

It’s in this last measure—street presence—that the $76,900 BMW X3 M Competition surprised me the most. In a world where big-money, over-muscled SUVs are increasingly commonplace, the M turned heads again and again. Upon leaving a restaurant one afternoon a valet let me know that my ride had attracted significant interest from almost everyone who walked by it, which I found puzzling because aside from its 21-inch wheels and aggressively-vented from bumper the Competition is fairly restrained from a styling standpoint.

The amount of attention I got from younger people was even more astounding. On more than one occasion I caught teenagers filming me from the curb as I moved through an intersection, documenting the BMW’s flow for Instagram or Tik-Tok. Have we finally reached the point where sport utility vehicles are now the aspirational vehicles of choice, replacing traditional sports cars in the minds of the next generation of drivers?

2020 BMW X3 M Competition
Benjamin Hunting

The X3 M Competition would seem to resonate with the next set of primed-for-luxury buyers in a way that it simply doesn’t with me. On top of that, it seems to me that most people who just want the flashiest, fastest SUV on the lot will pass the X3 over for the X6 M, anyway.

While I can appreciate the X3 M’s combination of over-the-top speed and day-to-day practicality, it’s at best an arms-length, shoulders-and-waist high school dance that never threatens to spill over into infatuation. Either way, it does indicate BMW has a keen ability to pull young money into its promise of high-performance daily driving. Sadly, unless they’ve driven an E46 M3, an E39 M5, or even the latest M2 Competition, newcomers to the M brand won’t even know what they’re missing.

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