Do you know where BMW M really started? No, not the M1. A little later, when some silly engineers thought it might be a good idea to stuff the good bits of that super car into a sedan. The E28 M5 was born. Aww, so cute. But there was another, less celebrated sibling – the M535i. That’s right, M Performance models were both there from the beginning. Now it’s almost 50 years later, and I’d like to ask a question – what’s the difference between an M Performance model, and a true M? To answer, I pit my BMW X3 M40i vs the X3 M.
The BMW X3 M40i vs the X3 M
I’ve done this once before, when I took my old X3 xDrive30i against an X4 M40i. The X4 won – it was a better car that really gave useful performance upgrades. And if you want a famous inline-six under the hood of your X3, then it must have an M badge on it.
The difference between the M40i and the M is much more narrow, something I’ll highlight by grabbing a base X3 M – no Competition here. That means 473 horses vs 382, a 91 pony difference. While we’re at it, let’s mention that the base price of the M is $74,400, while my well-equipped M40i rings the register at $66,725 – a $7,675 difference.
Full M used to mean something different, sharing fewer parts with their lesser siblings. Do you see a bespoke V-10 anywhere here? No matter – the cars are better than ever, and you can still track your X3 M in confidence, knowing it won’t overheat.
But you’re not here for numbers. Does my little ol’ M Performance X3 match up to the big boy?
Second Place: The BMW X3 M
Now wait just a minute before you fire up the emails and start rage-messaging me.
“It’s your car, of course you’ll like it better.”
“If this were an M340i vs an M3, you’d pick the M3.”
“If this were a Competition, it would have won.”
All valid points. But here we are.
Performance Score: 9. M Power
Engine and Transmission
If you think of the X3 M as a tall M3, I think you’ve probably never driven one. Fast SUVs are always going to be weird to me. The high center of gravity and weight means you start life at a disadvantage.
But this is M, and that can mean magic. Right away, you notice the difference the S58 engine makes. It’s like a B58, just more. Sounds better too. Well, maybe louder. Slide the shifter to the right, plant your foot on the throttle and off you go. The official specs say this is a half-second quicker to 60, but they are lying. It feels much faster.
While both cars have a ZF eight-speed, the transmission is much more robust here, with quicker shifts and more intelligence. “I knew you wanted that gear!” it always seems to say with confidence. The M40i will do it too, but you must be in sport mode and you must be on it. And it’s not nearly as happy about it as this X3 M is.
Suspension and Steering
To combat the giant hole an X3 punches in the air, BMW gave it the Clarkson treatment with more power. But to give it the handling ability you expect of an M car, it needed to firm up the suspension…a lot.
The result is punishment. Pot hole? BOOM. Pebble? BOOM. Pillow…brace yourself. Everything in the road causes you to clench your lower cheeks. The X3 M is actually 300 pounds heavier than the M40i, and it feels it in the way it clomps down the road.
Still, there’s goodness here. The M40i feels downright aloof compared to the X3 M. Wider, more aggressive tires help (though the M40i has lower profile rubber), as does a quicker steering rack. Ride height looks to be the same to me, so don’t think your X3 M won’t need some kind of lowering springs.
I’ve spilled enough digital ink about modern BMW steering. Both cars feel the same, which is to say lifeless. I wonder if a Macan is better.
The X3 M has vented and cross-drilled discs, so they look a bit cooler, but the hardware really is almost identical. I’ll tell you what – we’ll call this a wash because what you really want, no, what you require for serious speed, are a set of carbon ceramic discs. Big boys fade fast.
Features and Comfort: 6. M-issing
Hop into my time machine, and climb aboard an E60 M5. Check out the awesome M-specific gauges that looked like they came out of a chrono-watch factory. Inhale that amazing leather smell. Squish your butt into the supportive seat back. M cars are not made by Alpina, but they should feel as special inside, no?
When you opt for a base X3 M, you get some bargain basement stuff inside. Vernasca Leather, with what feel like very similar seats to the M40i are inside. Opt for Sport Seats out of an M3, and Merino Leather is required, essentially adding $2,000 to the price. You can have carbon fiber trim, but that’s also an option on the M40i (though mine has Aluminum Rhombicle).
Same steering wheels, no sun roof (feels like a must-have to let some air inside the dark cabin), and no Shadowline Trim either, so the M40i actually looks just as sporty on the outside. Spoiler is a neat look though.
The price of performance
To really get the X3 M experience, you need to go well past $80,000. Equip the M with everything out of the M Performance model, and you have a price closer to 90k.
Is the X3 M faster and more capable than its cheaper sibling? Absolutely. Is it a better car? Not in base form. Either go for a Competition model, or for this…
First place: The BMW X3 M40i
A daily driver doesn’t need to mean boring, but I think everyone should have a car that doesn’t ask its driver to always pay attention to it. “Don’t park there.”, or “Wash me.”, or my favorite “I want more vroom parts.” Sigh. We car folk know that voice well. It’s ok to get some salt on this X3.
Performance Score: 8. M-ish Power
Engine and Transmission
Let’s put performance into perspective here. The X3 M40i is faster than an E9X M3. If you want wheels larger than the base 19-inch style, you must select summer rubber. And BMW famously underrates its engines, so if this B58 made over 400 horses, I would not have a surprised look on my face. Such a satisfying whack of torque off the line, with the full 369 available at a very low 1,800 RPM. You don’t need to rev it, but you do want to.
It’s not as nearly as responsive in “Comfort” mode as the X3 M is, but that’s fine. It’s really just a normal BMW. Place it in “Sport” though, and it really comes alive. The engine is so responsive, the transmission much more eager to drop down a gear. You can seriously carve some canyon roads on the way to the food store.
It’s also loud – fire up the motor for a solid “roar” from the twin pipes out back, and in Sport, there’s a solid braaap from every shift. It’s mini-M theater. There when you want it, quiet when you don’t. And hey, for what it’s worth, peep the fuel mileage. The X3 M40i scores 6 MPG better, a not insignificant difference over the course of ownership.
Suspension and Steering
Understanding that these are tall cars, the X3 M40i actually has lower profile tires than the X3 M, and the steering’s responsiveness feels almost identical to the X3 M, if not as heavy. Missing here is the optional locking M Differential, which will essentially help scoot the car out of corners faster. I don’t think you need it.
If the M is too hard, this has the opposite Goldilock’s problem of too soft. Weighing in at 4,300 pounds, this X3 is no wraith, and a firm suspension is the only way to really control all that body motion. If you want ultimate Gs, do you really want to go for it in an SUV?
So you’re left with a comfortable ride, which does stiffen up in Sport mode anyway, and a driving experience that is all-day comfortable. with a hint of sport. Yum.
These cars have similar braking equipment – you’re really only missing the cross-drilled discs from the M. Four-pot calipers are more exotic than anything you’d find on a real M car a decade ago. They feel good, but I do like my pedal to remain firm and I feel as if the M40i can get a bit soft if you push it. These are not track brakes, but this isn’t a track car.
Features and Comfort: 9. Special sauce
Weird – the M30i is just nicer inside. We’ve got a sunroof, the same Harmon Kardon stereo, Tacora Red SenstaTec (which feels just like Vernasca leather but is easier to clean with a six-year-old), even the same steering wheel.
I think the biggest issue with the M40i inside are these supposed “Sport” seats. I thought they were great when I purchased the car, but over time they’ve just become too wide and never hug me enough in turns. The passenger seat is missing lumbar support and bolster adjustment because parts are scarce. Perhaps it’s over a year of sitting in different press cars, but I’m really disappointed in both these thrones.
Elsewhere, I think it’s a story of how much you need to consider a car special. I realize the M40i here is nearly fully loaded, but from behind the wheel everything feels the same to me. Could you say the same for an M340i and an M3? Absolutely. It’s a problem for any M product.
Things get weirder on the outside. If I park them next to each other, and I did, the M40i looks really close. Gloss black wheels, Shadowline throughout, even an M badge on the grille – it all fools me. Add $1,500 for Tanzanite Blue II Metallic and it glitzes up the lesser X3 even more. About the only big difference is in the rear – four M pipes still look the business. I can’t make heads or tails of the front bumper – both are busy, filled with intakes and scoops.
The BMW X3 M40i vs the X3 M isn’t the question you need to ask
I guess the real question here is – would you rather have an X3 M40i that’s fully equipped and looks special, or a base X3 M, where you’ll have nothing inside and a ride that’s punishing to the point of rude. Even fully loaded, there remains a $6,000 price gap between the two. Surely the S58 is worth it, but the B58 is so good in its own right. To be comfortable, have all the features you want, and still absolutely rip it out of the school pickup line, the answer seems clear.
Move to Europe and get an M3 wagon.
Special thanks to Lana for donating her beautiful X3 M!
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