Once upon a time, the BMW X3 knew its place. That place was playing second fiddle to its class-leading big brother, the X5. After all, the larger car pretty much invented the genre of sporting, road-biased SUVs, while the latest iterations managed to combine sportiness with a real sense of luxury.
Then BMW went and launched the second-generation X3. It made us sit up and take notice from the start - and not just because of the new range of turbocharged, six-cylinder engines on offer; here's a car that exhibits all the quality and comfort of the class above, at a decent discount.
Now it seems that BMW has put the final nail in the X5's coffin by releasing the even more desirable X3 M Sport. As if evidence were needed, several people talked to us while we had the car parked and they were all quite surprised when we said it was "only" the X3.
That surprise is thanks in no small part to the M Sport look - the car isn't an M performance upgrade, but it is defined by body coloured side skirts, wheelarches and new, sportier front and rear bumpers. The window surrounds and roof rails are picked out in "high-gloss BMW individual shadow line" and a set of tasty 19-inch alloys set the whole car off nicely.
The effect is greater than suggested by the shortlist of changes. BMW has endowed the M Sport with real aggression and it turns heads - especially in the dazzling white paintwork of our test car. There is a range of unique colours to the M Sport line-up, too, should you really want to stand out.
Inside, there's a smattering of M badges, of course, a thick-rimmed leather steering wheel (housing buttons for the infotainment and cruise control) and fabulous sports seats featuring a Pearlpoint cloth-leather mix. Also, there are a few choice switches that have a large influence over how the X3 drives.
The first, if you opt for the xDrive35i model, are gear-change paddles mounted behind the steering wheel. They operate the eight-speed steptronic automatic gearbox. Most drivers will find that the transmission works well enough without interference from them, especially given the torque on offer from the turbocharged engines. Along with that, there's a toggle switch to the side of the gear lever that allows the driver to choose between normal, sport and sport+. This controls the power steering, throttle sensitivity, dynamic traction control threshold and, ostensibly, the chassis. We say ostensibly, as there seemed to be precious little difference in the damping between the three settings.
Nonetheless, the X3 is a highly capable car. It's worth bearing in mind that the M Sport version is less comfortable than the non-M models, but it more than makes up for that with solid body control and unflappable stability at speed. If you mainly drive on smooth roads then the choppier ride quality is unlikely to be an issue. Anyway, the sport settings are customisable to your preferences, so you can have a more sensitive throttle with standard power-steering assistance, for instance.
As in the usual model, there's much more space inside the X3 M Sport than in its predecessor. Five adults could comfortably spend a lot of time there, while there's even room for a decent amount of luggage. Crucially, the cabin feels of far higher quality than before and this is enhanced in M Sport specification. The high standard of the materials used throughout is partly responsible for this, though we love the weighting and tactility of BMW's latest switchgear - it makes for a rewarding drive, even when you're not going quickly.
If you are in a rush, the X3 M Sport is a willing companion. The xDrive28i variant pushes out a useful 258hp and 310Nm of torque, but what you really want is the xDrive35i, with 306hp and 400Nm of torque. The latter is on tap pretty much all of the time, too, so it feels effortlessly quick.
One of the few tricks the X5 has up its sleeve, ahead of the X3, is the availability of a highly desirable V8 petrol engine. The other is a seven-seat layout. If you can live without those, there's precious little reason not to have the X3 M Sport instead.
The X3 M Sport package is available for order in the UAE; no prices were released.
Base price n/a
Engine 3.0L twin-turbo inline six-cylinder
Gearbox Eight-speed automatic
Power 306hp @ 5,800rpm
Torque 400Nm @ 1,200rpm
Fuel economy, combined 8.8L/100km