Twenty years ago, Spartanburg, S.C., was a small, rural town just off Interstate 85 between Charlotte, N.C., and Greenville, S.C., on the way to Atlanta in a northwest section of the state, far removed from the sprawling communities of Columbia, Charlestown and Savannah.
Today, Spartanburg is the centerpiece for BMW’s North American automobile production facilities, its largest assembly plant in the world, rolling out virtually every crossover that the brand sells — XI, X2, X3, X4 and X5 models, as well as some 3-series cars. Dozens of support vendors surround the huge BMW facility (with its own proving grounds and race track) as the European brands have found this region supportive for expanding their American operations — Volvo and Mercedes are nearby too.
Unwittingly, these automotive operations have become part of the latest trade bargaining positions on tariffs and inequities in how the European countries tax our vehicles entering their markets at much higher rates than what Americans charge for theirs. But that will be resolved — the numbers of jobs, the level of investments here plus the economic impacts are huge, as is the impact that BMW’s crossovers have had on the market, specifically the revised for 2018 X3. This compact five-door crossover is now the brand’s best-selling vehicle in America, eclipsing the 3-series sedan as well as the larger X5 crossover on the sales charts.
Earlier this year, the more popular X3 30i model appeared in this space. A credible performer in every measurement, that turbo-four-cylinder powered wagon easily demonstrated why buyers are gravitating toward the taller-riding, more spacious interior and greater visibility attributes of these crossovers. In the M40i model, any doubts about the performance chops of this model are quickly erased.
For several years, pundits have criticized BMW for losing its way on its various “performance models”; numb steering feel because of the shift to electric systems, loss of chassis composure (the hallmark of the brand) and other niggles and nit-picks as it just became too easy to be critical as so many other automotive products caught up to, and sometimes passed, the vaunted BMW standard bearers. The M-badges had started to mean just more money instead of the desired levels of increased driving performance — and driving satisfaction.
The difference between the base X3, a very nice driver, and the new M40i is profound. Thumb the push-button ignition and the twin-power in-line, turbo-six bursts to life with a distinct brashness that will alert your neighbors that you are about to depart on an exciting drive. The burble settles down in a minute or so, yet the urgency with which the six responds to your accelerative impulses is night and day different from the standard 2.0-liter four — this car is extremely quick. The sinewy eight-speed automatic always seems to be in the right gear, as the 355 horses are always ready to whisk you down the road. AWD is standard, as is the return of the precise steering feel and controlled chassis dynamics that we all remember from our very first BMW driving experiences.
It didn’t matter what the surface was, or what the pace; the X3 40i did not disappoint. It is quiet, it crisply plays, it subtly cruises and all is good inside with a host of standard gear, not the least of which is the fine 14-way powered sport seats (with four-way lumbar adjustments) as well as heating elements for all seating positions, plus heat for the steering wheel. Rear seats split and fold 40/20/40, while providing good passenger space. The liftgate is powered, the lighting is all LED, interior accent lights too, plus the massive moonroof is included and the I-drive controller is more intuitive than ever with a massive center dash screen for ease of use. Our well-equipped M40i, in a luscious Phytonic Blue paint ($550) with Cognac Vernasca Leather, only lacked seat-cooling as the extreme humidity of early August tested our comfort.
X3 pricing begins at $42,650, while the jump to the M40i package requires $54,300. Several strategic packages, as BMW is so inclined to offer, rapidly escalate pricing to $65,920 as shown — Harmon Kardon audio, M-suspension, 20-inch wheels, gesture control, heads-up display, parking assist, 3D camera, etc. AWD is standard on all X3s. EPA estimates are 20/27/23 for the premium-fueled M40i.
The shift to these five-door family cars is so prolific that BMW now offers a Sportback version of the X3 — the new X4. With a sharply sloping roofline — almost coupe-like — the X4 sacrifices rear seat and rear cargo space for sportiness and styling. Using the same powertrains as the X3, buyers can decide on pure function, pure fun or pure expression.
Either way, X3 or X4, the 3.0-liter turbo-six turns this crossover into a fun-filled performance car like the brand has always been known for.