The BMW XM is hailed as the first bespoke M car since the M1. Does it live up to the billing?
By John Howell / Friday, 17 March 2023 / Loading comments
So, this is it. The BMW XM. The first dedicated M car since the first M car. That was the M1, of course, and the M1 and the XM have many things in common. For example, they are both low, sleek and achingly gorgeous supercars. And if this were a video review, that’s the point you’d hear a loud scratching noise; the sound of a stylus being dragged across vinyl indicating the sudden cut to reality. As this isn’t a video review, I’ll just say it straight: the XM may share the M1’s design feature of two roundels on its rear – at the top of the rear screen if you haven’t spotted them – but low, sleek and achingly gorgeous it ain’t.
Let’s talk about the looks. Normally, this is a topic I’d shy away from, well aware that everyone will have an opinion and who’s to say which is right or wrong. Except that, so far, I am yet to hear anyone say they love it. I haven’t heard anyone say it’s not that bad, either, or maybe we’ll grow to love it. I drove the prototype version of the XM at Salzburg last year – have a look at that for the full technical breakdown of the XM – and it’s one of the few cars that looked better disguised in a camo wrap. I could tell it was a lump back then, but at least the chintzy details were hidden.
Details like the big grille that is an interpretation of the M4’s huge nostrils. They’re not as deep, true, but they’re illuminated, so bystanders aren’t saved the displeasure of seeing them even at night. There’s also the weird shiny thick black plastic (or chrome depending on spec) coachline that runs underneath the window line; the stacked, oddly shaped quad tailpipes; the squared-off, glossy black plastic wheel arches, which undermine any pretence that this is a rugged off-road SUV. To be fair, BMW admitted as much in the press release, stating it’s a ‘high-performance car dressed in Sports Activity Vehicle (SAV) clothing’. How very un-M.
Speaking of M, if this is a company confident that its brand values are being followed, why does it need to stick M in front of everything? It’s not a new phenomenon, but it’s becoming absurd. Reading anything from BMW these days reminds me of a McDonalds menu, where everything is prefaced with ‘Mc’. BMW even calls its motorsport programme M Motorsport. It’s as if it’s trying so hard to prove its Mness by sticking Ms everywhere that it’s forgotten what M actually stands for. For anyone who doesn’t know, it stands for Motorsport, so yes, that makes it BMW Motorsport Motorsport. And along with staples like M xDrive and M Steptronic – both things that perhaps aren’t very M – now the XM gives us M Hybrid and the M Lounge.
This Motorsport Lounge features rear seat backrests that curve round in the manner of a Rolls-Royce, with a pair of M Pillows – I assume that’s what their official name is – floating about for passengers to place where they would like. To give the Motorsport Lounge its due, it is very comfortable. The curved backrest provides something to nestle into, and while the rear seats aren’t adjustable, the angle of the backrest, the height of the seat squab and the stuffing of the cushions are hard to fault.
As is the space in the rear. I am over six feet, and with the front seat where I need it set to drive the XM, I can still lounge in the back of it with a good 10-12cm of knee room to spare. Headroom isn’t as generous as an X7, thanks to the downward slope of the roofline, but it’s still decent enough, and the large rear windows make it easy to see out. Conversely, thanks to the extra-dark tints the XM has, it’s hard for anyone to see in.
Upfront it feels narrower than an X7 but that’s perception more than absolute reality. The XM is actually slightly wider than an X7 mirror-to-mirror – and only 71mm shorter – but something about the high dashboard and tall window line makes it close in around you. The boot is much smaller than an X7’s. At 527 litres, it’s 30 per cent smaller, with a very high-set floor. There’s no underfloor storage space for the cables, either, which means you have to carry them in a holdall – albeit a very snazzy one rather than the usual nylon bag. Trouble is, cables get covered in winter grime, so you’d probably be better off stuffing them into something machine washable and less precious.
And speaking of snazzy, I reckon that if you’re someone who holidays in Dubai, you’ll love the XM’s interior design. BMW says this is luxury. Some would say its gaudy. I will merely point out that you get lots of 3D surfacing – on the seats and the roof lining, for instance – and the sort of multi-coloured ambient lighting that made me think of Stringfellows. Yet for a car that costs £150,000 before extras, the material quality could be higher. You get nice vintage leather on the dashboard and doors, but where you might expect brushed aluminium trims there is a lot of plastic sprayed silver. There’s some carbon trim that, to be fair, looks real, although for all its lavishness there are such obvious cheap bits. The bottle holders in the front door bins, for example, are hard plastic and aren’t rubberised, so an aluminium water bottle reverberates. Oddly, they dealt with that in the rear doors by creating a sound-deadening serrated rubber edge.
The driving position is odd. I couldn’t quite get comfortable, and it was something to do with the steering wheel not going low enough and the seat not feeling quite right. I never truly put my finger on what exactly was wrong, but eventually my brain compensated for it so it can’t have been that bad. But after this experience and my time in the revised X7, I am convinced of one thing: after years of universal acclaim, BMW is slowly ruining its iDrive.
The curved display might look modern and, yes, there’s still an iDrive wheel to operate it as an alternative to using the touchscreen, but the functionality is not as intuitive as it used to be and there are too few buttons. I wanted the climate control on auto, which in the old days would’ve meant one quick press of a button. Now it means delving into the screen, and that means you can’t see the sat nav while you’re fiddling. Now that’s a minor inconvenience, but distractions like that could lead to much worse in something that weighs 2,785kg.
The XM is fast, no question of that. Even that hefty kerbweight isn’t enough to neuter the might of the S68 489hp 4.4-litre V8 combined with the hit of a 197hp electric motor integrated into its eight-speed auto gearbox. The system outputs 653hp and 590lb ft, and this isn’t even the fastest one, remember. That’ll be the Label Red, which will offer 748hp and 738lb ft, or a headline-generating 1,000nm in new money. The standard car can still achieve 0-62mph in 4.3 seconds and 168mph when unrestricted with the optional M Driver’s package. So, yes, it’s quick and also highly responsive, as you’d imagine it would be with the electric motor to scald the cat from a standing start. It tears away from the lights with tremendous verve.
That said, the performance isn’t as extreme as the big players in the market: the Aston Martin DBX707, Lamborghini Urus Performante and Porsche Cayenne Turbo GT. But the XM has a potential those three can’t match. It’s a plug-in hybrid with a 52-mile range (replenishable in four-and-a-quarter hours from a 7.4kW source). That also gives it the ability for quiet running when you’re using just the electrical side. I say quiet rather than silent because there’s the rather dubious Hans Zimmer-composed sci-fi soundtrack that accompanies every press of the accelerator when it’s running as an EV. You can turn that off to be fair.
Press the accelerator harder in hybrid mode and the V8 soundtrack takes over, which, surprisingly, isn’t the universal delight you might expect. Obviously, it’s a BMW M car, so you know the sound isn’t always going to be pure. It’s enhanced digitally in the fruitier modes and produces deep, slightly fake version of thunder when you boot it. Without the sports exhaust on the sound it is completely natural, I am told, and in this installation the S68 isn’t very sweet I’m afraid. It’s gruff and resonant for a cross-plane V8, to the point I wondered whether the crank had been swapped for the flat-plane variety.
The switch between the two power sources is smooth but the change in throttle response isn’t, so you often find yourself with an unnecessary burst of speed as you exit a roundabout. That’s not the only drivability issue, either. The initial accelerator response is too abrupt when you’re trying to potter away, and it’s impossible to stop the XM without some sort of shunt – as in a jerk, not a crash. No matter how much I tried to emulate the best chauffeurs by bleeding off the brake pedal as the road speed dropped to nothing, something in the transmission would disconnect, or connect, and the car would lurch. And it doesn’t help that the brake pedal is lacking in feel so the application of effort isn’t always easy to judge.
Then there’s the ride. Is this a luxury SUV or a performance SUV? Well, the ride is certainly not luxurious. There were stretches of smooth motorway where, yes, the miles flashed by comfortably. The XM rode the road serenely and with little road noise – although at times quite a lot of wind noise. But you’d have to create a pretty rubbish car for it not to ride well on a smooth road, and it’s the sign of a great luxury car that it can turn a pockmarked hell into a bastion of calm. On rough roads, the XM’s ride is not a bastion of calm, it’s bloody firm.
It eschews air springs in favour of steel springs and adaptive dampers, in much the same way as a Lamborghini Urus Performante. Now, the Performante doesn’t claim any luxury intentions, so we can more easily forgive it any brusqueness. But the ‘I’m luxury; I’m sporty; I’m everything’ XM, with its enveloping, limo-like M Lounge, is proposing a higher standard – and then failing to meet it. The Aston Martin DBX707 proved beyond reasonable doubt that you can introduce a level of plushness into the ride of a fast SUV while still maintaining plenty of driver appeal. Of course, it would be something if the XM exchanged plush sensibilities for greater driver appeal – but is it better to drive than the 707, Performante or Turbo GT? No.
I’ve driven the Performante on track and, in that environment, it’s superb. It has huge grip and quite unbelievable balance for a high, heavy lump. Maybe the XM would match it in that setting, but I didn’t drive it on track and, let’s face it, these cars won’t be tested in that environment often, if ever. So I’ll turn to the DBX707 for comparison, a car that I drove for many miles on Mediterranean roads where it worked brilliantly. The Aston has the lot: beautifully set-up steering, which is light and accurate, fabulous body control that deals with any road surface failures, and a brake pedal that delivers confidence during the big stops and the small ones.
The XM is good in twisty stuff – impressive at times, even. It turns in with real conviction and continues to resist understeer well beyond that point. There’s mid-corner balance and, as you get on the power, you can feel the rear wheels pushing the car out of turns. The body control, too, is impressive. The active anti-roll bars steady the ship to the point that the apparent absence of lean is quite peculiar. Yet it doesn’t get upset by uneven surfaces. You can press on hard and it just sticks and goes.
But somehow it doesn’t gel together as cohesively as the DBX707. Partly it’s those brakes again – the regen corruption causing you to think every time you hit the pedal – and the steering, which isn’t quite as sublime as the DBX’s. It’s a quick helm, aided by the well-judged rear-wheel steering, but with a lightness away from centre that takes some getting used to. I tried firming it up in Sport mode, but that just made it unnecessarily heavy. Even so, in terms of hitting its brief, it’s as a sports SUV that the XM gets closest to ticking the box.
As a luxury SUV, though, it fails royally. I remember thinking after the prototype drive that this car doesn’t know what it wants to be, other than everything, and the production version has got no nearer to a coherent identity. Sure, it’s good to drive quickly, but not better than its rivals. And any compromises on the sporting side aren’t made up for by a luxurious sort of seamlessness. It’s not even comfortable or easy to drive smoothly.
That’s not all the engineers’ fault, though. It seems like they’ve been pulled from pillar to post trying to meet every whim. It’s the fault of the bosses who decided to squeeze an M car and a luxury flagship into a single SUV mould. The XM feels like a car designed by a committee chasing the cash-rich, me, me, me public who want it all: the ultimate luxury SUV; the ultimate sports SUV; a plug-in hybrid like no other. With regard to the latter, the XM was averaging between 23 and 30mpg in hybrid mode, and that was with charge in the battery. An antidote to climate change it is not.
What precisely it is a cure for is harder to say. There is certainly a sense that, tasked with building a large SUV, said committee has tried desperately to invent ways of shoehorning Mness into a model that could be said to represent the antithesis of everything the brand has stood for this past half-century. And even if you’re unconcerned by the distress of traditionalists, it seems unnecessarily galling to be constantly reminded that this is the first bespoke M car since the M1 because so much of the XM is blithely at odds with virtually everything that came before it. The car doesn’t even pay tribute to the Hofmeister kink – the signature BMW detail that’s appeared on every one of its models since 1961.
Obviously, it’s this kind of break with established norms that does tend to provoke a strong reaction, and many such criticisms – especially those which suggest a brand is being needlessly denigrated – have been previously levelled at rivals. But cars like the Cayenne and the Urus did not make the mistake of claiming to be both the sportiest and the most luxurious SUVs you can buy. They have focused mainly on one end of the equation and followed through. Consequently, they can claim to have remained true to what their respective brands have historically stood for. Arguably only Aston Martin has succeeded in merging both facets into something cohesive, and even then the hugely potent DBX 707 only works because the middle ground it occupies doesn’t come at the expense of fun. Had the XM discovered that elusive quality, much else about it could be forgiven. But along with everything else, the committee has clearly forgotten the chief yardstick by which any proper M car is measured.
SPECIFICATION | 2023 BMW XM
Engine: 4,395cc, V8, twin-turbo, plug-in hybrid
Transmission: eight-speed automatic, four-wheel drive
Total power (hp): 653 (electric motor 197)
Total torque (lb ft): 590
Top speed: 124mph
Weight: 2,785kg (EU)
MPG: 188.3 (WLTP)
CO2: 35g/km (WLTP)
EV Range: 52 miles (WLTP)
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