2023 BMW XM First Drive: Electrified M, for the better

2023 BMW XM First Drive: Electrified M, for the better

PHOENIX, Ariz. – The 2023 BMW XM is chock full of firsts and new concepts from BMW. It is the first production BMW to be an M-only model with no lesser variants since the iconic M1 45 years ago. Not only that, it’s the first plug-in hybrid that’s a fully-fledged M product. Its design, both inside and out, features all sorts of new flourishes like a stacked quad exhaust, look-at-me exterior lighting, a wild geometric headliner and astounding natural leather on the dash. You could go ahead and dismiss it for not being a pure BMW M car, but you’d also be missing out on the best performance SUV BMW has screwed together yet.

Comparisons to the X5 M Competition are inevitable after a glance through the spec sheet — it utilizes BMW’s modular CLAR platform shared with the brand’s other rear-drive vehicles — but a few minutes behind the wheel dispel those thoughts. To the XM’s great benefit, being a PHEV greatly improves the experience, giving it an identity all its own.

A giant 29.5-kilowatt-hour battery pack — that approaches some low-range EVs and is larger than what the i3 had when it first launched — is mounted in the underbody and provides an all-electric range of about 30 miles, per BMW. The electric motor integrated into the eight-speed automatic transmission can whisk you away from a stop with surprising quickness, as it’s packing 194 horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque. Similar sounds as in EVs like the i4 M50 and iX M60 play through the speakers in EV mode, and they blend so seamlessly into the noise of the 4.4-liter twin-turbo V8 to have you questioning whether you’re in electric mode or not. It’s slick and subtle, but the V8 can still act out as the animal we’ve grown accustomed to in other M cars.

Since the electric motor is so potent, the combustion engine’s output is on the lower side for V8-powered M vehicles, producing 483 horsepower and 479 pound-feet of torque. For comparison’s sake, the X5 M Competition pushes 617 horsepower and 553 pound-feet to all four wheels from its V8. Combined output for XM beats those numbers, though, and rounds out to a hearty 644 horsepower and 590 pound-feet of torque, allowing for 0-60 mph sprints in a claimed 4.1 seconds.

Smacking the throttle from a standstill will make you doubt the XM’s 6,052-pound curb weight. The headrest-slamming instant-on acceleration exhibited by high-power EVs is on tap here, as the XM violently moves off the line. And before any electric momentum is lost, boost from the twin turbos is ready to keep the party rocking. The sensation of acceleration and throttle response of the XM is better because it’s a PHEV, which is exactly what we were hoping for in an electrified M car.

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BMW has a big bag of tricks to ensure this big, heavy SUV handles like something from the M division. Front and rear active anti-roll bars, rear-wheel steering, unique chassis design, and enormous wheels and tires all play a role in making the XM as fun to drive as it is. Stiff chassis mountings felt through the steering wheel and seat of the pants signal right away that this BMW means business. On the winding mountain roads of Arizona, the XM is at home skipping from corner to corner without feeling too porky for the road. Its massive brakes never broke a sweat, even going downhill. Point the wheel, and the XM abides right away with the same level of accuracy we’re used to in an M3. Its Comfort steering setting is surprisingly the best, as this XM’s steering effort is heavy to a fault in its Sport mode. Still, the disappearing act of all that weight is one to admire, and BMW does it without resorting to bone-crunching ride quality.

The forgiveness in the XM’s suspension is a new quality for BMW’s M SUVs, as both the X5 M and X3 M beat you up no matter the road, and don’t respond well when the chassis is upset. The adaptive dampers and steel springs — linear in front and progressive in rear — are dialed in just how we like. You can use the XM as a grand tourer for miles on end and enjoy its controlled, comfortable highway ride. And even in that comfort damper setting, the XM is no slob in corners. You can spice it up with the full Sport Plus damper setting, and while this adds confidence in the form of less body movement, the great ride quality is still there. A big mid-corner heave won’t upset the chassis or cause alarm. Instead, the XM shrugs it right off and keeps trucking along, providing confidence to keep pushing it in and out of bends.

Accelerating out of hairpins and tight corners gives the M xDrive all-wheel-drive system a chance to shine, and that’s right after the subtle four-wheel steering has already surprised with a quick and stable nosedive into the corner. The XM has a new, model-specific M Sport differential that allows it to take advantage of its copious electric torque, all while accomplishing the same goal of fully variable torque distribution between the left and right rear wheels. The extra electric shove that instantly comes on when digging into the throttle is tangible. Sideways fun is just a right-foot-stab away in the M Dynamic Mode (MDM) that loosens up traction and stability control nannies. And in case you’re on extra-low traction surfaces, the XM features a unique 4WD Sand mode that changes the AWD system’s programming and engages the locking function of the rear differential.

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The sum of the XM’s parts really does make it the most fun M SUV, but there are still some faults. Its biggest issue is shifting in the most aggressive manual mode. BMW tuned in walloping jolts with each upshift, and they’re violent enough to remove you from the rhythm you fall into on a good mountain road. Dial it back to the middle Sport (not Sport Plus) and the jolts go away, but shifts aren’t as instant as pulling a paddle. The solution is to simply stick it in the smart auto-shifting mode, but the loss of engagement is a shame.

Like the exterior, there’s a lot going on inside the XM but it’s certainly less controversial and I’d argue genuinely attractive. High-bolstered seats, M-themed lighting and truly luxurious elements like the “Vintage Merino” leather (seen directly above) set the tone right away. The XM blends high-luxury with traditional M design in the best way, going far above anything you can spec on a lesser M SUV. The sculptural headliner using a 3D prism structure covered in Alcantara and backlit with 100 LED lights is the crown jewel — it’s infinitely cooler than any glass roof.

As you’d expect at a $159,995 base price, there’s no shortage of tech features on hand. We’ve already leveled plenty of ire at BMW’s Curved Display and iDrive 8 software, but the XM is one of the models eligible for the new iDrive 8.5 over-the-air update, so we’ll hold out hope that things will indeed improve by this summer when it gets rolled out. Physical buttons on the center console provide shortcuts to quickly toggle the XM from pure electric, hybrid and “eCONTROL” modes, the latter of which either retains the current battery charge or adds charge through energy recuperation. As always, the ever-convenient custom M1 and M2 steering wheel toggles make hopping to ideal setups a cinch, and there’s even more customization available here than usual due to the XM being a PHEV. The suite of driver assistance systems is super-easy to use via steering wheel commands, and they contribute further to the XM being a fantastic grand tourer.

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All of these more mundane advantages are vital, because XMs will surely spend more time dropping kids off at school or lingering at fancy hotel valets than at a race track or even bombing around a winding back road. Thankfully, the rear bench is plenty spacious. For longer rides, the supple rear seats — they’re way softer than the more performance-oriented front seats — will be lovely to hang out in. And despite the raked roofline, headroom for taller adults is a non-issue. The cargo area is limited by the presence of that giant battery, as its load floor is relatively high with no under-floor storage. An X5 or iX win big here versus the XM, but don’t think the space is useless, because this is still a large SUV.

Is it the large performance SUV to beat all other performance SUVs, though? That’s a no; a Porsche Cayenne Turbo S E-Hybrid will still win enthusiasts from a pure driving perspective. What the XM represents, however, is that BMW M can successfully enter into the arena of electrification and end up with a final product that is both more engaging and flat-out better to drive than its purely combustion-engine performance SUV offerings. Someone who can afford the XM probably isn’t too worried about saving a few extra bucks driving to work and back on electric power, but the performance boost gained by way of said electric power sure will be appreciated. Plus, if America ever decides to adopt European policies of low-emissions zones within cities, the XM will be perfectly suited for the task.

You’re either going to love or hate the extroverted exterior design, but the XM’s performance is undeniable and enjoyable. It may be an SUV, but it’s one that both looks unique and sparks giggles and audible wows from behind the wheel. What’s not to love about that, especially when M is still giving us cars like the M2, M4 CSL and M8?

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