First drive: BMW M XM

SALZBURG, Austria – BMW M turns 50 this year and, to celebrate, plans to unveil what is arguably its boldest and most technically advanced model to date, the XM.

Previewed in concept form late last year, the powered SUV is just the second self-driving model from BMW’s revered performance car division, the other being the iconic M1 supercar launched in 1978.

The XM is based on the facelifted X7, alongside which it is expected to begin production at BMW’s Spartanburg, SC plant in December, with North American deliveries starting in March 2023.

Unlike the X7, it’s slated to be sold exclusively as an M model, and not just with any powertrain, but the company’s first petrol-electric plug-in hybrid unit delivering up to 740bhp.

“It makes sense to make an SUV,” says Frank van Meel, CEO of BMW M Division. “The performance SUV segment is now the largest in the world, and it has great potential for growth.”

The Lamborghini Urus and XM-flagship Porsche Cayenne Turbo GT complement BMW M’s growing lineup of purely electric M Performance models, including the i4 M50, iX M50 and iX M60.

The first surprise when seeing it up close in prototype form in the Salzburg Ring paddock in Austria for the first time is that it’s actually smaller than the X7. Not much, an inch or more at best in overall length and height. But those expecting it to be BMW’s biggest SUV need to think again.

Under its hood is the latest evolution of the BMW M’s 4.4-litre twin-turbocharged V8 petrol engine, codenamed S68, with an electric motor mounted in the front end of its ZF-produced 8-speed automatic transmission.

As with other existing BMW M models, buyers will be able to choose between two different specifications: the standard XM at 644 hp and 590 lb-ft. (800 Nm) of torque or the flagship at 740 hp and over 737 lb-ft. (999Nm).

Fittingly, that makes the XM the most powerful road car to ever wear the evocative M badge.

Power is sent to the xDrive all-wheel-drive system with fully variable front-to-rear power distribution. M boss van Meel hints at a 0-62mph (100kph) time of less than four seconds and a top speed approaching 200mph (322kph).

“It’s pure M,” says van Meel, “but with electric capability it also brings a new dimension to our range.”

The electric motor draws its power from a lithium-ion battery with an energy capacity of “approximately 25 kWh” mounted in three separate cells under the rear seat in what is described as an “eagle wing” design to maintain the weight as low in the chassis as possible. It is produced exclusively for the XM, giving it a claimed electric range of up to 80 km (50 miles) on WLTP at speeds of up to 129 km/h (80 mph) in electric mode. Charging can only be done on an AC system up to 7.4 kW.

Although heavily camouflaged inside and out, some elements are clearly shared with the M Performance versions of the facelifted X7, including its steering wheel, sections of its dashboard, various controls and switchgear. and, most notable of all, a curved digital display panel with BMW M-specific instruments and infotainment graphics.

First impressions relate to the refinement of the transmission. In e-mode, the XM starts and then starts on electricity alone, with the disc-shaped unit capable of providing strong starting qualities and very flexible in urban driving.

In hybrid mode, the electrification and its ability to deliver consistent torque from launch brings very distinct qualities to the power delivery without detracting from the V-8’s wonderful high-revving character. The start is incredibly crisp, with huge acceleration between each upshift.

Even with a lot of development to come before production, the XM drives with the weight, precision and feel of a well-sorted sports sedan.

It has a genuinely athletic character, turning into corners with great agility, aided by the Integral Rear Steer system, which receives its own unique software mapping but retains the same 2.0-degree steering angle as other BMW models.

Body motion is controlled by a new 48V roll stabilization system first used in the XM. There is a bit of body roll from the front and rear air suspension in faster corners, even in Sport Plus mode, but it’s never excessive, even when you’re pushing hard. Pitch and dive are superbly managed.

The performance and driving character of this XM prototype leaves us with little doubt that BMW M’s second standalone model will live up to the brand’s reputation for five decades in delivering some of the world’s most beloved road cars.

Frank van Meel, CEO of BMW M (left), with Kable.