When the BMW XM SUV goes on sale in 2023, it’ll be the M brand’s largest, heaviest car. It’ll also have a standard plug-in hybrid powertrain and a greater focus on comfort and luxury than any M before. For a performance division that built its reputation on great driver’s cars, this sounds like a bunch of blasphemies. But I’ve just returned from driving an XM prototype on Alpine roads near Salzburg, Austria and, well… hot damn.
Hear that sound? It’s a million purists clutching their pearls.
Unique to M
Initially expected to be a sort of X7 ‘coupe’, possibly even called X8, the XM is something all its own. (BMW and Citroen worked out an agreement about that name, by the way.) The SUV rides on a platform that’s exclusive to M, the second car in the brand’s history to do so (the first being the M1 supercar). BMW won’t divulge the XM’s exact dimensions until its official debut in September, but it’s somewhere between an x5 and X7 in length with a lower roofline than both.
As for what’s under the camouflage, well, did you see the XM concept? BMW assures me the production SUV will be very close to the showcar. No, the design isn’t for everyone, but it certainly makes a statement. And since BMW expects the XM to attract the same folks that might otherwise buy a Mercedes G Wagen or Lamborghini Urus (yes, really), mega curb appeal — good or bad — is a must.
US-spec cars will ride on 22-inch wheels with summer tires; larger 23s will be available. The XM prototype I drove has the same full-width rear hatch glass as the concept, as well as stacked exhaust pipes, so look for those to make it to production.
Strong hybrid power, with more on the way
The sound that barks from those pipes is unexpectedly badass, but honestly, so is the whole powertrain. The plug-in hybrid setup combines BMW’s new 4.4-liter twin-turbo V8 — the same one used in the 2023 7 Series –with a lithium-ion battery pack. BMW isn’t saying how large the pack is just yet, but it should have enough energy capacity to provide a driving range of about 30 miles on the US Environmental Protection Agency cycle, so think something under 20 kilowatt-hours. With its powers combined, the XM will produce 644 horsepower and 590 pound-feet of torque.
The XM’s electric motor is sandwiched between the engine and transmission, so it doesn’t power one specific axle. That means the xDrive all-wheel-drive system can send as much as 100% of the total power to the rear axle, and then an electronic limited-slip differential can shuffle it side to side as needed.
There’s more to eat, too. when the xm concept debuted, BMW said it had 750 hp and 737 lb-ft of torque, and that’s still very much true. Sven Ritter, the XM’s project manager, told me there’ll be a higher-performance version coming after the SUV’s initial launch. Ritter said to think of it as a sort of XM Competition, in the same way that BMW offers the M3 sedan and more powerful M3 Competition. Ritter would n’t share more details about this more powerful XM variant, but he did say it wo n’t use the Competition name. Interesting.
Legitimately great to drive
The early XM prototype I drove has the 644-hp tune, and trust me, it’s plenty. With instant electric torque and strong V8 output, this big SUV gets up to speed in a hurry. Midrange acceleration is outstanding, too; you get the full force of the electric motor’s torque right when you press the throttle, giving the turbochargers time to spool up before delivering max boost. Repeated hard stomps on straight stretches of German backroads produce consistent results; it’s like goosing the throttle in an EV paired with a real V8 soundtrack, followed by visceral slams into each subsequent gear. In other words, it’s great.
The standard drive mode puts the XM in hybrid operation, where it’ll rely on the electric motors when possible and fire up the gas engine when needed. The transitions between the startups and shutoffs are seamless, especially under braking when the engine turns off before a stop. There’s a fully electric drive mode, too, complete with space-age wizardy woo-ahh sounds created by Hans Zimmer. And happily (for me, at least), there’s also a fixed button on the XM’s center console that lets you turn the Star Trek effect off.
The XM has the usual smattering of M drive modes where you can change the parameters for the powertrain, suspension, steering, etc. The XM uses a brake-by-wire system, too, so you can increase or decrease the force of the brake pedal, and you can also alter the intensity of the regenerative braking. (No one-pedal driving here, though.) What’s really cool is that these settings also work when you’re running in fully electric mode, so you can get the weightiest steering and stiffest damper settings even if you aren’t blasting along on full attack.
I originally found it curious that BMW opted not to use an air suspension in the XM, considering the company has a new dual-axle system adapted from the Rolls Royce Ghost. But holy moly is this coil-spring setup fantastic, with excellent damping characteristics that allow the XM to really soak up road blemishes. The standard 48-volt active anti-roll tech works to treat here, too, allowing the XM to keep those comfortable characteristics while flattening out body motions while cornering. It really inspires confidence — with fewer body motions, I’m eager to carry more and more speed through hairpin turns.
BMW says the XM has a perfect 50/50 weight balance, and this SUV’s on-road composition is indeed one of its best attributes. Hard launches, harder stops (thanks, 20-inch steel brakes), throwing it into tight bends — nothing can upset the XM’s balance. Plus, the XM has one of BMW’s best steering setups in recent memory, with plenty of feedback and quick, precise turn-in. The XM comes standard with rear-axle steering, too, which can turn the back wheels in or out by 2.5 degrees depending on the speed, helping to give this big boy an agile edge.
Understeer? None. Oversteer? Nope. Harshness? Body roll? The weird sense of dread that comes from pushing an SUV super hard? Nothing. The XM just wants to haul ass with the ferocity of an M5 and then quietly toddle through the subdivision on your way home.
Greater focus on luxury
Far less polarizing than the XM’s exterior is its cabin. Do not, the concept’s teal velvet rear seat won’t make its way to reality, but high-quality leather, a geometric 3D headliner with ambient lighting, natural wood and real metal inlays should all be in the cards. The XM will get BMW’s latest iDrive 8 multimedia tech, natch, housed on the same curved display that first debuted in the i4 and iX.
Velvet bench notwithstanding, I really want to talk about the XM’s rear seat. Despite the sloping roofline, there’s a ton of headroom, plus stretch-out legroom that can accommodate taller folks. BMW intentionally positioned the XM’s back bench low so the high beltline would better enclose the passenger compartment, and Ritter told me the rear windows have a 20% darker tint than other BMW cars to up the privacy factor. Better than all that, though: The rear seat’s edges are contoured and mold into the XM’s sides, so you can comfortably sit with your body turned toward the other passenger for easier conversation. This sort of wraparound bolstering is usually stuff reserved for Rolls-Royces; to see it in the XM is awesome.
A final fancy bit: Every XM will come with a stylish little bag in the trunk that’s waterproof and sized to fit the Level 2 charging cable. It’s also big enough that you could totally use it as a luggage tote for a weekend away.
Following its debut in September, the XM will go into production in December at BMW’s plant in Spartanburg, South Carolina. The first cars are expected to hit dealers in March 2023, and BMW is expecting North America — specifically the US — to be the XM’s biggest market, though China and the Middle East will also make up big chunks of the total sales.
I was really expecting the XM to drive like a bigger X5 M, or maybe a stiffer Alpine XB7, but it’s more exciting than that. This is one of the best-driving modern M cars I’ve sampled, and none of this power and agility comes at the expensive of serene passenger comfort. Believe it, friends: A big, hybrid SUV is one of M’s most impressive efforts in years.
Editors’ note: Travel costs related to this story were covered by the manufacturer, which is common in the auto industry. The judgments and opinions of CNET’s staff are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.