BMW test their new M range on Australia's toughest landscape

There's an extremely strong chance no one at BMW's Munich head office envisioned the Australian welcome the latest M car heroes of the brand's SUV lineup received.

Sliding sideways at 100km/h, red-tinged Aussie dust belching out of the wheel arches as the mid-sized luxury SUV slews sideways in something reminiscent of a round of the World Rally Championship rather than a luxury SUV drive.

A film of dust clings to every panel and wheels are packed thick with the fine particles that so richly define the outback.

More M

The cars we're driving are the first full-blown M versions of the X3 and X4, two related mid-sized SUVs, the latter with a lower, sleeker roofline that trades space for style.

Previously BMW had an M Performance version, which could be a marketing term for "less power and less fun". Brisk, but not brutal, and a way to leverage the M sub-brand without diluting its essence.

The X3 and X4 M Competition, as they're known, have a new 3.0-litre six-cylinder engine with two turbos. It's the same engine that will power the next generation M3 and M4.

Priced at $157,900 for the X3 and $164,900 for the sportier-looking X4, they come loaded with fruit, including a 10.25-inch touchscreen, head-up display, panoramic sunroof, three-zone ventilation, leather trim and a crisp 16-speaker Harman Kardon sound system.

The seats are terrific, too, with great bolstering and illuminated M logos built into the headrests, adding to the aesthetics, something also stepped up with more black highlights in lieu of chrome.

A southern exposure

The dusty exposure comes courtesy of a claypan on a private property in outback South Australia, the parched earth cracked from a punishing drought.

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There's not much grip and we've got lots of power courtesy of that new twin-turbo six-cylinder engine producing 375kW and 600Nm.

The result is wheelspin – lots of it.

Even accelerating from a standstill has the four-wheel drive system clambering to work out which wheel to divert drive to.

Nature ultimately wins out and there's lots of noise and dust but not much ferocity to the forward progress.

Intelligent stuff

Punching out of slower corners yields healthier rewards, the tricky four-wheel drive system intelligently apportioning drive, almost as though it's sniffing for ways to use every available skerrick of grip.

Yet there's always a rear bias to the X3 M Competition, the focus clearly on having fun along the way.

Granted, we've dialled up the most aggressive of multiple drive modes, each of which slowly dials back the assistance and intervention that usually prevents skids and slides.

In the M2 mode and with the system in MDM Sport there's almost no stopping the big slides, the car handing more control back to the driver.

Leave it in the regular mode and the electronics are ever-present, constantly grabbing brakes and stopping the behaviour that would be highly anti-social anywhere near a public road.

Hold on to your seat

Turn into a corner and reactions are slow on such a loose surface, the 21-inch low profile tyres better suited to bitumen than soft dirt.

But it's still enough to experience the balance and potential of the X3 M Competition.

It's a car that has clearly been tuned for some rear-drive flavour, the tail more than happy to slide out wide.

It makes for relatively slow progress, but it's terrific fun – which is, after all, a big part of the high performance SUV sales pitch.

Dialling up the M factor

BMW wants to make more of its M cars, with the most extensive range the brand has ever had.

The X3 and X4 are the start of an M onslaught that will soon include X5 and X6 versions.

By way of background, the M lineup is split into full-blown M cars – such as those tested here – and lesser M Performance models.

The full-fat M cars have the M badge alone or combined with a single number representing the model designation (such as M3, X3 M or M5) whereas the M Performance models usually combine M with two or three numbers (M850i, X7 M50i or M240i).

All have the familiar M logo – with its blue and red stripes – somewhere on the car, but those full M cars are next level.

Growing the M line

Either way, the interest in M fast BMWs is expected to grow in line with the availability of more models. By the end of 2019 there will be 22 M and M Performance models, with more to come in 2020 and beyond.

Unlike AMG, BMW M doesn't wave its go-fast wand over every model, at least with those full fruit models; the X7, for example, is unlikely to yield an M variant soon, instead making do with the X7 M50i that arrives soon priced from $171,900.

In 2018 some 20 per cent of BMWs sold in Australia were M or lesser M Performance models.

BMW Australia chief Vikram Pawah believes that share can rise to 25 per cent, making one in four new BMWs the fastest models on offer.

The company has also created a travelling roadshow called M Town, which will descend on country towns and showcase what the performance sub-brand has to offer.