Looks are subjective, but the BMW X4's sharp on-road manners are not.
‘Great’, you may be thinking. Another supposed niche BMW offering, this time a shrunken version of the polarising X6 ‘Sports Activity Vehicle’.
But if we told you that 250,000 upwardly mobile individuals have bought an X6 worldwide since 2008, perhaps BMW’s rationale for making this here X4 becomes a little clearer. Mock or not, that’s a lot of water to douse the flames of all those haters.
BMW calls the X4 its first Sports Activity Coupe, a marketing buzz term for sure and certain but not an entirely misguided one — if, that is, you can abide anything with four doors being called a coupe.
Stylistically, the recipe is a relatively simple one. Take a US-made BMW X3, stretch it by 14mm and chop its roofline by 36mm, rake back its windscreen and add that distinctive curved roofline, a feature that could almost have come from perching something heavy on the back of an X3.
Add a two-piece swage line running down the side of the car that emphasises the rear wheel arches, and hey presto, you have something new and something polarising all in one.
You don’t need us to tell you what to think here, you’ll really like it or you’ll loathe it. But this is not an ‘everyman’ car designed to offend nobody, so we’re sure BMW won’t mind what you think.
But is it any good?
Well, if the brief was to make a distinctive vehicle that offers a high driving position and dynamics far sportier than any SUV has much right to offer, then yes it is, actually. Of course, the trade-off is less luggage room and headroom that an X3, something we can all surely agree is not desirable.
As well as this, rear visibility takes a hit thanks to that cascading roofline, and the X4 range is also about $10,000 more expensive than its X3 sibling.
At the same time, the X4 is emblematic of what appears to be BMW’s shift of focus away from price and onto value, because the X4 is also substantially better-equipped than an X3. Nobody buys an entry level premium car without optioning it up, says BMW. So there… we guess.
The X4 is indeed well-equipped. See our story on the X4's equipment and specifications here.
For instance, the base xDrive20i and xDrive20d models (priced at $69,430 and $73,400 apiece) get features over and above an X3 including Performance Control (a system that brakes the inside front wheel to improve turn-in), Variable Sports Steering that requires smaller inputs, 19-inch alloy wheels (up from 18s), LED fog-lights, proper leather sports seats and professional sat-nav with a telephone concierge function.
Sit inside the cabin — a somewhat sombre BMW affair with familiar driver-centric cabin layout, an 8.8-inch screen with iDrive toggle (and a touchpad on top that recognises finger gestures), a fine heads-up display and a delightfully thick steering wheel with paddles — and you immediately notice a higher ride height than an average performance car, but a feeling of being closer to the road than in an X3.
In fact, you sit 20mm lower overall, which isn’t much really, but feels it somehow. It is more marked in the back, with the rear seats even lower again to create the feel of a classical coupe. The seats themselves are big and comfy and swathed in proper leather, not the man-made stuff in some base BMWs.
Despite the raked roof, all 194cm of me (6ft 4-ish) fit well enough in each outward rear seat, though leaning back caused my head to graze the padded roof (which is lined in black material the 35i). The high-perched middle seat is a novelty at best though.
Open the electric rear hatch (by pressing a button or swinging your foot under the bumper depending on spec) and you get 500 litres of storage space with sliding rails, or 1400L when the seats are lowered (the X3 by comparison has 500L up/1600L flat).
The opening is wide, like a typical hatchback, and the 40:20:40 folding rear seats are easy enough to drop down. The stooped aperture naturally makes this a less load-loving beast than a wagon or traditional off-roader, but it is far from impractical.
Only the top-of-the-line xDrive 30d and xDrive35i models were available to test at this week’s Australian launch event that we attended. But since the X4 is a ‘performance’ model, this seems wholly appropriate.
The xDrive35i is the flagship model at $87,430. With its distinctive M Sport package and 20-inch alloy wheels, it looks the sporty part.
Under the bonnet sits a 225kW 3.0-litre turbocharged straight-six with 400Nm of torque between 1200 and 5000rpm that loves to rev out beyond 6500rpm and make quite a racket while doing so. The X4 might weigh a porky 1890kg, but this one will leap from 0-100km/h in 5.5 seconds.
Mind that uber-touchy throttle though. It is also worth noting that the $87,200 Porsche Macan S petrol has 250kW/480Nm and does the 0-100km/h sprint in as little as 5.2 seconds.
The $83,900 diesel, though, is the highlight. Again a 3.0-litre turbo six, it produces 190kW of power and 560Nm of torque between 1500 and 3000rpm. It pulls like a train, pardon the cliche. There’s a plentiful wave of torque for you to surf from anywhere in the rev band, with a distinctive lack of roughness or raucousness to go with it.
Official combined-cycle fuel consumption is also just 5.9L/100km. Drive within the pales of reason and something below 7.0L/100km is easy enough to attain.
Both engines are matched with all-wheel-drive and an eight-speed automatic transmission programmed for faster shifts. Don’t bother with the manual mode, this gearbox is as intuitive as it gets.
You can also adjust the steering, throttle response and gearbox mapping to make it more eco-friendly or aggressive. There’s also a coasting function that can idle the engine on downhill sections. Furthermore, on the 30d and 35i, the dampers become stiffer or softer depending on mode.
Even at its stiffest, and sitting on the 35i’s 20-inch wheels with super low-profile 275/35 rear tyres, the ride remains fairly forgiving, ironing out the majority of rapid-fire corrugations and divots. It errs on the side of firm, though this reduces bodyroll and thereby improves turn-in and mid-corner compliance.
While ride quality is good, the presence of wind noise from the B-pillar at even moderate speeds takes an edge off the cabin refinement.
The electric-assisted steering has plenty of response on-centre and becomes sharper as you wind on more lock, with the teeth staged in smaller increments as you move away from centre. Thankfully the slightly dead on-centre feel in the new X5 seems isolated to that model. And just as you think the nose might push wide, the inside front wheel gets some brakes and the car is pulled swiftly into line.
In short, body control is first-rate, and the X4 feels as sporty as its Porsche rival, and frankly is as competent on a piece of winding road as the average sportscar. In this area, it can genuinely claim to put the ‘sports’ into Sports Activity Coupe.
Really when it comes down to it, the X4 is exactly what one might expect on a twisty road, and comes with the benefit of lots of standard features — even if the upper models are priced within a few grand of a Porsche Macan.
It is as sharp as a tack dynamically and has a pair of wonderful drivetrains. It is also far from impractical, though it cannot hope to match an X3 there.
The bottom line is, if you like the look of it, you’d be making a mighty fine choice buying one. If you think it’s an iffy styling exercise like many people seem to think of the X6, then steer clear and opt for an X3. Simple, really.