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If you’re like me, you’re probably mystified by the current trend with carmakers to build even sportier SUVs that sit alongside more practical versions of exactly the same thing.
Either way, it’s all the rage now, at least with the German brands. Audi has taken to using even numbers for its racier family haulers such as the Q2 and upcoming Q8, whereas BMW is already well on the way with X2, X4 and X6 models taking up the pointy end of performance.
More than anything, it’s an exercise in design, but more difficult than one might have imagined. Take BMW – just four years after launching the X4 comes the all-new second-generation model boasting more pronounced styling and more polished looks all round.
BMW had to do something, right? The old version was hardly a picture of style with its frumpy behind and a less than handsome face – at least that was my opinion.
Sales-wise, though, it was something of a success story for what was clearly a niche model for the brand. Between the US and Europe alone, BMW notched up nearly 200,000 sales.
Locally, BMW’s SUV sales are even stronger, with X-branded vehicles accounting for more than 58 per cent of the marque’s year-to-date volume as the migration from passenger cars to SUVs shows no signs of slowing down – despite an overall decline of 3.8 per cent for the brand to the end of August.
The latest version should do even better, with a decidedly more appealing approach to the coupe-like design. This is likely to resonate with a wider group of buyers looking to combine tasty styling with that acclaimed BMW sedan driving experience in their SUV.
It’s not an easy thing to turn a practical SUV into something that looks more like a coupe, but this is a decent effort. It comes down to that aggressive front-end treatment and the tapered roof line, which is actually a double bubble-style design originally made famous by Italian styling house Zagato.
But where this thing earns real points is with its rear styling treatment. It’s not that easy to balance the coupe-like stance with what must be an inherently practical family hauler at the end of the day – and the new X4 largely pulls it off – and we don’t mind this Carbon Black paint job, either.
Entry-level offerings in the X4 line-up are the 20i and 20d, but our tester is the more powerful 2019 xDrive30i M Sport – still with a 2.0-litre turbo-four, but in this guise making a very healthy 185kW and 350Nm of torque.
And believe you me, that’s more than enough poke for your sporty SUV, because if you put your foot down you’ll leap from standstill to 100km/h in a claimed 6.3 seconds, or quicker than a Golf GTI. And it feels every bit that quick from behind the wheel, at least in Sport. Dial it back a notch and it’s pretty frugal too, with BMW claiming 7.8L/100km, though if you’re having a bit of fun you’re going to see more like 10.8L/100km on the counter.
It feels more like the sweet spot in the range every day, with plenty of kit, plenty of space, and plenty of useable poke for those right-lane mergers and high-speed passes. It’s a genuinely fun thing to drive, with terrific on-road manners thanks to a thoroughly well-sorted chassis.
There’s more good news on that front too, with all X4s equipped with the M Sport Package as standard, as well as adaptive suspension, both of which are cost options on the more sedate X3.
In fact, the X4 is pretty much chock-a-block full of standard goodies, like the 10.25-inch touchscreen as part of BMW's Navigation System Professional. It’s crystal clear and very easy to use for first-timers, but then that’s iDrive for you.
It has everything I need, except for Apple CarPlay, which I’m pretty much addicted to regardless of which continent or country I’m in at the time. It just makes life so much easier when my phone is mirrored on the infotainment screen and I can scroll between phone, music/podcasts, messages and navigation.
From where we sit, the app should be standard inventory on an $84,000 (plus on-roads) vehicle, but even with the 30i BMW wants another 623 bucks, though at least it's wireless, which is even better.
There’s a larger head-up display too, and the semi-autonomous functionality from the 5 Series makes it into the X4 as well. This fully digital instrument display is especially tasty – all 12.3 inches of it. The resolution is excellent, as well as good colour separation. And, to reduce information clutter for the driver, both the tacho and speedo only partially light up with those numbers relevant to the real-time speed.
You also get fancy kit like adaptive LED headlamps with high-beam assistant and selective beam, which doesn’t dazzle oncoming drivers but still gives you high beam. Additionally, there’s three-zone climate control and pretty much auto everything in this cockpit.
Oh, and the inductive phone charging is addictive – no need for cumbersome Apple charge cables getting caught around the shifter anymore.
It’s still all very familiar in here, which is why we like the BMW’s take on the centre stack. There’s a clarity to the design, and yet it looks and feels 100 per cent premium with quality materials used throughout.
Another BMW trademark is the seat design – you don’t sink into them like you would a Lexus, but they offer brilliant support and excellent long-range comfort.
There’s a real feeling of space inside too – that’s the extra width over the old model – while head room even in the second row is decent considering the tapered roof line. You’ll love the interior lighting design here; it looks and feels special, and there’s plenty of it.
While it might be the sportier SUV in the line-up, there’s still no shortage of space in the boot with 525L behind the second row and opening up to 1430L when folded. But that’s more than a hundred less than the X3, although quite honestly it's more than enough for our family of four.
Better still, the floor not only opens up to more space for the likes of a wetsuit or towel, but the hatch is held up by its own strut – wonderfully convenient, not to mention the quick action of the power tailgate that is twice as fast as some.
While the X4 is based on the same platform as the current X3, the new X4 is lower, wider and, more importantly, gets specific chassis tuning that makes it far more fun to pilot.
But, where BMW has always shined with regard to its SUVs has been how car-like they are to drive – and it only gets better with the X4, especially in this guise with adaptive dampers and larger 20-inch wheels, though even in Comfort the ride is not overly supple. Instead, it's taut and tuned for what is simply excellent body control for when you feel like having a bit of fun in the twisties.
However, I can’t help but think that smaller 19-inch wheels would offer a better balance between ride and handling, despite its sportier positioning in the range.
I also find the latest iteration of BMW’s variable sport steering to be a big step forward with sharper response, good weighting and decent feedback.
And let’s not forget the all-wheel-drive system – it’s very proactive, in that you can feel it shifting torque to the wheel that can best use it, though it all feels entirely natural to me.
Now, what to make of this small-displacement turbo four-pot? Leave it in Comfort for day-to-day driving, only shifting to Sport if you want a quick red-light launch. And, it does get up and go, despite some momentary lag before the twin-scroll turbo spools up and it starts to feel quicker than you might expect of a family-size SUV.
Overall, it’s a wonderfully versatile engine that marries oh so well with the eight-speed auto. It’s quite refined too, because you can barely hear it ticking over at low speeds and never really feels like it's overworked, even when you give it the beans. It’s amazing to me how far the industry has come with four-cylinder engines like this one.
There’s no doubt the new X4 is a vastly improved thing over its predecessor. In fact, I’d go one better than that and say it’s probably the closest thing yet to a BMW sedan experience from an SUV in this segment. I only wish the Comfort setting provided a more compliant ride, notwithstanding its sporty intent.
And, we'd kill for a decent exhaust note.