As SUVs have morphed into crossover utility vehicles, auto maker previews rarely include off-road demos any more. Today’s crossovers – “soft-roaders” as the Brits call them – simply aren’t inclined that way.
Then again, push-it-to-the-limit track driving isn’t usually part of the program either. Yet here we are, hooning around a handling track in an all-wheel drive CUV – one, moreover, that will even drift its tail. On dry pavement. Though only if you really, really want it to.
The perpetrator of this hooliganism is the just-redesigned BMW X4.
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Not that BMW calls the X4 anything so plebeian as “CUV” – BMW-speak for its X1, X3, and X5 models is sport activity vehicle (“SAV”), while its sloped-roof X2, X4 and X6 derivatives are sport activity coupes.
BMW originally concocted “sport activity” in reference to the active-lifestyle pursuits enabled by driving an SAV. With this second coming of the X4, however, the driving itself can be the sport activity.
Of course, most drivers don’t want a vehicle that wags its tail, so don’t worry; that trick is exclusive to a specific model with a specific option. Even then, you first have to disable the stability-control, find a track, and then behave badly.
The drift of my argument, however, is that in the car-guy world, a rear-wheel drive car that can gracefully power-slide the tail on demand is the automotive version of a dream date. So, when an AWD “utility vehicle” can do it, that pretty much locks in its credentials as a driver’s car. If you’re considering an X4 instead of its boxier, roomier X3 sibling, you probably do prioritize the driving experience, no?
Redesigned for 2019, the X4 joins its X3 sibling on BMW’s versatile CLAR architecture. Although its roof is only 3 mm closer to the ground than before (55 mm lower than the X3), an 81-mm longer and 37-mm wider body gives the four-door-coupe profile better proportions, while a 54-mm wheelbase stretch benefits rear legroom and cargo room.
As before, we get two versions in Canada: xDrive30i powered by a 2.0-litre, 248-hp turbo four-cylinder engine; and M40i with a 3.0-litre 355-hp turbo in-line six, both hitched to an eight-speed automatic. Despite the absence of “xDrive” in the M40i’s title, both models do have variable all-wheel drive.
While the 30i is quick and entertaining enough for most, and can be further enlivened with optional chassis upgrades, the M40i is hot to trot right out of the box. Besides its brawnier engine, it includes 19-inch wheels/tires, Adaptive M Suspension and M Sport brakes; an M40i-exclusive option is the M Sport Differential, the key enabler of the rear-wheel drive handling.
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The M40i belongs to BMW’s “M-Lite” M Performance sub-brand, and as such goes up against the “AMG Lite” Mercedes AMG GLC 43 Coupe. The Mercedes is the only other coupe version of a compact luxury CUV, though the Porsche Macan arguably fits the same bill, being only 2-mm taller than the X4, and the bigger Jaguar F-Pace is pretty enough to count as a coupe.
On the road, even the softer-core X4 30i displays taut and athletic road moves, yet combines that disciplined handling with a pliant, cushioned ride. The M40i rides a little stiffer on the road but feels completely at home on the track – ample grip, minimal body lean, and vivid seat-of-the-pants feel that quickly inspires confidence. The quick Variable Sport Steering lets you twist it into even tight turns without having to shuffle your hands on the rim.
That said, there remains one aspect of handling on which BMW and I have agreed to disagree – on-centre steering feel. When dinner finds me sitting next to Steffen Koch, the mop-haired young man in charge of the X4’s driving dynamics, I ask him about BMW’s philosophy on steering.
“We have a very clear picture of where we want the steering,” he says. “If it’s too light, you feel as if the steering is ahead of you. The chassis is very agile, and the only way to control that is if the steering effort is high enough. The car must always follow the input. That means we have, compared to others, heavy steering.”
In other words, BMW builds an agile, responsive chassis, and then slightly “dumbs down” (my words, not Steffen’s) the steering – not too light, not too sharp – so the car isn’t twitchy. For most drivers, that makes perfect sense. I prefer the pin-sharp, frictionless clarity of the steering on many of today’s (would you believe?) Lincolns and Cadillacs, but that’s not right vs wrong – it’s a matter of taste.
BMW knows its customers best. And at the end of the day what it’s giving them is a pretty practical four-door coupe that should please “sport” drivers and “utility” drivers alike. It goes on sale this month.
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- 2018 BMW X4
- Base price: $53,000 (30i) or $66,000 (M40i)
- Engines: 2.0-litre turbo four-cylinder/3.0-litre turbo six-cylinder
- Transmission/drive: Eight-speed automatic/AWD
- Fuel consumption (litres/100 km): N/A
- Alternatives: Mercedes-Benz GLC Coupe, Porsche Macan
Longer, lower and wider, the new X4 looks more like a coupe with bonus ground clearance, and less like an SUV with a squished roof. Standard wheel diameter is 18-inches, but 19s, and staggered-width 20s or 21s, are available.
Drivers will enjoy BMW’s customary at-the-wheel hospitality, albeit with a little less headroom. Forward visibility is excellent, but the rear window is a shallow slot. BMW pioneered the whole screen-based ergonomics trend, but commendably, still doesn’t take it to extremes; conventional switchgear for audio and HVAC are handily placed below the free-standing 10.25-inch touch-screen. The rear cabin is one of the segment’s least roomy by the numbers, but it should still accommodate most sizes of adult without crowding, in reasonable comfort, and with lots of daylight – a panorama sunroof is standard.
Hard launches in the 30i produced some turbo lag, but it’s not an issue in normal driving. The four-cylinder is a paragon of refinement and its claimed 0-100-km/h time of 6.3 seconds pips the Mercedes and Porsche competition. Likewise, the M40i’s stunning 4.8-second 0-100 km/hour time marginally bests the direct competition (though there are even faster versions of the Mercedes GLC and Porsche Macan – for a lot more money).
On the man-machine interface side, gesture control is an option while the voice-control can respond to requests as simple as “I’m hungry.” You get Apple CarPlay (even an in-dash CD player!) but not Android Auto. Wireless charging/WiFi Hot Spot are a $350 stand-alone option, or included in Premium packages with head-up display, full digital gauges and SiriusXM. Most modern driver-assist technologies are standard, but budget an extra $2,900 for lane-keeping/adaptive cruise/automated parking.
Cargo takes a big hit from the fastback silhouette – 18.5 cu. ft. vs. 28.7 for the X3. Still, it’s comparable with the Mercedes coupe and the Porsche, and there’s extra space in the “basement” below the cargo deck (supported by its own gas strut). The seatbacks fold commendably flat and flush, but there’s a modest lift-over sill at the back door.
The verdict: 8.5
A pretty practical all-season family-size sporty coupe.