It’s fair to say BMW invented the unorthodox coupe-profiled SUV, at least at the luxury end of the spectrum, when it introduced the X6 in 2008. Harsh critics said a version of the X5 which sacrificed a rear seat and some boot space but cost more couldn’t possibly make sense, but a strong customer base proved them wrong.
The surprisingly warm reception prompted other brands to follow suit, but BMW was determined to stay ahead of the field, introducing a coupe version of the X3 dubbed the X4 and most recently, the X2, which takes its underpinnings from the X1.
Four years after the first-generation X4 arrived, it’s now time for an update to freshen the line-up with a revised range and a new high-performance halo. Just don’t call it an SUV. According to BMW, its innovation is a Sports Activity Coupe, or SAC.
As before, four X4 variants are on offer with the continuation of the entry 2.0i petrol turbo and 20d diesel which both have 2.0-litre engines and share specification priced from $76,900 and $79,900 respectively, however, the previous six-cylinder diesel is no more, replaced by a second higher-performance turbo 2.0-litre petrol dubbed the 30i.
Compared with the previous range, all equivalent variants have increased in price. The entry versions have increased by $4290 and $2900 respectively. The new $83,900 30i is more affordable than the outgoing 35d to the tune of $7300, but is hardly an equivalent.
The final range revision regards the previous 35i performance flagship, which is superseded by a new 40i as the first M Performance version of the X4 to be offered in Australia. It still uses a 3.0-litre turbo six-cylinder petrol, but boosts power to 265kW and 500Nm and, at $109,900, costs $18,990 more than the previous performance hero.
If you’re after the most fuel efficient X4, BMW claims the new 20d uses 5.8 litres of diesel per 100km, which represents an increase of 0.6L/100km over the previous version, but this is likely to be attributed to a change in European fuel economy testing procedures since the first X4 was introduced.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, the 40i uses a claimed 9.2L/100km, which is commendable given its performance potential.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that there are more affordable ways to get into a mid-sized SUV, but the X4 targets a customer that is prepared to pay a premium for German engineering, European styling and all the trappings that are associated with the luxury segment.
Even at the entry level, the X4 has an eight-speed automatic transmission coupled to all four wheels, suspension that can be switched through different modes according to desired driving style, a head-up display, adaptive cruise control, LED headlights, 19-inch alloy wheels, combination cloth and leather upholstery, sports front seats, navigation, digital radio, smartphone connectivity and a high-quality stereo.
That’s a lot more kit than you get in the entry-level X3, which starts at $65,900 and thanks largely to a standard M Sport Package across the range, which X3 customers would be asked extra for.
Step up to the mid-range 30i and you’ll get a power boost to 185kW/350Nm (up from 135kW/290Nm in the petrol), full leather, larger central touchscreen, uprated brakes, more driver assistance systems including an extension of the cruise control that works down to stop-start traffic and 20-inch wheels.
At the top of the pack, the 40i may represent a significant price premium over the outgoing 35i, but it is the first M Performance variant to join the X4 range and that brings a heap of performance enhancing gear.
Adaptive M Suspension with M Sport differential helps the performance flagship get all its power to the road, wheels grow to 21 inches, a large panoramic sunroof is standard fitment, the stereo system gets upgraded to top-spec Harman Kardon and the front seats gain heating and adjustable lumbar support. The dashboard also gets upholstered with imitation leather to enhance cabin luxury.
For the updated version, the X4 has grown slightly. With a 4.8-metre length, 1.9-metre width and 1.6-metre height, it is approximately the same size as its X3 sibling but has been altered for a sportier stance, sitting slightly longer, wider and shorter than the more wagon-like X3.
Despite its diving rearward roofline, there’s still adequate headroom in the second row for adults, but the centre fifth seat is only suitable for shorter journeys – BMW describes the capacity as 4+1. Surprisingly, boot capacity is only reduced by 25 litres from 550 in the X3 to 525 in the X4. With the seats folded there is a greater difference – 1600L vs 1430L.
Like standard equipment levels, the X4 also scores well in safety, with autonomous emergency braking, lane departure warning, parking assistance with front and rear sensors and 3D view and 360-degree camera, automatic parking, a full suite of airbags including driver’s knee and curtain bags, and head-up display for all variants.
The latest generation X3 received some criticism for its ride, which has been tuned on the firm side in the name of driving dynamics and a small sacrifice to comfort. But for a model like the X4, which is clearly targeting a customer that is seeking the sportier end of the market, a stiffer ride is a far better match.
That more dynamic chassis tune is not jarring however, and the X4 rides commendably on a variety of road surfaces. Despite its large wheels, little road noise is transmitted to the cabin and occupants, and the suspension has been well matched to the skinnier run-flat tyres, which are typically less absorbent to potholes and large imperfections.
Surprisingly, the flagship 40i offers the best balance of comfort and responsiveness. Flicking through the various driving modes, the M Performance version is the firmer of the range but that brings a solidity that is pleasant to live with.
A lower roofline has not greatly impacted occupant headroom and even in the back row, passengers are offered a cosy but accommodating space. Indeed, many SUVs have lofty roof spaces that appear to be excessive, but not in the case of the X4.
ON THE ROAD
Even in the most affordable versions, the updated X4 exudes a sporty charisma but its manner on the road honours the promises made by the redesigned exterior. Firstly, the driver’s seating position is more like something from the passenger range of vehicles. The standard sports seats have adjustable side bolsters and tilt for a snug, moulded fit, while the leather steering wheel extends to allow a purposeful long-leg, short-arm position.
The view out over its long bonnet also speaks more a coupe’s language combined with a steeply raked windscreen. The result is a deceptive ambience and even when you peer behind you, the diving roof line makes it hard to believe you’re not at the wheel of a coupe.
That deceptive nature continues out on the road with a beautifully flat body through corners and steering that offers feel without being exhausting.
Under diesel power, the X4 20d runs out of breath if revved and it’s hard to resist the temptation to wring the engine to its limiter, but restraint is what the diesel prefers. It’s the pick about town though with ample pulling power off the line for effortless progress at lower speeds.
Much better for a spirited country blast is the 30i, which is more rewarding to push to the red line and click through the closely-bunched gear ratios.
It would be satisfying to say that one of the more affordable variants is all you need from the X4 range with enjoyable dynamics, but once you have sampled the 40i performance package, it’s hard to forget.
It’s slick six-cylinder is quiet and well behaved while eating up kilometres of freeway, but takes little provocation to show its other more energetic side. Acceleration feels faster than the claimed 4.8s zero to 100km/h figure, but the most potent X4 has the chassis to match.
It’s delightful to feel the xDrive four-wheel drive system working closely with the M Sport differential in real time, as you push hard through corners. The effect of individual wheel power distribution feels a little like the 40i has a steering rear axle as it corrects heavy-handed instructions or early application of acceleration mid corner.
Some of the six-cylinder’s soundtrack is piped through to the cabin via the speakers, which is a shame because the very real exhaust pops and crackles on overrun are honest and amusingly loutish.
On first inspection, BMW’s SAC invention seems to be somewhat of a folly. It’s part SUV but doesn’t really want to leave the road. It’s also part sportscar, yet it has to crouch to get through a doorway.
Surely the cheaper entry-level X3 with more space, sensible front wheel drive and choice of efficient engines makes perfect sense for a BMW fan in the market for an SUV? Or why not simple opt for one of the German car maker’s many actual coupes?
But when you combine that seemingly nonsensical X4 body shape with a mighty turbo six powertrain that’s just as nutty, the converging madness suddenly makes sense.
There was a time BMW was faltering from the reputation it had built with passenger vehicles as the ‘ultimate driving machine’, but vehicles like the X4, X2 and X6, are steering the brand back onto a path of genuinely great driver’s cars. This time they have packed for the journey.
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