Few people really need an SUV. The buyers of these things rarely need the ground clearance and the off-road ability - for them, the SUV is more of a status symbol. Perhaps a car to exude some sort of active lifestyle they don’t actually have. A lifestyle involving kayaking/mountain biking/extreme snorkelling (delete where appropriate).
It’s a bone of contention for me that most of the time, the SUV-obsessed hoard would be better served by estate cars - a type of vehicle that’s dying out because, you know, people keep buying SUVs. The new BMW X4 then should be a car I loathe. It’s one of those extra-sportified crossovers that’s been given a coupe-ish makeover and dubbed a ‘Sports Activity Coupe’ or ‘SAC’.
The X4 takes the X3 - already a needless car for many due the reasons I’ve already laid out - makes it less practical and better to drive, although still not quite as good as a normal car. Because physics. But, I’ve just driven the new one. And to my horror, I quite liked it…
Certainly not because of the way it looks. It’s marginally more attractive than the last one - which had weird muscular haunches around the rear wheels - but it’s still no oil painting. And now Audi’s Q8 has shown that a SAC can be done without a dramatically sloping roof-line, the likes of the X4, X6 and Mercedes GLE coupe now look even more try-hard in the styling department. Plus, every time I look at the rear, I just can’t get on with the whole slab-like thing it has going on.
No, the real party trick with the X4 is the way it drives. Which is exceptionally well. Making an SUV weirdly good to drive is something that stopped being impressive a while ago, and indeed the X3 is already a fine thing to steer, but the X4 is next-level stuff. While chucking the thing around at BMW’s Performance Center in South Carolina, I genuinely began to forget that I was driving a tall, heavy SUV.
Well, right up until the point I got too greedy with my entry speed and a big dollop of understeer reminded me that I was in a tall, heavy SUV, but up to that point… damn, it’s good. There’s precious little roll, and with the traction and stability control turned off (one fail safe remains that will apply the brakes if the car reckons you’re in rollover territory), you can even start to back the rear end out.
It’s partly thanks to the the M40d - the car we tested - and the M40i coming with clever electronically-controlled rear differentials. Plus, the all-wheel drive system is more than happy to chuck a decent split of the engine’s torque through that diff. I even managed to drift it. Well, on a skid pan. After more failed attempts than I’m willing to admit.
The top-of-the-range petrol and diesel models are properly punchy, too. In the M40i you have 355bhp and 369lb ft of twist to play with, while the M40d isn’t far behind on power with 322bhp on tap. Oh, and its 502lb ft torque output eclipses that of its petrol-powered brother. The fake noise piped in through the speakers is a bit much, but other than that, the flexible, hilariously punchy 3.0-litre straight-six turbodiesel is a compelling engine.
The caveat to all this driving class is that you really need to leave the steering in ‘Comfort’ mode. The Sport mode has a variable ratio setup, and it’s horrible - it feels unnatural and hard to predict, meaning it’s difficult to make the most of the voodoo-spec chassis. Even the weight is inconsistent - there’s a light portion around the centre point, either side of which it gets absurdly heavy.
When you’re driving a little more sedately, you can enjoy a typically conservative BMW cabin, with comfy, supportive seats and the now even easier to use iDrive infotainment system, which continues to make its competitors seem clunky and irritating in comparison. The eight-speed ZF automatic gearbox seems to know exactly what it’s doing when you’re gently biffing about, just as it does when you’re giving it what for. The ride is on the firm side, but that’s the compromise you’re making with a SAC.
And that’s the problem with the X4 - it’s a compromise. Along with the ride, you’re sacrificing rear visibility, rear space and more of your money - with a starting price of £42,900 (the M40d is £55,315 meanwhile) it’s slightly more expensive than an X3. All for the benefit of trying to make an SUV into something it was never supposed to be.
With that in mind, our recommendation would be to stick with the X3. Or better yet, a 3 or 5-series Touring. We know that’s an argument we’re going to lose.
If the X4 really is the one for you though, I only ask that you point it in the direction of some corners and give it a damn good spanking. You’ll be astounded at what it can do.