While we often look askance at the consumer trend away from sedans and into crossovers, people want what they want. A decade ago, the first BMW “sports activity coupe,” the X6, reminded us of the 1940s when every American carmaker made a four-door fastback. No one wants that again, we thought. Then the smaller BMW X4 came along for 2015, and we wished that these aberrations could join the Oldsmobile Series 60 and the Plymouth De Luxe in history’s dustbin.
And yet we recently found ourselves at the BMW Performance Center, across the road from the carmaker’s Spartanburg, South Carolina, assembly plant, preparing to drive a new, second-generation X4. Going on sale this summer, it now seems like a mainstream vehicle. Normalization of the previously unthinkable is a fearful force to reckon with, in cars as in politics.
The X4, with a fastback profile that distinguishes it from its square-rigged stablemate, the X3, is proliferating more slowly than is the crossover segment at large. In the United States, BMW sold more than 40,000 X3s last year while peddling only 5198 X4s. The Mercedes-Benz GLC coupe is the X4’s sole direct analogue as a fastback variant of a more conventional compact SUV, and it too adds only incremental volume to sales of its boxier platform-mate. The GLC coupe may exist only because Mercedes is compelled to counter every addition to the BMW lineup in their bilateral game of marketing Battleship, but these two also compete with the Porsche Macan, the Alfa Romeo Stelvio, and the Range Rover Velar, to name but three that similarly sacrifice the purported utility of crossovers on the altar of styling.
Baby’s Got Fastback
To that end, BMW has made the X4 prettier. It still resembles a turtle on stilts-but a less lumpy one. Riding on a wheelbase stretched by 2.1 inches, the 2019 X4 casts a shadow that is either 3.0 or 3.2 inches longer (depending on the exact model) than last year’s X4. It’s also about an inch and a half wider and a skosh lower. Designers used this larger canvas to render a better proportioned, less stubby profile, while the entire rear contour is better resolved into a cohesive shape.
Added length benefits the interior behind the B-pillar. Rear-seat legroom is up by about an inch, and cargo capacity expands by one cubic foot over last year’s X4, to 19 cubic feet. Aside from the raked roof cutting 10 cubic feet out of the X3’s cargo hold abaft the rear seat and bringing the rear door opening down into head-clunk-on-entry territory, the interior is all but identical to the X3’s, which is a good thing. X4 drivers ensconced in the all-day-comfortable and supportive sport seats will find the same quality materials, taut panel fits, and informative digital instrument panel. The central iDrive control screen is the same as in the X3, too: responsive, intuitive, and graphically modern.
Props to the design team, then, but the question remains: Why choose this over the less costly, more useful X3? The answer, in characteristic BMW fashion, is that the styling signifies a sportier driving experience. BMW even claims the new shape brings dynamic improvements thanks to a lowered center of gravity-though still higher than a sedan or a coupe-and a wider rear track. These are claims we explored over several hours behind the wheel negotiating the track at the performance center, cruising nearby interstates, and scurrying over mountain two-lanes in both South and North Carolina-roads that evoked the moonshinin’ origins of NASCAR, back when a fastback ’40 Ford was the norm.
We clocked most of our miles in the X4 M40i, the top-tier variant propelled by BMW’s turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-six, with a side excursion in the xDrive30i turbocharged 2.0-liter four-banger. Both are equipped with standard all-wheel drive and an eight-speed automatic transmission.
These two are the only offerings for the United States, but Spartanburg-America’s biggest automotive exporter by a wide margin-also builds X4s with a less powerful 2.0-liter plus four diesel powertrains for other markets. For all our moaning over foolish American consumers embracing crossover coupes, the company actually exports eight times as many X4s as it sells here. We hear that Russians buy a lot of them. Like the X3, X5, X6, and upcoming X7, all X4s are built at Spartanburg for worldwide distribution. Rather, these crossovers were all built here until recently, when demand for the X3 in China got so high that BMW opened another factory there (as well as retooling a plant in South Africa to produce the X3). Still, U.S.-built German cars for Chinese and Russian consumers? For those who remember the 1980s, this is all weirder than an AMC Eagle SX/4.
The X4 M40i won’t go into production until August, a couple months after the lesser models. Equipped with the stout 355-hp turbo six, it’s the hottest version until an anticipated all-in X4 M arrives to take on the Mercedes-AMG GLC63 coupe and the Macan Turbo. When we tested a 2017 first-generation X4 M40i with a similar powertrain, it got to 60 mph in 4.4 seconds; BMW claims to have pared around 110 pounds off the new one’s mass (citing more extensive use of aluminum and high-strength steels), so the company’s estimate that the 2019 will do it in 4.6 looks conservative. Launch control is standard on the M40i.
BMW’s inline-six and the familiar eight-speed automatic go together like pulled pork and collard greens, and this drivetrain never disappoints. While delivering the goods, the six also sounds nearly as musical as it does in a real sports coupe-say, the M240i-only a little less intense, a mezzo-piano effect attributable more to the tuning of the in-cabin audio enhancement than to any change in the engine itself. The gearbox does a great job of selecting and holding the right gear in most any condition, but the shift paddles are always at the ready when the driver seeks a little more involvement. Either way, downshifts and throttle lifts are rewarded with a crackling backfire through the trapezoidal tailpipes that is no less entertaining for being digitally enabled.
That said, the typical crossover driver might be well served saving $10K by choosing the four-cylinder. In city cruising, it is sound more than responsiveness that separates the two. The turbo four delivers 248 horsepower and scads of low-rpm torque through the same excellent drivetrain. Abetted by aggressive throttle tip-in, the xDrive30i feels nearly as quick as the six when accelerating in traffic, all the while emitting a hushed and guttural note. BMW claims a 6.0-second zero-to-60-mph time with the turbo four; we’ve recorded 6.2 for the heavier X3 version. You can find a trace of turbo lag by insisting on the wrong gear, but give the transmission its head and it’ll minimize even that worry, making the entry-level X4 more hare than tortoise.
Nor is there anything reptilian about any X4’s demeanor when the roads get twisty. We’ve already track-tested-and praised the driving dynamics of-the latest X3. The X4 shares the rigid chassis and overall refined behavior of its platform-mate while sharpening the handling. Both the standard conventional suspension and the optional adaptive M version are tuned with firmer springs, dampers, and anti-roll bars than in equivalent X3s. BMW also says its weight-reduction efforts included a lot of work on shaving unsprung mass in the suspension, which on first impression effectively counters a primary complaint about the previous model-a flinty ride over rough pavement. The worst road surfaces we could find in the Carolinas would barely warrant that description near our Midwestern home base, so we’ll reserve final judgment until we get to do a full test. Still, we were encouraged to find that in Sport+ mode on the M40i’s standard 19-inch wheels (20s and 21s are optional), the ride was never jarring, the suspension keeping the tires firmly planted even when we applied the throttle mid-turn on lumpy asphalt.
The M40i’s electrically assisted variable sports steering system is tuned with a little more heft in the normal Comfort driving mode (the engineers refer to “hand-torque adapted to the more dynamic performance versus the X3”), with commensurate upticks as you move through Sport and Sport+. Adding effort to the steering doesn’t bring any additional feel for the road, but we did prefer the sense of finer control in Sport over Comfort mode in the mountains. The M40i has standard M Sport brakes with a larger master cylinder and blue-painted calipers-cars so equipped had a firmer, more easily modulated pedal much appreciated in mountain driving. We should note that a consistent weakness of the previous-generation X3/X4 was abnormally long stopping distances in our track tests-this was true, still, of the X3 xDrive30i we tested most recently, but the X3 M40i turned in a far more competitive performance with the M Sport stoppers and Pirelli P Zero Run Flat summer tires.
The sorts of drivers who’d choose the M40i over the xDrive30i for its engine may also appreciate the standard M Sport rear differential. While it’s difficult to imagine even the hardcore opting to take an X4 on the track, that was where we could most effectively-and safely-test its electronically controlled locking function. In the standard driving modes, the differential behaves normally. Employ the DSC switch to turn off stability control and the differential becomes more active, aiding turn-in response. Turning off DSC (into what is effectively a track mode) fully activates the diff lock and really launches the car out of corners while freeing the driver to induce power oversteer. BMW even wet down a skidpad to demonstrate that the X4 can be teased into a drift-although this exercise would have been no less pointless and far more entertaining in one of the M4 coupes sitting idle at trackside.
What we didn’t get to do was try the X4 on any surface farther off-road than a gravel two-track, but then, owners are about as likely to go mud-boggin’ as they are to enter a drifting competition.
The M40i we drove most was equipped with BMW’s gesture-control system, a gimmicky means of managing the infotainment functions that first debuted in the 7-series sedan. In the less expansive cabin of the X4 it was comical how often our conversational hand motions triggered an onscreen response, zooming the navigation map in and out or unintentionally adjusting the audio volume. Depending on how animated you get when chatting with passengers or on a Bluetooth-enabled hands-free phone call, this may be worth avoiding or disabling. At least it doesn’t control any critical functions.
Like most modern crossovers, the X4 is equipped with a full array of electronic driver-assist and safety systems, and these do-by design-make some critical decisions on your behalf. Most of these also can be disabled, which we neglected to do once after a break from driving, leading to an alarming intrusion. We were rounding a hairpin turn on the inner lane, and our exit line from the corner evidently came too close to the double-yellow lane-divider line for the robo-nanny’s comfort-or maybe it misread the guardrail as oncoming traffic (there was none) or it disliked our closing speed on the Subaru in our own lane. Whatever set it off, the car dialed back the throttle, applied the brakes, and steered-hard-to the right. We were able to sort it out quickly, but it was an incident of the ultimate machine, driving. The lane-keeping, collision-avoidance, and other myriad aids and monitors were otherwise so unobtrusive that we were able to get ourselves into that situation before noticing they were activated, which is an endorsement of sorts. Robots that know their place are becoming rarer than manual-transmission two-door coupes.
Expect the Expected
The X4 xDrive30i should be arriving at dealers soon for $51,445, with the M40i following in late summer at $61,445. X4 xDrive30i buyers may choose from the standard xLine appearance packages or the optional M Sport package. The xLine has front and rear skid plates, side skirts, and accents in satin aluminum, all of which supposedly accentuates the off-road-adventure aspect of crossover ownership. The M Sport has its own bumpers and skirts with gloss-black accents to emphasize performance, and it is close in appearance to the M40i’s model-specific bumpers and trim pieces. (Europe gets an M Sport X trim that plays both ends of that scale, with Frozen Grey accents intended to evoke rally racing.) That’s just the opening gambit on the personalization options that you can expect will swell the bottom line on most X4s. Having the factory right here in America makes ordering a car just the way you like it a little more practicable than is the case for imported models, and the company has now made it possible to order X4s with options from its BMW Individual portfolio. Because when you’re competing with the Porsche Macan, no options list can be too long.
If our wishes that this whole crossover-coupe thing would just go away have crashed against hard reality, at least the X4 keeps alive our equally fervent hopes that BMW can return to its mission of pleasing drivers first.
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