Like Father, Like Son - The BMW X4

Being a self-important member of the motoring media, I would like to believe that our opinions are solid gold, and that we are never wrong when it comes to anything on four wheels. But that of course is complete hogwash. Of course we do err in our judgment from time to time, as is with most  hopeful Formula One pre-season forecasts that turn out to be the complete opposite from the championship results, and the optimism showered on every new car from a British brand. Like every other human being out there, we aren’t what one would describe as creatures of excellent 20/20 foresight.And we couldn’t be any more wrong about our initial reaction to the BMW X6 SUV Coupé, or to follow BMW-speak, their first Sports Activity Coupé (SAC).

When it first came out seven years ago, it became the favourite whipping boy of every BMW traditionalist and enthusiast out there. Its big pompous rump was as immense as it was an obese stab in the eye of understatements and sensibilities. It was gargantuan in size simply for style’s sake and relatively cramped inside to fit its billing as a coupé. On top of which, we deride it for being excessive and the futility of it at being both an off-roader and a road-going SUV. Oh how we all laughed, not realising that BMW was laughing too. Only that they were laughing their way to the bank. Because as it turns out,BMW’s big gamble has paid off, massively; selling hundreds and thousands of the X6 to customers around the world who were snapping them up eagerly.

People who once only gave a passing interest of cars have been captivated by BMW and their big new SUV. It wasn’t built to appeal to the crowd who were already starry-eyed with BMW’s model line-up. No, BMW didn’t need another new model for the faithful, but one for a whole new audience, which required some rather out-of-the-box thinking. And their SAC was just the way forward. Carve a new niche for a new audience, and their vision of a coupé-styled SUV certainly opened up a niche that nobody knew they wanted. So much so that its success ensured a sequel, and on top of that, a new spin-off series has now been added to the family. Meet the X6’s junior, the X4.

Just as the X6 was to the X5 in a coupé form, the X4 is more or less a coupé version of the X3. After all, the X4’s interior is a carryover from the X3, with its seating position lowered in order to allow its roofline to be chopped and lowered by a whole 36mm without compromising that one thing people buy SUVs for- practicality. What it isn’t though, is an X3 with a little bit of set-dressing to pass it off as a junior-league X6.  From my initial drive of the M-Sport packaged X4 xDrive35i in Spain last year, the X4 had a lot more going for it in the driving department as compared to the X3. There was a touch less body roll in the corners and it felt more attentive to your steering inputs.

But then again, the smooth and wide roads that coursed through the beautiful Spanish plains in summer area stark contrast to our Malaysian countryside roads. Over here, our back roads tend to be dark, damp, broken, and quite narrow, exactly the type of road to which I find myself putting the X4 through its paces on. Here the X4’s 1.6-metre tall stature becomes all the more apparent as I tiptoe between the ragged lines that divide the lanes on the narrow colonial-era roads. Roads that were builtfor colonial-era cars, with little consideration for safety aspects such as run-off areas or guardrails. Even a 3-series would have trouble negotiating the tight roads here, much less something with an elevated ride.

Turning up a narrow left-hander, I only had the knocking of running over the embedded Cat’s Eye reflectors on the road edges to remind me when I’m straying dangerously off the road. The X4 might carry the billing of an SUV, but I have long since abandoned the notion that such vehicles could carry their own weight through a patch of virgin ground. So it is best to keep its nose tracking right within the designated lines and not try anything adventurous that might put me in the soft soil lining the edges of the tarmac.

Much to my surprise though, the X4 is coping rather well in such tight conditions, it doesn’t quite feel as divorced from the road with its elevated disposition, as any other standard SUV. Now the X3 isn’t what you might describe as being a bit blunt at the helm or soggy in the corners in the first place, and yet BMW has sharpened up the helm and made the body tauter with the X4. Guide the nose through another sharp 90-degree corner and the X4 remains level with only a trace amount of lateral body movements to be felt. Over the odd bump and depression, the X4 tends to stumble through with its firmer suspension keeping the ride following the gnarled surface of the road closely.

That said, the X4 comes with adjustable dampers, which do a rather fine job at being suited for a specific condition rather than being neither here nor there. Left in its regular “Comfort” mode, the damper setting delivers a pliant and comfortable ride that glosses over pothole-riddled roads surprisingly well. Switching the damping settings over to “Sport” however does firm up the dampers till they negate any traces of body roll, though it comes at the cost of making the ride choppy at high speeds, probably a trade-off for suspension tuning that accounts for the X4’s higher centre of gravity. Luckily the damper and drivetrain settings can be decoupled allowing you to have the more comfortable of the two damper settings and leave the drivetrain mapping in “Sport”. 

Though the road condition is steadily degrading as I push deeper through the hillside, the damper’s firmer setting doesn’t upset the X4’s composure nor does it shake the bones out of my body, so for the time being its “Sport” mode for both the drivetrain and damper settings. Just as I put the tighter sections of the road behind me, with the way forward beginning to straighten up, and I get accustomed to the X4’s exterior dimensions, I only then begin to indulge in the xDrive28i’s 2-litre 4-cylinder turbocharged engine’s power reserves.

By now, BMW’s much utilised 2-litre N20 engine needs no introduction, with its smooth power delivery and rather eager revving nature, the engine is still an energetic powerplant to toy around with. As it is with the rest of the range, the “28i” designation equates to the tune that boasts 245hp and 250Nm on tap. When bolted to the X4 and hooked up to the xDrive four-wheel drive system underneath, the X4 is good enough for a 0 to 100km/h time of 6.4 seconds and a top speed of 232km/h. Aside from the xDrive four-wheel drive system, the X4 also adopts a torque vectoring feature which uses both engine output management and individual braking on the rear wheels to quell any instances of understeer.

All things considered, the X4 feels like a more focused and driver-centered X3. It feels more confident and responsive on the road without removing any of the X3’s practical aspects that one would look for in an SUV. As I leave the confines of the country road and head out onto the open highway, the X4 reverts back from a country road bruiser to comfortable highway cruiser, and leaves me with new found respect for BMW’s X6 junior.

Strangely enough, I came off with a sunnier disposition towards the X4 than I did with its bigger sibling. Where the X6 was a bloated two-ton testosterone addled bodybuilder whose looks were so, due to style’s sake, the X4 is more shapely, trim and lean, and as practical as I would like an SUV to be. Better yet, without the pumped-up M-Sport kit you might have seen worn onthe fire-red model on promotional billboards around Malaysia, the X4 in its base xLine trim treatment looks rather handsome. With no gratuitous body-enhancing paraphernalia to spoil the X4’s otherwise smooth flowing lines that highlight its hunkered down stance and lowered roofline, it is like the X6 without the flashiness or the compromise; wrapped in a stylish new body in a more manageable size. As they say,” Like father, like son, only better”.