by Gabe Beita Kiser
With talks of a trade war looming, the cloudy skies paving our landing into South Carolina's Greenville/Spartanburg airport made for a fitting welcome to the home of BMW's largest plant. But once we deplaned and were sent to dinner with the engineers and product designers who built the new X4 we trekked here to drive, we were surprised to note that the mood of the room stunk of pride rather than doom and gloom.
But there's a good reason for it. After losing its sales crown to Mercedes in 2016, BMW has been busy designing a plethora of new models for 2018, embarking on a product offensive so relentless it threatens to send the German auto industry into a state of civil war. The new X4, which bears a strange muscular suppleness that's determined to make that war easy on the eyes, is critical to winning the luxury sports crossover crown. If BMW can come first in that battle, it has a solid chance at sticking it to Mercedes. In that pursuit, the 2019 X4 makes a pretty compelling chase. At first glance, updates to the sheetmetal seem to be intended as an evolutionary step.
Seen through the right lens, however, they can be interpreted as a revolutionary one-a marker that BMW's "Sports Activity Coupe" has finally found its form. Like Porsche did with the Panamera, designers began by overhauling the rear end, moving the groove where the license plate sits down to the bumper. Larger kidney grilles and air intakes go a long way towards modernizing the front and the side profile is aided by straightened character lines and a roofline that comes to rest on the trunk lid more gradually than in the first rendition of the X4. What's not as apparent at first glance are the dimensional changes that BMW recruited to make the X4 look "sportier."
The wheelbase has been stretched by 2.1-inches and overall width increases by 3.2-inches, and though the roof sits only 0.1-inches lower than in the first X4, the track has been widened by 1.4-inches over the X4 xDrive 30i's predecessor and 1.5-inches over the X4 M40i's. Some of that extra space makes its way to the interior, with rear seat passengers gaining an extra inch of leg room, and though the driver can complain about the lack of rear visibility when the 10.25-inch touchscreen isn't displaying what the 360-degree cameras are seeing, occupants in the back can remain comfortable for a few hours-more when the panoramic glass moonroof is uncovered-before the rear's dimensions begin to take a toll.
So the X4 has gained the prom queen looks that lend BMW confidence in waters ripe with retaliatory tariffs even if the crossover has inherited a pair of tongue-twister names, but we still wondered why every German at BMW's Performance Center in Spartanburg wore a smug grin as technical presentations drew to a close. What they were waiting for was our shock and awe, which came in due time. After the patriotic "Ultimate Driving Machine" hoo ha, BMW distributed copies of both X4s to journalists and set us free to roam the winding green roads near North Carolina's Cedar Mountain. Jumping between Carolina borders one apex at a time, it quickly became clear that none of the presenters' speeches were in fact hoo ha.
It doesn't matter the engine, the 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-four making 248 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque or the 3.0-liter turbocharged inline-six that spews 355 horsepower and 365 lb-ft of torque, BMW's insistence on staying true to its roots-its emphasis on the perfect blend of luxury and dynamic driving- is what steals the show. The X4 can do comfort as well as (if not better than) any other luxury machine, cocooning passengers in an opulent leather-appointed cabin that remains silent and smooth whether coasting on paved roads or tearing through gravel driveways, but it can also excite if the driver decides to put their foot down.
Aside from steering that decapitates a driver's hands at the wrists and hides any sense of what the front wheels are doing, a near perfect 50/50 weight distribution helps by filling in gaps where the variable steering rack falls short and recalls simpler times when a sideways BMW was an invitation to play. Relying on Cluster Architecture as its weight loss plan, the xDrive 30i sports a curb weight of 4,146 pounds while the M40i's extra parts-the two extra cylinders and standard adaptive suspension (an option in the xDrive 30i)-bring the total up to 4,323 pounds. Still heavy, but CLAR lowers the X4's center of gravity and allows it to carve corners in a way that belies belief, as if it were Michelangelo in a Jack-o-lantern contest.
With the M Sport exhaust (standard on the M40i and optional on the xDrive 30i) burbling and popping at each of the eight-speed Steptronic's upshifts, we caught native Carolinians off guard by threading the X4 through hairpin turns while emitting giggles usually reserved for Miatas on knotted roads and erupting with the sort of maniacal laughs that should saved for Hellcat burnouts when we blasted down straights. We caught ourselves off guard too-the X4's agility is surprising for a vehicle in its weight class and the edge of its limits are so progressive that we found ourselves trying to driving it like an M3.
With the xDrive AWD system's curious computers testing grip and pushing all four corners to the max, we charged forward with confidence-a curse to our stomachs that we filled with Carolina grits at breakfast. Most drivers aren't suicidal enough to feel the progressive slip of excessive G-force beginning to overwhelm the tires while on the road, but take the X4 to the track and you'll have the luxury of experiencing that. Ideally you'd be in an M40i loaded with M Performance brakes and the optional M Sport differential like we were. The system alters BMW's DSC system and can be toggled through three modes that range from "I have no idea what I'm doing" to "I'm an experienced tire murderer and need my fix."
Your humble tester's talents lie somewhere in between, but the X4 delivers plenty of thrills when you attempt to drift like the pros. Also adjustable are the drive modes, which include BMW's typical Eco Pro, Comfort, and Sport modes along with Sport + and Adaptive as extras. Located next to the shifter, these buttons modify the throttle response, transmission settings, engine noise induction into the cabin, and the adaptive suspension system if it's an X4 loaded with it. The iDrive controller works as brilliantly when it's used to modify these settings as it does when used to access the infotainment system.
Now, South Carolina has a population of roughly 5 million and less than four cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants, meaning that many residents live in small towns connected by two-lane roads. It was on these roads that we were able to relax and study the well-appointed interior or play with the tech, protected from our own divided attention by a suite of driver aids. Being the types of drivers that dispatch traffic with a single hand on the wheel and an arm slumped over the center console's butter soft leather, we found gesture control to be a useful plaything for adjusting the volume and answering calls.
Responsible two-handed drivers can enjoy just as much smartphone convenience with Apple CarPlay, which works wirelessly for the first time using the X4's onboard WiFi. This enables the technophile fantasy of getting in and placing your phone on the wireless charger without having to connect it to use CarPlay. Technophobes, on the other hand, will be happy that the lane keeping assistant isn't precise enough to encourage consistent use. A few miles on the highway might prove otherwise, but those two lane roads had the lane keep assistant sending the X4 swaying from one lane border to the other, staying within the lane but doing so as if it were tipsy.
Despite that, the bevy of driver aids like adaptive cruise control, blind spot detection, cross traffic alert, parking sensors, and collision mitigation, work hard to keep the pretty sheetmetal from getting scratched. And that's important to your typical X4 shopper, who likes beauty and doesn't mind a little bit of pain. Make a list of traits that differentiate X3 customers from X4 buyers and you'd conclude that those behind the wheel of the X3 could feasibly be spotted wearing a pair of Crocs. X4 owners would be caught in a coffin before that. Fortunately the X4's beauty doesn't mean grueling workouts and miserable skincare routines, just a $7,800 premium over an xDrive-equipped X3 to bring the total to $51,445.
If budget is a priority, don't even think about test driving the M40i lest you fall in love and feel compelled to shell out $61,445 for one. That kind of money puts the X4 M40i within shouting distance of the X6, though base models of the larger Sports Activity Coupe can't imitate the X4 M40i's 4.6-second run from 0-60 MPH until the sticker approaches $80,000. That's a lot of money for a car, but between tours of the X4's factory, laps around the track at BMW's Performance Center, and fistfuls of fried okra, it's easy to see that when it comes to luxury, BMW brings its A-game. Some say luxury is a state of mind attuned to all things comfort and extravagance, but that's a very two-dimensional view of luxury, the kind you get in a Lincoln.
Life will rock your boat no matter its size, yacht or skipper, and the true luxury state of mind is one that remains cool and composed when the seas (or roads) get rocky. Like James Bond in a gunfight or George Clooney at his mistress' wedding, true luxury looks dapper while fighting crime and only curses at the right moments. True luxury looks at life with the confidence those BMW engineers had at dinner, knowing that its inherent traits are hardship and struggle along with joy and pleasure. The discerning eye of the luxury mindset favors tools that, much like itself, can deal with both and remain calm. The X4 just happens to be BMW's latest rendition of that tool.