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First Drive: BMW X4 (2018) is still the sportier offshoot

The BMW X4 hasn’t been around long. It’s being replaced after just four car-years, which is about mid-life crisis in human years – just the age when you might be wanting a 4×4 crossover coupe.

We have a new one so soon because the original BMW X4 was a late variation on the old X3. It was an experiment, a vehicle chucked at the wall to see if it would stick. And cling on it certainly did. The 2018 BMW X4 ended up selling more than anyone predicted, as a pioneer in a class with the Porsche Macan.

That bundle of vehicles has since multiplied to include the Mercedes GLC Coupe and Range Rover Velar, and at a stretch the larger and more family-friendly Jaguar F-Pace and Alfa Romeo Stelvio.

So this time around, the 2017 X3 and 2018 X4 were always planned as a pair. BMW expects that for every four X3s, there will be an X4 on top.

It’s the sportier offshoot. The suspension is firmer, and wheels bigger. The rear track is wider by 4cm, for better cornering grip, but no doubt for style too. So the back wings flare out above the wheels and the rear elevation carries horizontally stretched lights and lines. The wheel-arches are polygonal in side elevation, a tic started with the X3 and more so the X2.

It’s certainly more comely than the old X4. But style is a personal thing and we’re still struggling to see much beauty in the new BMW X4. The tail is longer then the old but viewed from some angles the metalwork looks a bit lardy back there. That’s the result of an attempt to combine the coupe roof with decent room for rear adults, and a boot too.

To be fair, in that aim it succeeds. But surely if people wanted practicality they would get an X3? The X4 comes across as a car that’s wants to be decadently useless but can’t quite summon the commitment.

The very idea of a ‘utility vehicle’ with deliberately limited utility beggared logic when the first BMW X6 launched, and viewed dispassionately nothing has changed since. But hey, logic hasn’t stopped them selling.

The engines are as per the X3 and other BMWs, so we’ll start with the chassis which is differently tuned.

Principles and basic components are standard new-generation BMW stuff: sophisticated and lightweight multi-link axles, and four-wheel drive with variable torque split, biased rearward unless there’s good reason to send it forward. But the BMW X4 gets as standard a stiffer setup than the X3.

BMW X4 drive

The result is grippy as anything. Underneath the test car is a second grade of suspension, called M Sport suspension and with adaptive dampers too. In the dry it just rattles round a corner, clinging with grim determination, with hardly any body-roll. Grim? Well, you don’t get much of a sense of humour. The steering is quite heavy but wants for feedback. Mash the accelerator and you feel the torque moving rearwards, especially in sport mode.

But really it’s rather dull, and banged about by mid-corner bumps, especially if you have the optional adaptive dampers set to sport. Perhaps it’d be more fun in the wet.

The Porsche, Jaguar and Alfa all feel more interactive in forceful cornering. And if you’re on a lumpy road the X3 – being more relaxed and fluent – is the more enjoyable of BMW pair. The X4’s straight-line ride isn’t harsh, but you do feel the heaviness of the big wheels as they thump up and down. It settles on motorways, though.

Engines, then – diesels are BMW’s ubiquitous four-cylinder 20d at 140kW, and six-cylinders are the 30d at 198kW and 40d at 244kW.

Petrols are 20i and 40i, but they don’t arrive until later. The 40d and 40i are ‘M Performance’ models with their own suspension settings, and bigger brakes. All X4s have an eight-speed automatic gearbox as standard, and 4WD.

Those powertrains are very fine motivation. The 20d will be the big seller, and it operates over a comparatively wide rev range while sounding far less dieselly in tone and volume than Jaguar’s or Alfa’s.

But its best trick is the utterly superb mating to the transmission, which always seems to find the right ratio, and finds it with silky discretion. That’s a really slick trick to pull off – as shown by the indecision and occasionally harsh shifts of the very same transmission in a Jaguar installation, the F-Pace.

Six-cylinder units propel you along on a vast wave of torque (the diesels) and lovely singing high-rev power (petrol). The 40i hurls itself to 100km/h in 4.8sec. Yes please.

Engine noise at a motorway cruise is fairly low but not inaudible, even above the background roar of the tyres. Wind noise on the other hand is impressively muted.

Tick the driver assist option and the steering will nudge you towards the centre of the lane and follow the car in front from stop-start to autobahn speeds.

As you’d want in a ‘coupe’, it’s a great place from which to conduct the business of driving. Like any other mid-to-high-level BMW, the controls are intuitive and the displays super-clear – especially the fantastic optional head-up display. Only thing is the iDrive wheel is across the tunnel behind the transmission lever.

The iDrive system includes traffic-aware sat nav as standard, and Apple CarPlay over Bluetooth, not just a cable. But this being a German premium car you can (of course) pay more for a bigger telly that does all sorts of other things you’ll never do after the first time time you’ve shown your mates – an event that can only follow a degree-level home-study course with the instruction manual.

You’re enthroned in the elaborately stitched multi-adjustable front seats, optionally vented as well as heated. From that position you get the commanding eye-level of a crossover. But over-the shoulder visibility is pretty confined.

Everything looks and feels rich in here too, with a softer-than-normal leather as standard, contrast stitching and ambient lighting. Among the six different leather colours, you ought to be able to find one you like. No doubt it’ll be black because you’re afraid of resale opprobrium.

The back-seat room is just about okay for adults, though six-footers would graze the headlining. Try before you buy, but most families will be fine. To prove the parents’ love for the kids, there’s independent climate control for the back, and optional heated back seats.

The 525-litre boot is on par with the regular X3/Q5/XC60 family-crossover crowd, and it has a useful underfloor hideaway to stow the two-part rigid parcel shelf, or stuff you’d rather keep secret. The backrest folds 40:20:40. The Stelvio and F-Pace are bigger in the back seat, though.

Its looks are as divisive as its very proposition, but getting noticed is part of its job and the new X4 sure does that.

The sporty bit is less clear cut. It’s certainly quick and grippy. But it feels humourless where even some of its SUV rivals wear more of smile. And of course a well-specced BMW 3 Series Touring would run rings around it for driver appeal.

The powertrains, though, are terrific, which pulls back a lot of ground against rivals. The engines are refined and thrifty, the automatic transmission beautifully matched.

Superb interiors and decent standard equipment add to the warm feeling, while strong residuals mean you can get into a lot of BMW X4 for less outlay than you might expect.

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