By: Dave Abrahams
Cape Town - The new BMW X4, launched in South Africa this week, is both more than the sum of its parts - and less. In the baldest possible terms it's a scaled down version of the X6, built on the 3 Series platform but with a similar xDrive all-wheel drive and performance control system to the X3.
And that's not a bad beginning; BMW has sold more than 250 000 X6s worldwide (including more than 4000 in South Africa) since that model's introduction in 2008, so the niche is definitely there for a premium mid-sized 'Sports Activity Coupé' - and where there is a niche, BMW will park a new model in it.
At 4671mm overall, however, it's 14mm longer than the X3 and 36mm lower at 1624mm; unlike in the X6, however, BMW has made provision for a third rear passenger, although to be fair, it admits that the X4 is more accurately described as a 4+1 seater.
Ground clearance is 36mm less than that of the X3, but the seats are also mounted lower - 20mm in front and 28mm at the rear, so as to provide more than adequate headroom under that elegantly sweeping 'fastback' roof.
The whole rear section from behind the rear seats - including the rear window - forms a power-operated tailgate offering unrestricted access to a broad, rather shallow 500 litre cargo bay that expands to 1410 litres with the 40:20:40 split rear seat-back folded.
The front end is butch and a little blocky, with big, strongly outlined air intakes under a generic 'face' of headlights and kidney grille that could belong to any Beemer of the past half-decade, while the waistline rises to meet the roofline with the suggestion of a lip spoiler, about 1.2 metres off the ground to create a very shallow glasshouse.
The interior is also generic Blue Propeller Couture - anybody who's owned a recent BMW will feel right at home with the controls, the instrument and infotainment layout, even the texture of the finishes - although the touch-sensitive finger-pad of the latest iDrive may take some getting used to.
FULL RANGE OF ENGINES
The X4 is available in South Africa with a choice of three petrol and two diesel engines, all turbocharged, starting with an uprated version of the proven two-litre B47 turbodiesel, now quoted at 140kW (up from 135) and 400Nm (was 380) and a two-litre turbopetrol with 135kW and 270Nm, each driving through an eight-speed conventional auto transmission. It's a measure of how far diesels have come that claimed performance for the two is almost identical - 0-100 in eight seconds flat and 212km/h flat out.
Despite its nomenclature, the xDrive28i has a revved-up two-litre four that's good for a claimed 180kW at 6250rpm and 350Nm from 1250-4800rpm, 0-100 in 6.4 seconds and 232km/h top end.
I didn't get the opportunity to drive the xDrive30d but I've enjoyed this superb three-litre straight six in both 330d and 530d applications and I'll stick my neck out and say this is going to be the pick of the bunch. BMW claims 0-100 in less than six seconds and 234kmh top speed, which sounds about right.
The Top Gun of the X4 squadron, however, is the xDrive35i. Enough has been written about this iconic 225kW/400Nm three-litre straight six to fill several volumes so all I will add is that it will launch the two-ton X4 to 100km/h in 5.5 seconds and top out at 247km/h.
Each of the top three variants comes with a paddle-shift Sport steptronic transmission; standard across the range is performance control, which brakes the wheels individually (and imperceptibly!) and reduces torque if necessary, just enough to keep the chassis pointed in the same direction as the front wheels and the rear wheels more or less on the same track.
The luck of the draw put me in the xDrive28i - an engine I'd not experienced before - for the launch drive over some of the Cape's legendary mountain passes. In traffic it was impressively quiet and smooth, its gearshifts almost imperceptible - and, to its eternal credit, unless you were asking it to over-rev itself into oblivion, it always did what it was told, when it was told, which is never a given with paddle-shift 'boxes.
Only when revving near the 7000rpm redline did the 28i become distinctly raucous and a little vibratious - but that's forgivable in a two-ton soft-roader that'll take you past a road-hogging tanker truck in about as long as it takes you say one very rude phrase that ends in “… me gently!”.
CHASSIS IS A REVALATION
But if the engine was good, the chassis was a revelation. You sit high off the road in classic Chelsea-tractor style, looking over the roofs of the GTI Joes, and around town the ride is firm but supple, never harsh.
Usually that's a recipe for excessive body roll in hard cornering and enough dive under braking to make you seasick, but the X4 went over Franschhoek Pass like a track-day special, flat, level and planted to intimidating levels of lateral g-force, tracking like it was on rails thanks to the guiding hand of the performance control sensors, which do their job without smacking you upside the head in implied criticism of your driving.
The electric power steering, by contrast, is accurate but remote, almost complete lacking in feel; you steer the X4 with your eyes rather than the seat of your pants.
Who's it for? By BMW's own admission, it's aimed at younger, self-motivated people who keep themselves fit and demand a similar level of athleticism from their vehicles, early adopters who value style and performance over industrial chic and whose sports tend to be both extreme and far from the madding crowd - in other words, not a team player. Come to think of it, that's not a bad description of the X4.
X4 xDrive20i - R651 707
X4 xDrive20d - R654 129
X4 xDrive28i - R715 809
X4 xDrive30d - R798 975
X4 xDrive35i - R808 490