Johannesburg - BMW’s X3 and X4 are quite clearly siblings, the latter obviously being the naughtier of the two. 

Yet although they share the same face, the latest generation of these crossovers have been differentiated more than they were in their previous guises, even in the way they drive.

We recently test drove the X4 20i and X3 30d back-to-back and it made for some interesting comparisons, so we decided to do the obvious and square them off in a single review.

Design and packaging

Although the pair share a common 2864mm wheelbase and 204mm ground clearance, the X4 (below) has a sportier stance, its body being 44mm longer, 55mm lower and 27mm wider than the X3's.

Whereas the X4’s dimensions prioritise racy looks and road holding, bearing in mind that its centre of gravity is still too high to qualify as a truly dynamic machine, the X3 is shaped more around practicality.

That’s not to say that the X4 is necessarily cramped or impractical. As with the X3, rear passengers have plenty of leg-stretching space, but that sloping roofline - nice as it is to look at - restricts headroom in the X4 and anyone even slightly taller than average will find themselves feeling pretty claustrophobic back there.

The X3 (below) solves that problem and also has a more useable boot. Although the X4’s luggage compartment is somewhat larger in terms of surface area, and only slightly smaller in terms of outright luggage volume (525 litres versus 550 in the X3), it’s shallow like a sedan’s boot and you can’t load it up to the roof as you can in the X3.

Engines and performance

BMW has taken a ‘top and tail’ approach to the X4’s engine line-up as it has found that South African buyers tend to prefer either the cheapest option or the baas-vannie-plaas performance version.

Hence the X4 is available in two ‘base level’ 2-litre turbocharged four-cylinder variants, namely the 135kW/290Nm 20i petrol and 140kW/400Nm 20d diesel, and there’s a thunderous M40i 3-litre turbo six on offer with 265kW and 500Nm, while the M40d is on course for early next year.

The X3 range comprises all the aforementioned plus two midrange variants in the form of the higher-output four-cylinder 30i petrol (185kW/350Nm) and 30d six-cylinder diesel (195kW/620Nm).

We’ve driven all but the 30i in the course of the last year, and it’s the 20d that hits the sweet spot for those seeking something at the more sensible end of the price spectrum. It doesn’t necessarily feel fast, but it’s got enough grunt for the average driver and the best economy in the range. At R711 369 for the X3 and R846 542 in X4 guise, it’s priced within a few thousand rand of the equivalent 20i xDrive (all-wheel-drive) petrol models in both cases. The X3 20i is still the cheapest option however if you’re going for the ‘sDrive’ rear-wheel-drive option, at R661 199.

The X4 xDrive20i that we were exposed to recently offers acceptable performance and it’s not laggy off the mark, but it does lack responsiveness once on the boil. It also consumed almost 12 l/100km in town. There’s really no good reason to take this over the diesel.

But it gets even better. The X3 xDrive30d has a gem of an engine, with its silky-smooth power delivery and slightly throaty straight-six soundtrack - we actually wished for an adjustable exhaust flap just to crank up the volume a bit. Economy proved acceptable for its engine size, the 30d drinking 9.6 l/100km in urban confines. It’s a lovable package for sure, but comparatively pricey at R901 213.

The range-topping M40i models - R1 038 126 in X3 guise and R1 144 185 as an X4 - offer sports car like performance that is downright exciting, and the M40d doesn’t trail too far in that regard - all of course, at a price.

All engines are mated to a smooth-shifting eight-speed automatic gearbox.

Road dynamics

Although the X3 and X4 share their basic underpinnings, the X4 has a firmer suspension set-up and more rearward-biased torque distribution and as a result it is generally more fun to drive, but the downside is that the ride feels a bit too firm for South African roads.

The X3 is also set-up a little on the firm side, but it’s reasonably comfortable nonetheless and ultimately offers the better balance between ride and handling.

The steering on both is precise and nicely weighted, imparting a sturdy and confidence-inspiring feel.

Interior and gadgets

Although they don’t have BMW’s new-generation operating system with its futuristic graphics, as seen on the soon-to-be-launched X5, the X3 and X4 still feel fairly modern and classy inside, and there’s no faulting the materials used, for visual and tactile quality at least.

You can spec them to the hilt with electronics and gadgets, to the detriment of your budget, and the optional Navigation System Professional infotainment system with its tile-style layout still feels crisp and modern.

Some of the fancier options include gesture control, a comprehensive heads-up display, digital instrumentation, multi-colour mood lighting and BMW’s ‘Driving Assist Plus’ package that allows semi-autonomous driving in certain instances, complete with steering assistance.

As for standard amenities, all X3s and X4s do come with three-zone climate control, automatic tailgate, iDrive with navigation (Business) and synthetic leather seats.

Verdict

There’s no denying that BMW offers a broad and enticing range of crossovers in the middle segment, but if you’re looking for a winner here the smart money is on the X3. Not only is it locally made, so you’re supporting the economy by buying it, but it’s over R100 000 cheaper, as well as more practical and comfortable on the road.

But if you’re swayed by the X4’s more athletic design and dynamic qualities, and money isn’t too much of an issue, you will have more fun in an X4 and enjoy more distinction out on the road.

IOL Motoring