The 2015 BMW X4 wants to be bad, as in bad-a$$, just like its big brother the X6. But compared to that spiky-haired brute, which looks like it just stole your lunch money, the X4 is just a pudgy kid in a leather jacket. Gazing at the X4 xDrive28i that arrived in the CNET garage and sitting in the driver seat, I couldn't help but feel like I was in a 3-series on stilts.
The X4 is an entirely new model and a symptom of BMW's expanding model line-up, appealing to just about every niche imaginable. Its wheelbase matches that of the 3-series, but the X4 measures a couple of inches more in overall length, while its roofline sits more than a foot higher than its sedan sibling. Unlike the 3-series, the X4 gets a hatchback and all versions come with all-wheel-drive.
It may beg the question of why you would buy an X4 over an X3, which has more proper SUV proportions, but I asked that same question about the X6 versus the X5 when that former model came out, and was answered with reasonable enough sales success that BMW continues to produce the X6. And despite the X4's gawky proportions, it embodies the excellent driveline engineering and cabin electronics that make BMWs such enjoyable cars.
In the US, the base model BMW X4 xDrive28i goes for a base price of $44,700. Optioned up with navigation, M Sport package, Premium package and a rear view camera, this example totaled up at $54,550 with destination. In the UK, the base model xDrive20d SE, with a 2-liter diesel engine and all-wheel drive, comes in at £36,895. Australian buyers are looking at $69,990 for the gasoline-powered 2-liter xDrive20i base model.
On-road, and maybe off
Giving a sense of BMW's intent behind the X4, I could make its center LCD show the Sport display, with virtual gauges for real-time horsepower and torque, or the xDrive status screen, giving the car's pitch and roll angles. The X4 is supposed to combine sports car performance and SUV-like off-road capability. A descent control feature boosts its off-road credentials, but there is no differential lock to ensure all wheels are getting power. The all-wheel-drive system lacks a center differential, and defaults to a rear-wheel bias, making this system more about sport driving traction.
As anyone familiar with current BMW nomenclature can tell you, the 28i in the model name means there is a turbocharged 2-liter four cylinder engine under the hood, with direct injection and BMW's own Double-VANOS valve control technology bringing output to 240 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque.
BMW makes use of this engine in many of its models, as it delivers an excellent combination of power and efficiency. In the X4 I found it had no trouble urging this 4,130 pound vehicle along, although it lacked punch for high revving turn exits. For that kind of sport driving, BMW offers the X4 xDrive35i, a six cylinder version with 300 horsepower.
The X4's eight-speed automatic transmission shifts smoothly and makes the most out of the engine's power. Taking advantage of its sport mode kept the tachometer needle high, allowing more instant power response from the throttle. Paddle shifters on the steering wheel put the transmission in manual mode, where I could snap off gear changes almost as quickly as with a dual-clutch transmission.
Beyond simple driveline mechanics, what really controls the X4's driving behavior is the rocker switch on the console, cycling drive modes through Eco Pro, Comfort, Sport and Sport Plus. These modes affect throttle response, the steering program and traction control.
The X4 defaulted to Comfort mode every time I turned it on, something I imagine might annoy a driver who always wants it in Sport. In Comfort mode, the X4 didn't feel anything like the Ultimate Driving Machine. The throttle and steering felt sloppy, with everything just a bit loose, not distinguishing itself from any other car on the road.
The fixed suspension was not going to change feel with the drive mode, but as this car came with the M Sport package and sport-tuned suspension, the ride was a little firmer than you would find in a standard X4.
Moving up to Sport or Sport Plus mode tightened the wheel considerably and sharpened the throttle response, making the X4 fit my expectations for a BMW. The Plus adds BMW's Dynamic Traction Control, a sport traction control program designed to let the rear end slip out a little in turns for predictable oversteer. If you want to have fun driving in the X4, pushing its limits, go straight to Sport Plus.
When I put the X4 through its cornering paces, I was very impressed with the handling. Sure, the engine couldn't give me as much punch as I wanted, but the turn-in and stability was true BMW. The electric power steering was tight and responsive and despite the car's extra height over a sedan, it didn't feel tippy at all. I had the tires squealing but the X4 remained very composed. Where the Dynamic Traction Control would let a rear-wheel-drive BMW's back end walk out in the turns, the xDrive system took tighter control of traction. When I finally did feel the back end slip out, it was smooth and flat, completely controlled.
Dialing it back down, Eco Pro mode uses the same loose steering program as Comfort, and deadens throttle response even further. It can also dial down the energy used by climate control to further save fuel. The X4 remained drivable in this mode, but not much happened when I pushed the accelerator, especially around the mid-throttle point when cruising down the freeway.
The most interesting thing about Eco Pro is how it decouples the wheels from the engine when coasting, or sailing, as the Germans would call it. On a flat bit of freeway or slight descent with my foot off the accelerator, I found the X4 actually overtaking other cars, maintaining the speed I had built up. Another trick the X4 uses for fuel economy in the city is its idle-stop feature, shutting down the engine at stoplights. I got used to it quickly and didn't find it intrusive -- the engine jumped back to life as soon as I lifted off the brake.