First drive: BMW X4, the souped up X3

The BMW X4 can be seen in two ways, either as a baby version of the popular X6, or as a souped up version of the company's popular X3 model.

For all intents and purposes the best way to look at the X4 is like an X3 plus. The car delivers you a few more treats, better performance for your cash (the X4 is £3,600 more expensive) and a sportier body in a design which is not too dissimilar in size or volume.

There are differences of course: the X4 boot is smaller, the height slightly lower, but in length and width are virtually identical, give or take a few millimetres.

It follows the shift in model numbering that BMW has enacted in its regular 3-Series and 4-Series too, so the X4 shouldn't come as a surprise to anybody.

Design

Forgetting the X3 for a moment, the rather masculine-looking X4 features a number of design cues that give it that "we've come to do business" edge, setting it aside from a big and clunky looking SUV, but giving it more of a presence than your standard saloon.

From the front you get the iconic kidney grill and four sporty looking vents to give it that agressive look, while at the same time fitting in with the other models in the X range. There is no doubting this is a BMW.

The car carries it off, although not without some side affects. The driving position is high, and that translates to what feels like a tall windscreen, tall wing mirrors, but a rear view window that is virtually impossible to see out of without relying on an array of cameras to make sure you don't crush bollards and small children every time you put it into reverse.

Around the side is a steep curve from the bonnet that lifts towards the rear. The wheel arches are typical SUV and while the standard wheel is an 18-inch alloy, you can upgrade to 21-inches if you're looking for more kerbside appeal.

The model we had for the morning was the X4 xDrive30d M Sport. Cosmetic enhancements on the outside included 20-inch alloys, while on the inside the car had been upgraded with the interior comfort package, the BMW Professional Media package, heads-up display and a few other niceties. On the road this model would set you back £45,453 at a basic level, and £55,248 once you've added those extras. 

Dashboard

The BMW dashboard is a combination of traditional and modern, with dials and digital displays working together to deliver the information you need.

Beneath the physical dials is a digital display offering dynamic information. It's a clever merging of digital and analgue technologies in the driver's that you don't notice until things start changing. 

On the left is a range graph changes moves depending on how you drive. On the right is an economy meter that encourages you to drive more economically. There are no green leaves, no pictures of polar bears to save, in fact at times you might struggle to see if things have changed through your driving efforts.

Not that you'll be looking at the dashboard that much, especially if you've opted for the optional heads-up display (£570).

Heads-up display

The BMW head-up display works by projecting your speed, the speed limit, and navigational instructions if you are using the cars GPS system on the windscreen so you don't have to look down while you are driving.

The system works by using a projector and a series of mirrors to beam a high-contrast image onto a translucent film on the windscreen, directly in your line of sight.

The result is the information looks to be floating at the end of the bonnet so you can read it clearly. We've seen this system in a number of models recently, from the BWM 4-Series Gran Coupe to the Audi RS7, and although it takes some time to adapt to, we find it a really useful driving feature.

iDrive and the rest of the dash

A big landscape screen dominates the rest of the multi-buttoned dash. Controlled via BMWs now standard iDrive experience, the control dial is found near the gear stick and is the only way to control the entertainment and navigation experience. There are no touchscreen options here.

The controls take a little to get used to, especially if you haven't experienced the iDrive system before, while the navigation system still has a lot to learn from the simplicity of TomTom and even Google Maps.

Finding a destination simply by searching for the name of the farm we were heading to was incredibly frustrating. Likewise punching in just a postcode tried to force us to drive a further 40 minutes around the houses when a simple 3 minute alternative given to us by Google Maps would have been easier.

Camera time

But that's not the end of the BMW X4's tech prowess, as the car hides a hidden love for cameras.

Dotted around the vehicle are a number of digital cameras all monitoring a number of different things. We spotted them hidden in the front grill, under the wing mirrors and above the licence plate at the rear.

In general terms they offer things like lane guidance to stop you meandering and a visual display on the large screen on the dash so you can see out of the back. But pulled together they also allow a birds-eye view of the car as if you were playing Grand Theft Auto in the 90s.

The image, which features a graphic representation of your X4 can be turned on at the press of a button, or automatically when you put the car into reverse, and lets you see what is going on around you very clearly.

We've seen a similar system in Audi cars too and this, again, is very useful. It can show you the location of the lines when you're parking in a tight space, for example.

Performance

The X4 performed very well on both the dual carriageways to the narrow winding country roads as we darted from quaint English village to village. The ride is high thanks to the SUV nature of the vehicle and that helps give you a more commanding view of the roads in front of you. It's actually slightly lower than the X3 but it does still make for an enjoyable position.

Handling is good with the X4 gripping to the roads thanks to the always-on xDrive system that gives you a great sense of control. In terms of speed, the X4 boasts a 0-62mph in 5.8 seconds and while the acceleration feels restrained, you only have to look down at the speedometer to realise you are already going faster than you should be.

With an 8-speed autobox including manual paddles behind the wheel, there's a listed top speed of 145mph thanks to the super-charged 3.0 diesel engine. Our model, the X4 xDrive30d, also had an M Sport Plus badge, but that really only adds bigger wheels (20-inches), adaptive headlights, and a harman/kardon speaker system rather than extra oomph to the engine. 

To help you get more out of the experience, the X4 has a series of driving modes settings which dynamically change the car's setup accordingly. Comfort is the main offering trying to give you the best of all scenarios, while Sport ups the revs before the automatic gear box changes through the gears. For the brave there is Sport+ that also disarms the traction control.

Offroading

Being an SUV there is some expectation that you should be able to go offroad if the need arises. While we suspect that most X4 owners will rarely see an offroad experience, they will still no doubt want to be confident that parking in a boggy field, or tackling a rough country lane en route to some River Cottage weekend exploration is all in a days work.

A spin through a farm along a series of fields proved just that. We aren't talking Range Rover offroad capabilities here, but you can be confident in dealing with hills, ditches and the odd tractor tracks.

The X4 is better than you would expect with the xDrive system automatically balancing the power delivery front to back to ensure that you're going to keep moving in tough conditions, whether that's wet roads or muddy lanes and those that don't believe it's all working effortlessly can monitor it via a real-time graphic on that large integral display on the dash. Ultimately it will do you proud, as long as you aren't expecting it will cope with ravines and rivers.

First Impressions

BMW expects to sell around 5,500 X4s in the UK over the next 4 years suggesting that this is very much a niche drive aimed at those who are interested in the X3, but want something a little more sporty, a little more feature-packed, and styled a little more like a coupe.

If you fit that bill then the X4 provides a comfortable very BMW-like drive that most will be happy with if you can get your head around why you'd would want it over an X3 - which is cheaper, comes with more headroom in the back and a bigger boot. 

We suspect that the X4 will be more popular than BMW is predicting, mainly because it offers something a little different (just look at the sales of the X6) and something that isn't just yet another X3. For many, that will be very appealing indeed.



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