BMW only started making SUVs in 1999. Some 20 years on it has a range of six SUVs (which will shortly grow to seven, with the massive X7). The X4, the company's mid-size SUV, is the latest of the crop to get a refreshed look.

The first-generation X4 effectively birthed the style-SUV; unlike its X3 cousin, the X4 lays on a coupe-like roofline and ditches the family-wagon looks. There aren't many alternatives in the market either: only the Mercedes GLC Coupe offers a direct comparison; although you'd be mad not to also consider a Porsche Macan. Or, to throw an alternative out there, even Jaguar's i-Pace might be considered if an electric SUV appeals instead.

With few to compare, then, does the 2018 BMW X4 make a stack of sense, or is it style over substance?

What's new for 2018?

The last X4 wasn't just a shock because it was a new type of car in a new category or style of vehicle. It shocked because, in our eyes, it never looked quite right: the roofline was a little hunchback, the track too narrow. 

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BMW is at pains to point out that, for 2018's X4, it has worked hard to right those wrongs – making the X4 a little longer, quite a lot wider and banishing the hunch. It also shares less with the X3 than before, so you won't feel like you're just getting an X3 that someone's sat on the roof of, more a car that's been considered as its own distinct idea. Check out the X4's cool new tail-lamps if you want example.

The X4 is certainly better-looking than its first outing – although it undoubtedly still has awkward angles. There's a lot going on, with BMW's designers returning to a conservative-meets-baroque approach, which feels like a reaction to the Chris Bangle era (the former design director who was responsible for the great/hateful previous generation of cars – depending on your view).

The X4 also hosts a much bigger, deeper BMW kidney grille.  The lamps – LED units are standard on M Sport trim – give the car an angrier expression than before. Oh, and BMW's offering a new M Sport X trim, which allows you to mix both sporty and off-roady looks. Which actually works quite well.

Overall, the new X4 is a pretty distinctive beast and a significant improvement on what came before. The design won't be to all tastes, though, and some people will rightly point out that an SUV-coupe is oxymoronic. But like the X2, BMW manages to wrap up a bunch of seemingly contradictory qualities into a car that actually works well.

Is it like a BMW to drive?

Why does anyone buy a coupe SUV you might ask? Two reasons according to BMW: looks and the way it drives.

And the X4 is a more sporting drive than its X3 cousin. The centre of gravity is lower and there is an impressive range of engines available, some of which range heavily into Porsche's performance-orientated play park. If you want to play Porsche-baiting, check out the forthcoming M40d and M40i models. Making 326 and 345 horsepower respectively, they'll run the 0-62mph sprint in just over 5-seconds.

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Back in the real world, you can choose from a 20d (2-litre diesel, 190hp) or 30d (3-litre diesel, 265hp) and shortly a 20i (2-litre petrol, 184hp). We drove the 20d, because BMW says that's what 80 per cent of people will still buy in the UK, diesel crisis or no diesel crisis. It's not hard to see why:  0-60 takes 8-seconds and 40mpg is pretty much a guarantee.

There's nothing particularly special about BMW's 2-litre diesel, but refinement is good; it feels slightly quicker than the competition when driven in isolation and if you use Eco-pro mode you can really maximise economy to knock on the door of 50mpg. CO2 figures stand at 146g/km for the M Sport X model we tested.

Thick grip, small gripes

But despite lots of media moaning about BMW abandoning its roots recently, the bottom line is that we'd rather drive this X4 than anything comparable. Ok, so maybe not the Macan.

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Anyway, the BMW manages to be both quick and efficient, to ride well (even on 20-inch wheels), and to handle with just that smidgeon of attitude and verve that's always characterised BMWs. It's even 40kg lighten than the old model, despite getting physically larger – which undoubtedly helps.

There will be two-wheel drive X4 models available later down the line, but for now all models are X-drive (read: four-wheel drive) and the grip on offer is almost unbreakable (in the dry, at least). You can drive the X4 like a complete maniac and it just goes wherever you point it.

All X4 models currently come with an automatic gearbox – which is really the only way to go with an SUV like this. Handily, the 8-speed auto box BMW fits is a paragon of smooth changes, responsiveness and predictably. Paddles behind the steering wheel and manual mode (flick the lever to the side) put you in greater control, should you so wish.

Our only real gripe is that on Oxfordshire's narrow lanes you really feel the car's width. And the steering wheel on M Sport models is so thick, at times it feels like you're wearing gloves for all the feel and feedback you can glean.

A superior interior

One of the biggest changes with the new X4 is an all new interior compared to the old model. BMW has worked hard to raise the sense of quality and given the X4 a much more premium feel. Compared to the plasticky qualities of the out-going model, the feeling you get inside the replacement is night-and-day different.

The X4 benefits from a couple of model-specific upgrades. There's an (imitation) leather dash covering, complete with a contrast stitch. And, on M Sport models at least, a higher grade "Vernasca" leather – which is finer grained, feels lovely and, unlike competitors, comes in a real range of colours (including tan, truffle brown, red and ivory besides the obvious black). On M Sport models, you also get the large of BMW's two centre touchscreens as standard, which is 10.2 inches wide and can be controlled via touch or (our preference) the rotary controller on the console.

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Optionally, you can upgrade to a digital dashboard, although our advice would be to not. BMW's analogue displays are semi-digital (in their lower section) anyway and the physical gauges are clearer and quicker to read than any screen in our view. BMW also leads in head-up display (HUD) technology, and if you want one of these it's both bigger and more full of content than ever before. If you want to digitise your X4, the keenly priced Technology Package (£1690) bundles the HUD, digital dash, wifi hotspot, a digital key, wireless charging for your phone and gesture control for the centre screen. 

Even if you leave the extensive options list alone, the higher-quality leather, new dashboard design, slush moulded door cappings and super comfortable sport-seats help really raise the quality feeling on-board and give the X4 a distinct edge over the Mercedes GLC. Now that's a swift about-turn of pecking order given that car's quality.

Extra, extra, read all about it

Any modern BMW could command a review which purely discusses the options list. The X4 is no different. In fact, being the latest model (at the time of review), and with BMW adding new technologies all the time, there's more to discuss than ever. Our car's £47k base price had swelled to nearly £60k by the time someone had finished with it. Picking your way through what's worth having is worth an afternoon behind the configurator or in the dealership.

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Notable individual options worth considering are the head-up display (£895 if bought standalone), wireless charging in the armrest (£430 standalone), electric memory seats (£945), adaptive cruise control (£620), parking assistant plus (which can park the car itself and generates an amazing 3D rendering of the car in its location) (£500), Apple CarPlay (£235), and the adaptive suspension system (£460). While the M Sport Plus pack (£1925) makes sense if you want bigger (20- or 21-inch) alloys, its inclusion of Harmon Kardon stereo, bigger brakes or privacy glass is what appeals.

However, while it's easy to add £10k's worth of options without thinking, the X4 is pretty well equipped as standard. It's got 19-inch wheels, leather heated sports seats, DAB radio, sat nav with real-time traffic, and most of the connectivity you'll need.

M Sport: More for (almost) less

One way of looking at the X4 is that you're paying more for less... in terms of space. Yet, while many (including plenty of the Pocket-lint team) don't really get the idea of an SUV-coupe, at least the X4 doesn't fully discard the useful aspect of SUV life.

At 500 litres capacity, the boot loses 50 litres compared to an X3, but is still capacious. And you can sit in the back without having to duck your head, even if you're six-foot tall. There's only space for two back there, though, as the X4's rear bench is designed in that true coupe fashion.

Compared to an X3, the X4 works out at around £3500-4000 extra. But the pricing, compared for performance and specification, undercuts a Porsche Macan. The BMW range starts at £42,900 with a Sport trim 20d – but in truth, given that car's smaller wheels, less well-appointed interior and smaller centre screen, it's a no-brainer to take the £2700 price walk needed to bump up to the M Sport model. Given that M Sport models tend to be in demand in the used market, they hold their value better too – so if you're buying an X4 on a finance deal, the additional monthly cost of an M Sport is likely to be pretty small. M Sport X models, like our review car, are an extra £1400 over the regular M Sport.

Verdict

The BMW X4 is the kind of car that you approach thinking 'I'm not going to like this', and then come away from nothing but impressed. It's a credit to BMW's chassis engineers that a car of this size rides and drives the way it does – and that's what immediately differentiates it from its Mercedes GLC rival. For those who enjoy their driving, the BMW is the clear choice.

BMW has also given the interior significant upgrades, making the new car a truly enjoyable and special place to sit. We particularly appreciate the leather and colour choice, plus the amount of standard technology on display. But that's inside; the exterior is still divisive, despite the changes compared to the original model.

A pragmatic choice it may not be – that's the X3's role. But objectively, the X4 is a significant improvement on what came before it – and hard to criticise. A Porsche Macan is better looking and better still to drive – but it's not truly an SUV-coupe, it's more expensive and you'll need to spend more on options to achieve the same specification levels.

So if an SUV-coupe is truly what you're looking for, then look no further than the new BMW X4.

Alternatives:

Mercedes GLC Coupe

The GLC Coupe is just a couple of years old, but the X4 immediately dates it. Although the Merc has a premium cabin, the X4's is better and feels higher-tech.

Porsche Macan

Although not technically an SUV-Coupe in the fashion of the BMW and Mercedes, the Macan is hardly a boxy ugly thing. On-board technology isn't up to the BMW's standard, but the Macan is the gold standard in this class – especially when it comes to driving.