We travelled all the way to Spartanburg to sample the German manufacturer’s latest offering, the X4.
As you walk in the door to the BMW plant in Spartanburg, you’re greeted by four massive flags depicting the four models produced there – X3, X4, X5 and X6.
“Pretty soon they’ll be joined by an X7 flag,” our guide reveals, but she doesn’t say much more than that. And though we don’t know for sure, we’re guessing that an X8 flag will be joining the already impressive line-up a few years from now. When asked whether the X count will ever go higher than 7, BMW South Africa’s communications manager simply smiled and said that the X7’s platform allows some room to play around.
The point we’re trying to make is that this plant is huge. At 557 418 square metres, it’s BMW biggest factory. It churns out an average of 1400 cars per day and since the doors first opened in 1994, more than 4 million BMW SUVs have been built there.
Our favourite fact, however, is that the Spartanburg is not a mass-market plant. Cars aren’t built at random with the hope of selling them from dealer floors. Every single car in that factory has already been paid for and has a prospective owner eagerly awaiting its arrival.
The Spartanburg plant is the ultimate argument for the existence of the Sports Activity Vehicle (SAV) as BMW likes to call them. You still don’t think a sporty SUV makes sense? There are 10 000 factory workers in South Carolina in the USA who would beg to differ…
The all-new (second-generation) X4
The reason for our visit to South Carolina was the international launch of the all-new X4. We were quite surprised that the new model followed so shortly in the footsteps of the new X3, as there was a three-year gap between the previous models. The first-generation X4 was only on sale for four years, which, in automotive terms, is a fairly short lifespan.
Even so, it managed to post impressive sales figures, with the first-generation car managing to hit 200 000 units at the end of its run. To put that in perspective, the Spartanburg plant produced 265 000 X6s during its six-year production run.
After our visit to the Spartanburg plant, we now understand why the X4 is following the X3 so closely. They’re literally built on the same line. You’ll see three X3s, followed by two new X4s, with another X3 after that.
And to be quite honest, we’re glad we didn’t have to wait three years for an all-new X4. The previous car wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t exactly memorable. The all-new X3 is a different story, however. We tested the 20d a few months ago and at the moment you’d struggle to find a better premium mid-size SUV. Is the same true of the all-new X4?
Is it an X3 in drag?
It’s a bit of both, to be honest. The X4 is obviously based on the X3, but there are a few significant changes, apart from the distinct crossover coupé exterior.
Like the X3, the X4 is bigger in every direction that matters, which results in more interior space and a bigger boot. That makes it relatively practical, perhaps even practical enough to purchase as the family’s main means of transport. We gave it a proper once-over and we see no reason why a family of four couldn’t comfortably drive down to Durbs for a weeklong holiday.
Its X3 roots really shine through when you look at with practicality glasses on, but to focus only on that would be to completely miss the point of the X4. As BMW puts it, the X4 is built for extroverts in the market for something sporty, who don’t necessarily want to sacrifice practicality. Think of it as the perfect upgrade for a 140i owner who just found out that he/she is becoming a parent. They might feel the X3 is a bit too suburbanite and that it might be too anonymous in the kindergarten parking lot it’ll inevitably end up in. With the X4 you still get that inherent BMW sporty drive, eye-grabbing styling, plus the ability to load a stroller.
Is it the ultimate driving machine?
Fair question. If you’re paying a premium, you expect more than just a style upgrade and the X4 delivers in spades.
We were lucky enough to be seated at a dinner table with the man charged with making the X4 the best handling car in its segment. The buck stops with him as far as the driving ability of the X3 and X4 are concerned and he gave us a comprehensive breakdown of the differences between the two vehicles. These include software upgrades for the xDrive all-wheel drive system, a lower centre of gravity, a slightly more aggressive steering setup and a wider rear track. Basically small, subtle changes that add up to a completely different driving experience.
We were thoroughly impressed with the X3, as it’s now more comfort biased than ever before. It glides beautifully over all surfaces, which we think is exactly what a customer in that segment wants. It may not respond in a sportscar-like fashion (unless you go for the M40i), but we couldn’t care less.
When it comes to X4, you want the opposite to be true. That sporty character should be omnipresent, with ride comfort being a secondary concern.
We didn’t have to wait long to find out, as we were immediately issued with the key for an X4 M40d, which BMW hopes will be the big seller when the car arrives in South Africa. The M40d will only arrive in the first quarter of 2019, but from September South Africans can buy the 20i, 20d and M40i. None of these were available at the international launch, but if you can’t wait all the way to 2019 for the M40d, the M40i is probably your best bet. We know this six-cylinder turbocharged engine well from our time with the X3 M40i and it’s epic.
But back to the M40d and our first drive in the USA.
The first bit of highway driving was followed by a 20-mile (around 30km) drive through small towns in the surrounding area. We could tell immediately that the ride was firm, but not firm enough to spoil the daily commute. In comfort mode, it’s that perfect mix of firmness and plushness that BMW do so well.
Free from the confines of small town USA, we were presented with some of the most beautiful mountain passes on the border between North and South Carolina.
According to state law, a car doesn’t require a front plate and all speed trapping is done via unmarked police vehicles. With zero space to park along these narrow mountain roads where said unmarked vehicles could park, we were fairly confident in our choice of not sticking to the silly 45mph (72km/h) speed limit.
The locals also seemed to ignore the posted speed limits, and when in Rome, or, in this case, Trumpland.
Is the X4 sporty?
Yes, definitely. It’s quite happy being pushed to the limit as well, but more on that later…
The mountain passes were more for assessing the X4’s grand touring abilities than its on-the-limit handling prowess.
Normally it takes us a good hour or so to get comfortable behind the wheel of a left-hand drive car in a country where they drive on the wrong side of the road, but the X4 shrinks around you as soon as you set off.
This quality came in handy, as South Carolina’s mountain passes aren’t like most roads in the USA. Whereas most of the roads over there were built to accommodate the likes of the Ford F-150, these roads were narrow and snaked around like an earthworm on acid. Think Pikes Peak, but without the views. Go off the road in South Carolina, and you pummel straight into a seemingly never-ending forest that looked mighty haunted to our eyes.
The posted speed limit suddenly made sense, but the X4 felt like it had so much more to give. For a few minutes we rejected the urge to go faster, for fear of becoming another addition to the multiple ghosts we were sure were surrounding us, but the craving to push a little harder proved too strong. Still in comfort mode, we prod the go-faster pedal a few millimetres closer to the carpet. That’s all the brilliant 3.0-litre six-cylinder diesel needs to come alive. It produces 240kW and 680Nm of torque. The power figure is impressive, but it’s the torque that makes the X4 as good at covering ground as it is. With 80Nm more than the BMW M3, the M40d is sensational on the straights between the twisties.
We were hesitant to push it too hard through the corners, as the opportunity to do so safely would come later in the day.
The X4 managed the passes with ease, which is astounding considering what it is.
And on gravel?
We didn’t get the opportunity to explore the “Activity” part of the SAV acronym all that much. The route did not include any gravel driving, seemingly for good reason. The forest was extremely dense, with graveyards and churches occupying the gaps in between.
The private access roads to houses were all gated, and as an added reminder of where we were, there were signs that stated the locals wouldn’t hesitate to phone 911. Couple that with America’s infamous attitude towards gun control, and you have a recipe for a bad case of lead poisoning.
The closest we got to gravel was the driveway of an inviting church, but that didn’t provide enough driving time to deliver any kind of useful verdict.
BMW rather gave us the opportunity to experience the all-wheel drive on a wet skidpan, with all the electronic nannies switched off. It didn’t provide any useful feedback, other than showcasing the X4’s ability to get properly sideways when driven like a loon. The all-wheel drive also allows you so get it back in shape easily enough, even after achieving some silly angles.
We suspect the X4 will be more or less in the same league as the X2, tested in the previous edition; willing and able to drive down a gravel road every now and then, but not particularly happy about it due to the sporty suspension setup and road biased tyres.
It’s worth mentioning, however, that we took the first-generation X4 down to Chobe on a Leisure Wheels Safari, where it outperformed various other SUVs, including a Renault Duster, Ford Kuga and Porsche Macan. It was driven by an expert guide, but still.
On the limit
BMW’s testing facility, just across the road from the Spartanburg plant, is a thing of beauty. The facilities on offer include bathrooms that double as storm shelters, a skidpan, mini off-road course, a track and a braai, which an American fellow annoyingly kept on calling a barbeque. It’s basically petrolhead heaven.
We were under the impression that we’d do some driving around cones, as well as perform some braking tests, but BMW actually allowed us to drive a fleet of M40ds on the track.
A slow lap first, but nine other laps following a pace car. The pace car driver wasn’t there to reign us in either, as he actually had to slow down a bit to allow a bunch of right-hand drive accustomed South Africans to accurately place three X4s on the racing line.
With BMW’s electronic nannies engaged, the X4 is an extremely flattering car. It intervenes very late in the process, making the driver feel like hero. Even the ABS system is tuned for spirited driving. We know this because it can’t be switched off, yet we never felt it engage during the nine hot laps.
For the last few laps we were allowed to switch all the nannies off, relying only on mechanical grip. We’d like to tell you it transformed the X4 into an unruly animal of a car, but with all-wheel drive and the sporty suspension still in play, it was difficult to get the X4 to misbehave.
You could coax some oversteer out of it by lifting midway through the corner, but overindulgence in the power usually results in safe understeer, which is easy to correct.
The M40d also proves that an oil burner can be fun on a track. The argument against diesel usually relates to the lack of a pleasant noise and not as many engine revolutions to play around with. The eight-speed automatic gearbox sorts the latter problem. It’s always in the right gear, no matter what the occasion.
Earlier in the day, while cruising Spartanburg in comfort mode, we tried counting the gear changes, but they are so quick and smooth that it’s nearly impossible to tell when the car is shifting.
On the track we had the opportunity to shift manually, but soon realised that the car was doing a better job. As we drove along the pace car driver gave clear instructions on gearing, which the X4 followed almost as if it was tuned into the two way radio signal.
The noise the engine makes deserves to be mentioned separately. BMW has a history of building epic diesel performance cars, most notably the X6 M50d, which we were privileged enough to run as a long termer a few years back.
It did everything spectacularly well, but it lacked a decent soundtrack. To us a sonorous noise booming from the rear is as important as the ability to turn in with confidence, so the X6 never really won us over on an emotional level.
With the M40d, BMW has solved this problem. It’s now finally producing a diesel that emits a deep, grumbly noise when pushed hard. We still maintain that the M40i’s six-cylinder petrol sounds better, but the M40d gets extremely close.
How much is it?
By the time you read this, the X4 will be weeks away from its local launch. The M40d we drove will only arrive in the first quarter of 2019, but from September BMW will offer three models.
The X4 xDrive 20i four-cylinder turbocharged petrol and xDrive20d will retail for exactly the same price – R843 000. The X4 M40i, fitted with the same superb 260kW six-cylinder petrol as the X3 M40i will also be available, retailing at R1 132 800.
The all-new X4 feels more special than the car it replaces. In our opinion, there was never enough reason to buy an X4 over an X3, but that’s not the case with the second-generation car.
The new design is striking and the mechanical bits can actually cash the cheques written by the alluring body. It scores top marks in every category that matters, which means it’ll arrive here equipped to lure customers away from Jaguar and Porsche dealerships.
BMW X4 M40d
Engine: Six-cylinder, turbocharged
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic
Suspension front: Aluminium double-joint spring strut axle
Suspension rear: Five-link axle in lightweight steel construction
Drive system: xDrive all-wheel drive
Driving aids: DSC including ABS and DTC (Dynamic Traction Control), CBC (Cornering Brake Control), DBC (Dynamic Brake Control), Dry Braking function, Fading Compensation, Start-Off Assistant,
DSC networked with xDrive all-wheel-drive system, Hill Descent Control, Performance Control, M Sport differential
Ground clearance: 204mm
Fuel tank capacity: 68 litres
Claimed average consumption: 6.6l/100km
Due in South Africa: Only in 2019, but the rest of the line-up is available now.