I am a fan of high-test station wagons. ("I deem thee: Superwagon!") I am also a fan of performance cars. (Duh.) The coolest car I’ve ever owned, or likely ever will own, was an Audi S4 Avant (aka Wagon), with a 340-hp, high-revving 4.2-liter V8 under the hood and a 6-speed manual transmission linked to the Quattro AWD system. It was a beast, with an exhaust burble that set off car alarms within a block as it rolled along with a generally pissed off demeanor. I loved that car.
Flash forward to today, when the future car I'm looking forward to perhaps the most is the new Porsche Panamera Sport Turismo (aka Wagon), a classic shooting brake which may actually have more appeal to me than the new GT3 (did I actually just type that?). Here in America, because we’re upstart heathens and thus can’t be trusted with the super-cool toys (and also because we’re dumb and don’t buy them in enough volume), the tally of hot wagons has dwindled, leaving one lonely King on the throne: The Mercedes-AMG E63 S, a luxurious grocery getter propelled by a 603-hp 4-liter twin-turbo V8 that spins its 627 lb/ft of torque to all four wheels via a 9-speed transmission. It does the 0-60 show in 3.4 seconds, and retails for north of $100k when you load it up with the inevitable options. None other than the legendary Bobby Rahal picked the AMG Wagon as his “If I could only have one car” choice in this very blog last year, and I firmly believe it’s the ne plus ultra of cool cars available in the New World at the moment. Sadly, Mrs. KanonOnCars begs to differ.
You see, like the clear majority of Americans (just look at the sales figures, not to mention your office parking lot), my wife has been seduced by the lure of elevation, so the SUV form factor is now firmly established in her blood stream. Thus, we’ve had all manner of SUVs parked in our garage over the years, from an Infiniti QX5 to a Volkswagen Touareg to a couple of successive BMW X5 diesels. They’ve all been delightful in their own way (except for the Touareg, whose air-suspension was engineered by the Gods of Chaos themselves). Our last BMW X5 was an absolute winner, but when the time came to replace it, my not-so-subtle lobbying for the AMG wagon was shut down with a glance. So, we tip-toed up to the precipice of a BMW X6 M, a vehicle she’d driven and adored but which, if we’re both being honest, is a tad in-your-face (not to mention seriously expensive). What’s a family of two (plus pooches) to do?
Allow me to introduce the BMW X4 M40i.
(I’d normally give a shout-out to some fine BMW establishment for the extended test drive, but since we bought this thing, I suppose I should really thank BMW Financial Services. Hi, guys!)
The hottest version of the newly conceived BMW X4 line, the M40i is nothing if not controversial in car circles, as polarizing as the sour beer fad. Certain writers view the X4 as the embodiment of all that’s wrong with BMW, with its incessant market slicing and dicing and niche filling. Others chose to not laden the X4 with an entire brand’s baggage and view it of a piece, working to determine if it’s any damn good at what it is, whatever it is. Is it a funky and fun sport coupe for a modern couple who wants some driving emotion with their utility? Or is it simply a shrunken version of Exhibit A in the purist's long list of beefs with modern BMW: The X6 and the ultimate offensive blight, the aforementioned X6 M.
Ironically, to think of the X4 M40i as a “Baby X6 M” is not just hyperbole. When Car & Driver snarkily subtitled their review of the M40i with, “For when you're not quite baller enough to rock an X6 M,” I think they inadvertently hit upon a truth (and likely accidentally; enough with the clichéd “Bro” references, fellas). While my love for the brutish X6 M is well-known, it’s also quite the handful. For the day-to-day run to the office or Home Depot, there are times when treating every piece of road like you’re white-knuckling the turn-in to the “Exit to Salinas” at Laguna Seca gets, well, a bit tiresome.
This vehicle left BMW’s factory in Spartanburg, South Carolina, loaded to the relative gills. With a base price of $58,100, it came loaded with $11,395 worth of options, for an as-driven price of $69,495. (For comparison, it’s big brother X6 M starts at $104,100. And no one buys a base-model X6 M.) Painted in a lustrous Dark Graphite Metallic, with the interior in Mocha Nevada leather (amd lovely contrasting “Fineline Light High-Gloss Wood”), momma’s M40i was outfitted with pretty much all the configurator boxes ticked (including the sexy 20” M light alloy wheels).
The X4 M40i is one of BMW’s M-Performance series of cars, designed to slot in between typical models and full-on, zoot-suit M-cars. Under the hood is a 3-liter, turbocharged and intercooled DOHC version of BMW’s inline-6, with direct fuel injection, 24-valves, and an aluminum block and head. The motor makes 355-hp (which feels like even more), with maximum torque of 343 lb/ft arriving at a lazy 1350rpm. It’s a potent engine without a hint of turbo lag, incredibly responsive and entirely usable, and propels the 4272-lb X4 from 0-60 mph in 4.4 seconds (quicker than a Porsche Macan S, one of the M40i’s obvious design bogies). As my wife said after driving the X4 for a few days, “When I'm doing battle with big trucks on the Interstate, all I have to do is get in the other lane, step on the pedal, and I’m golden. Goodbye, slowpokes.” MPG according to the EPA is an adequate 19/29 city/highway, but as these things go, your real-world results may vary.
This gem of an engine delivers power to a silky 8-speed automatic transmission with a manual shifting mode and tactile, perfectly placed shift paddles on the steering column. The M-Performance kit also outfits the M40i with the M-sport steering wheel, essentially the same unit as on the M4 and as good a steering wheel as exist in all of automobiledom. As a massive fan of twin-clutch manual tranny’s, I’m always suspect of true automatics, but this one is absolutely brilliant; quick, precise, and responsive, with the shifts in the Sport or Sport+ setting being virtually as fast as a twin-clutch unit while also being smoother. If this portends the future of automatic boxes, we’re in good hands indeed.
Power is put down to the road through BMW’s xDrive AWD system, in this instance tuned for more rear-wheel bias. It’s sure footed and transparent, and is still my favorite of all the AWD systems on the market today.
Some folks find the elevated fast-back profile of this class of SUVs/SAVs awkward or inelegant but I’m not one of them. Racy is as racy does. And compared to the first-generation of BMW’s “GT” offerings (which I found to be entirely ungainly, one of the few outright misses coming out of BMW’s design studios in recent years), the X4 is practically lithe and svelte in comparison. The flat-roofed lines of the X3 on which the X4 is based can be a bit bland from certain angles, but the sloped roof profile of the X4 flows well to the duck-tail trailing edge and never looks ungainly. It’s feline almost, like a cat sitting on its haunches, leaning forward while focusing on that one brave bird on a ledge. I’m a fan.
One of the perpetual negatives about hatchbacks (and SUVs in general) has to do with the immutable laws of acoustics. With no rear bulkhead to divide up the passenger space from the cargo space, anything with such an undivided expanse can fall prey to boomy, annoying resonance. The M40i manages this phenomenon well, with ample noise-abatement in the floorboards and roof, along with a composite, removable “privacy” partition that snaps in to cover the void behind the rear seats from the cargo area. (Of course, once you fold down the rear seats, all bets are off.) Thankfully, BMW’s acoustic engineers have been careful not to over-dampen the fun; the personality of the playful exhaust is always ready to arrive with a right-foot stab.
The rest of the interior is largely garden-variety 3-Series, with quality materials and simple design and sturdy switchgear throughout. The iDrive system had matured up to version 5.0, a major version upgrade with a new visual metaphor for organizing information on the central screen. BMW has resolutely avoided the trend towards touch-screens with the iDrive system, and while my personal jury is still out on their high-end “gesture control” system found on top-shelf cars like the 7-series, I like the precision and repeatability of the hand-controller over the “stab and hope for the best, and sorry about the fingerprints” flailing of even the best car touch-screens. One small usability nit: The Heads-Up Display, while bright and full of useful information, sits in the middle of the windshield in an obtrusive way (at least for how I like to adjust the seat), and thus I generally disable it. (And I’ve not had this same positioning irritation in other current BMWs.)
The point of a vehicle like this is at least some modicum of utility and in this regard, the M40i actually surprises. While the slope-back necessarily limits the height of what can be carried, the load floor provides more than ample hauling space. The rear seats fold almost flat, and with an overall cargo area length of 69” long and 43” wide, the X4 passes the Costco test with ease. To really validate that point, I loaded the vehicle up with the largest rectangular box I thought might reasonably fit, that of a 65” Samsung LCD TV, which filled the cargo area with inches to spare. (And since it was already in the X4, I went ahead and bought the thing. Thanks, Babe! The sacrifices I make for this blog are endless.)
On the road, the X4 M40i really earns merit. It starts up with a playful and aggressive bark, then settles into a low burble that makes an M4 seem flatulent and unsettled by comparison. The electro-mechanical variable steering (“Servotronic” in BMW parlance, which sounds like something Marvin the Martian might conjure up) is easily weighted at slow speeds and firms up as speeds increase, providing just the right amount of feedback on what’s going on at all four corners of the vehicle. The engine is driveable in the way that the best normally-aspirated cars are, with lots of low end torque at the ready and scads of top-end power able to be explored.
The suspension tuning on the M40i is the real star. It’s firm to be sure, but not jarring or punishing, with oodles of grip at all corners and only imperceptible body roll in tight corners. You’re always aware of the xDrive system’s brain shifting power from wheel to wheel, with the alphabet soup of DSC and DDC keeping the physics of the X4’s higher center-of-gravity in check. The M40i is unflappable, planted really, and engenders all the confidence of an M2 or M3 when you’re throwing it into tight corners or high-speed sweepers. In this way, it’s immediately reminiscent of its big brother, the X6 M. Isaac Newton be damned; the harder you drive it, the more planted it feels. Just wonderful.
Which is why the dynamics of an odd-duck like the X4 M40i are all the more surprising and delightful than those of the M2. After all, BMW is supposed to be able to make brilliant sports coupes (“the brand DNA” and all that). But to produce something as relatively ungainly as an X4 and make it not only faster than an e46 M3 but also handle better than practically any car in the BMW lineup is an extraordinary feat.
And what’s wrong with micro-niches? Automobile Magazine’s long-standing tag-line (and editorial guidepost) was a simple phrase: “No Boring Cars.” The X4 M40i certainly occupies one such micro-niche, and it’s also absolutely not boring. It’s a great drive, full of verve and liveliness on the road, with great moves and dynamite sound, all in a useful and flexible package. It’s fun. It’s spunky. A hoot. It’s a grow-up little hooligan, but looks the part of a proper Q-ship. The local gendarmerie won’t look twice at this modest people mover as they race past, lights blaring, after the bright red Camaro that just punched it through the yellow light, never suspecting the schmo in the Camero had just gotten his lunch eaten by the X4 at the previous stoplight.
I’m still working on my wife to let me bring home an AMG wagon. But in the meantime, the X4 M40i fills the bill just fine.