The BMW X4 M40i has helped me finally understand Sports Activity Coupés
So what's the deal with coupé SUVs? I reckon I've finally figured it out after taking the X4 M40i for a 700km road trip along the Great Ocean Road.
Ever since BMW first came up with the seemingly preposterous idea of an SAC – a Sports Activity Coupé, meaning a high-riding SUV chassis with a coupé-esque body draped over the top – when it first launched the opinion-splitting X6 in 2008, I must admit I had no idea what the Bavarians were thinking at the time, and for many years since have continued to struggle with what all the hype surrounding them was about.
Sure, I get the idea that people want a sporty-looking car but desire the high ride height and practicality of an SUV, but with early examples of the breed offering up the biggest drawbacks of both – the lack of rear headroom and compromised luggage space of a coupe, and the wallowy driving dynamics of an SUV – I simply couldn't see the point.
That was, however, until very recently when I headed to Melbourne for a round of testing and planned to go on a weekend getaway to the famed Great Ocean Road for an upcoming feature article. Needing an appropriate set of wheels to fit myself and three friends, I reached out to BMW, a company I figured would be able to provide something suitably practical and sporty, and their lovely PR people suggested the car you see here – the X4 M40i.
It looked to be a very good call on their behalf, as on paper at least, it nailed the brief. Smaller, lighter, and more dynamic than the larger X6 that kicked the SAC movement off, and powered by a number-strong straight-six that had been fettled by BMW's M performance division, which also breathed on the suspension, there's not a lot else out there that would be better prepared to handle hundreds of kilometres of winding roads with a boot packed to the brim with luggage and supplies.
While not blown away by the look of more ordinary X4s in the model's range, there's just something about the way this much sportier version looks that struck me in a good way when I first laid eyes on it in the carpark of BMW's head office. In silver especially, it looks surprisingly sleek from some angles, as the design intended, with the wheels inspired by those of the full-fat X4 M and the distinct matte grey badging in a font unique to M40i models complementing the design perfectly.
Although it sharing a platform with the X3 means that proportionally, it's very similar, there are a few little issues I still have with the X4's basic design, however, even if the M40i looks pretty good regardless. Primarily, it's that the fascia and rear-end look to be from entirely different cars, with no cohesion between features like the headlights and taillights, for instance. From some angles, that sloping rear half can look a little odd, too, but as mentioned, the silver does help to disguise a lot of that – my advice on colour choices though is to just go for anything but white.
On the inside, complaints are few and far between, however, as the interior is classic BMW. Everything feels high quality, the controls are all perfectly laid out and the cockpit is very driver focused, and there's an absolute abundance of space to get comfortable in up front.
While the sloping roofline does still impede somewhat on rear headroom, the headliner does scallop upwards behind the sunroof to maximise what room there is effectively, and there's plenty of legroom to make up for it as well.
While boot space is somewhat limited in terms of height, it is incredibly deep, so longer items will fit with ease, unlike some taller ones. For suitcases and overnight bags though, it'll easily swallow up enough for four people – even with a stack of camera equipment back there to top it off.
Under the bonnet lies a version of the B58 engine family of 3.0-litre turbocharged straight-sixes (which includes engines such as that found in the new Toyota Supra) that's unique to the M40i variants of the X3 and X4. Producing a hefty 285kW and 500Nm, up 20kW compared to 2018 and 2019 models, it's mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission and 'xDrive' part-time all-wheel drive as standard.
This engine is the real star of the show here, as even though it's a bit off the power mark of the twin-turbo X4 M, it makes the M40i feel shockingly brisk. Able to scoot from 0-100km/h in a mere 4.8 seconds, this 1.8 tonne SUV will easily beat a hot hatch to triple digits, so it's clearly a pretty serious machine, and it even makes a pretty decent noise while doing so with a raspy howl and plenty of pops and crackles on overrun.
Of course, the brilliant ZF transmission and all-wheel drive system play no small role in extracting as much performance as possible from this six-pot donk, with the transmission shifting with near-dual-clutch swiftness, while all four wheels being driven on demand means that it puts as much of the power as it can to the ground.
It's clear that the M division boffins have dialled in the X4's suspension, too, as it handles with far more precision than it really has any right to, turning in confidently and remaining nearly as flat and balanced as an SUV really could through the bends.
The one trade-off is that the ride is distinctly firmer than that of the regular X4, with particularly large bumps able to be felt in the cabin, but it's not what you'd call uncomfortable and is a very small price to pay as far as I'm concerned.
It's not exactly what you'd call economical either, with a 3.0-litre straight-six under the bonnet, as after the 700km Great Ocean Road trip and another 300km driving around Melbourne and the Dandenong ranges, I saw a return of 11.2L/100km. Do also keep in mind that being a European car, where the standard fuel quality is far better than the rubbish we get, so you'll need to run it on at least 95RON here.
But fuel economy aside, the X4 M40i proved itself to be quite possibly the best car for a road trip such as this. Enough room to carry four people and all of their things, enough power and confident handling to enjoy one of the best driving roads in Australia, and a sporty look to top it all off which is what most buyers will care about – I think I finally understand what BMW has been trying to get at for the past decade with this whole SAC thing.
I might personally still be on the fence about the styling – it may have grown on me rather during my time with it – but I can't deny that for the task I had at hand, I couldn't have really asked for much better a car.
If anyone was going to be able to make an SUV drive this well, it's BMW, and I reckon they've just about nailed it with this thing. Good thing that if you'd rather something more traditionally boxy, they'll do you an X3 M40i as well that's otherwise the same, as either would be a great choice.
This article originally appeared on drivesection.com on December 21, 2019. The car tested here was provided by BMW Australia for five days with a full tank of fuel.