Monterey, California — We got behind the wheel fully prepared to hate the 2016 BMW X4 M40i. We got out feeling otherwise, with thoughts of judging books by their covers. That the “coupe”-styled crossover SUV even exists offends our automotive sensibilities, though that’s a battle the X6 won long ago. Sales prove that many people don’t care about our automotive sensibilities and have plenty of money to make that clear.
After the 5 Series-based X5/X6 formula paid off, deriving the more compact X3/X4 from 3 Series mechanicals has proven profitable for BMW. Buyers flocked to these xDrive models in far greater numbers than they do to the conventional station-wagon body. The latter can also be equipped with xDrive but weighs less and puts the center of gravity down where it makes sense for handling and maneuverability. Those being prime assets for a performance car makes us lust for an M-tuned wagon.
What Munich offers instead is this American-built crossover hovering 10 to 12 inches higher than it ought, with a fastback roofline compromising visibility out the back, rear-seat headroom, and cargo capacity. Then it ups the ante with this M40i model, not a full-on M car but a halfway measure of amped-up power, suspension tuning, and appearance upgrades. Sitting there in the paddock at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, a whole row of ’em in Alpine White looked like the Angry Kitchen Appliances aisle at Best Buy. Ugh.
We were assigned our turn in the M40i in between driving stints over the road and then on the track in the brilliant new M2. Sort of like being assigned to a time-out for bad behavior with the promise that if we’d just be good for a bit, there might be cookies-and-milk later. So we told our driving partner, “You go ahead: Drive first. I’ll just bring it back here when you’re done.”
Heading south out of Monterey along back-country farm roads, he kept saying, “Hmmm, not bad.” We kept replying, “No, it isn’t. But why am I sitting way up here?” With 355 horsepower on tap and a big wide torque band from the turbocharged-six (similar to the slightly stronger unit in the M2), this M40i rode on the optional 20-inch wheels with Michelin Pilot Super Sport performance tires. Add suspension tuning for tauter responses and the basic goodness of the underlying platform, and those are fair offsets to excessive ride height and a quarter-ton or more of mass atop that of a 340i sedan. It adds up to about the same 0-60 mph accelerative ability, sharp shifts from the standard eight-speed automatic that’s about as driver-responsive as a torque-converter slushbox ever gets, and well-controlled roll and pitch without too jarring a ride. OK, he’s done. Let’s head back to that M2 waiting at the track.
Climbing behind the wheel and heading north onto Carmel Valley Road we find 3 Series-like not-quite-brilliant steering feel that leans toward feeling overweighted without paying off with improved sensitivity, stout Germanic autobahn-ready brakes, and, well, hoo-boy! Look at this road! Tight, blind corners, up and down grades, variable surfaces, genuine sports-car stuff. Where have you been hiding, honey? Being in the wrong car for a good road has been a recurrent tragedy in our lives — think of finding canyon roads like this in a minivan, or a ’90s diesel Suburban. That’s our usual luck. And here we were again, steering a bloated balloon.
But it was an M-tuned balloon. Blame it on our dander being up from M2 exposure, but what the heck, we had to have a real go. And it was good. Very, very good. Better than 20 miles of full-concentration 8/10ths motoring (because you don’t do even 9/10ths when you can’t see if there’s a farmer’s pickup around the bend) that unreels in memory like a World Rally Championship YouTube video, snapping off shifts with the paddles, getting the tail loose, employing skills and road wisdom to make haste without waste. With the rear-biased all-wheel drive and all of the crossover’s electronic driver aids engaged to help avoid a big, scary oops into a ditch where no cellphone coverage was evident, the beast tackled the task without mishap. We felt happy to have found such a road rather than regretful that we were in the wrong car for it.
Sure, we’d rather go back with the M2, which not only feels better and goes faster but costs less. The 2016 X4 M40i makes no more sense than ever. But we can’t work up a good hate anymore. It helped us make a memory, and that’s what a life with cars is all about, isn’t it? If BMW were to come up with a full-on M-spec X3, a smaller version of its X5M, we’d still say an M3 wagon was a better idea, but we might be able to settle.