Destination: Greenville, SC in the 2019 BMW X4 M40i.

By Author: Harvey Briggs, Date: Jul 02, 2018
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Greenville, South Carolina was once known as the Textile Capital of the World back when cotton mills and clothing factories were the economic engines of the South. When production moved overseas to countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia, and China in search of cheap labor, however, the bottom fell out and Greenville fell upon hard times. Shops and offices along Main Street sat empty and in 1987 the Poinsett Hotel, once a beacon for travelers to the area, was boarded up.

You’d never know that now, based on the crowds that had gathered downtown on the Friday evening I was in town.

I was in Greenville as a guest of BMW to drive the all-new 2019 BMW X4 both on the scenic roads north of the city and just a few miles away at the BMW Performance Driving Center in Greer. Not coincidentally, I was staying in the Westin Poinsett Hotel, enjoying southern hospitality reborn.

Just a block away from the Reedy River that generations ago powered the factories that drove the local economy, The Poinsett is a stately property designed by New York Architect, William Lee Stoddart, and opened in 1925. Amazingly even after additions, a rash of vandalism while it was closed, and all the subsequent renovations, the original charm and feel of the hotel remain intact. Modestly sized rooms feature high-end furnishings with all the amenities you expect from a premium, business-focused hotel.

Walk outside the front door into the courtyard where a fountain anchors the center of the circular drive and you are just steps away from the Peace Center, a performing arts complex built on the site of three former factories. It hosts a variety of concerts and plays on its three stages. On one of the evenings I was in town, they held an outdoor concert in the amphitheater and it felt like half the town was in attendance enjoying the show.

At the heart of Greenville’s rebirth is Main Street, a six-block stretch of with a mix of local, regional, and national retailers, restaurants, and bars. The entire area of Main Street is walkable, encouraging browsing from store to store or grazing from restaurant to restaurant. It is a magnet for the area and one of the great small city downtown urban centers in the country.

While Greenville’s rebirth began before BMW’s arrival, it’s not an overstatement to say the development of its manufacturing plant just 15 miles east of the city along Interstate 85 significantly accelerated the area’s growth. Opened in 1994 to assemble 3 Series cars and the Z3 Roadster, it is now the largest production facility in the BMW network producing the X3, X4, X5, X6, and very shortly the new 3-row X7 full-size SUV. The factory’s 10,000 employees produce 1,400 vehicles each day. Nearly 70% of the production is exported to other countries around the world adding about $9 billion to the plus column of the U.S. trade balance sheet.

Adjacent to the plant is the BMW Performance Center East, the home to the brand’s original U.S. driving school and where I’d be picking up the 2019 X4 M40i for an extended street drive before getting time behind the wheel on the track and skidpad. The performance center caters to BMW owners – you can take delivery of your new BMW there and get lessons on how to drive it at its limits – but anyone is welcome to participate in the center’s many classes. There are options for drivers of all skill levels from teenagers who’ve just received their license to experts who want to hone their skills behind the wheel of an M car. Great instructors, professionally maintained BMWs, and a first-class facility make this one of the best places to become a better driver.

Walking up the black X4 I could see right away that it had been significantly updated and improved for 2019. The new X4 is three inches longer and nearly an inch and a half wider with the roof height lowered by a tenth of an inch. This creates proportions that are more elegant, less stubby, and in the M-badged version, much sportier. The front end wears the traditional, signature kidney grille flanked by LED headlamps with integrated LED running lamps. Large lower air intakes and brushed metal accents define the front end of the M40i. Around to the side, the sloping, coupe-like roofline is the major design element of the X4 and the most controversial. It’s what defines the X4 (and its bigger brother the X6) as what BMW calls a “Sports Activity Vehicle.” It’s supposed to provide a best-of-both-worlds combination; the drivability of a coupe and the utility of an SUV. You could look at it that way, or you could say it’s a 340i sedan with compromised handling thanks to a high center of gravity. Either that or it’s an X3 with limited cargo space. Regardless of how you look at it, its charm is not universal. BMW sold over 40,000 X3s last year but fewer than 5,200 X4s.

That’s not to say that the X4 M40i is without its charms. No, it’s not an M4 or even a 440i, but with the turbocharged 3.0-liter inline six pumping out 355 horsepower, it’s plenty quick. Sixty miles an hour can be had in less than 4.5 seconds from a standing start thanks to a well-paired 8-speed automatic transmission and BMW’s xDrive all-wheel drive directing the power to all four wheels. For an SUV it handles brilliantly, especially when equipped with the variable adaptive suspension. Braking is greatly improved over the previous generation with both better feel and performance. From the driver’s point of view, the X4 M40i has much more in common with an Alfa Romeo Stelvio or Jaguar F Pace than a Range Rover Discovery.

Inside, the cabin design and appointments are pure BMW, which is to say, it’s really nice in there. My test car was outfitted with contrasting black and red leather surfaces, heated and cooled sport seats, a leather-wrapped MSport steering wheel, and aluminum interior trim. The seats provide plenty of comfort for long drives and when I started to toss the X4 around the curves as I climbed into the Mountain Bridge Wilderness area it was clear they provide all the support you need for spirited driving. The back seat is roomier, with an inch of additional legroom. Just be careful getting in as the small rear door opening puts foreheads in harm’s way, especially on taller passengers. Behind the seats, storage has been increased by a cubic foot, and the split-folding seats give you plenty of options for stowing luggage and gear. All in all, the on-road manners were just about what I expected and the morning drive was both exhilarating and enjoyable. It wasn’t until I got on the track, however, that the X4 really surprised me.

Following ace driving instructor, Mike Renner, in an identically prepared X4, we began with a warm-up lap to familiarize ourselves with the track. As we rounded the last corner back onto the front straight, Mike hammered the throttle and we were off. The X4 seemed to jump at the opportunity to stretch its legs and entering a series of esses at speed felt like it had shed about 500 of its 4300 pounds. It felt lighter and more nimble at its limits than it did pushing it mildly on the open roads. Balance is very neutral with a damn near perfect 50.1/49.9 weight distribution, and xDrive’s torque vectoring means the power is biased toward the rear wheels until it feels things getting out of shape and throws power to the front to help pull you back around. We stopped briefly before our final lap to turn the DSC completely off. Coming around some of the tighter corners I was able to produce some grin-inducing power oversteer, something I hadn’t expected from the X4.

As if to drive this point home, my next exercise was over at the skid pad where we were encouraged to let it all hang out. This is the same skidpad where BMW set the world’s record for longest continuous drift and my job was to set the tail of the X4 out and keep it there for as long as I could before xDrive decided the fun was over. The easiest way to make this happen was to get the X4 up to speed on the water slicked pavement and then lift off the throttle sending the rear end around. I would then grab a little opposite lock and feather the throttle to hold the tail out as long as I could. Not being a rear-drive sports car, the X4 wouldn’t hang out forever but did so long enough to elicit more than a few YEEHAAAs from yours truly.

In addition to thrashing the X4 M40i, which will be available later this summer, I also took a side trip in the surprisingly satisfying xDrive30i version of the X4 to the nearby BMW Car Club of America and wandered through their amazing exhibit titled, THE ICON: 50 Years of the 2002. This exhibit is not to be missed. Spanning the entire lifecycle of the car David E. Davis, Jr. helped make famous when he led Car and Driver, it includes a wide range of stock, modified, racing, restored, and survivor cars. The story of each car is told in exhaustive detail by Jackie Jouret in a book that is as fun to read as it is to look at.

The X4 xDrive30i operates with less power but not much less urgency. As is the case with several BMWs I’ve driven, the 248 horsepower, four-cylinder version provides a completely satisfying experience. It’s only when you compare it to the more powerful six that you start to think it might be nice to have a little more power. The standard X4 xDrive30i is more sedate than the M40i, but you can upgrade to the MSport package including the dynamic handling package if the highest levels of handling are important to you.

The X4 starts at $50,540 for the xDrive30i and $10,000 more will get you into the M40i. Start adding packages and options and you can easily eclipse $70,000. The X4 won’t out-handle a sports car, nor will it be more capable than a true SUV. If you don’t have room in your garage or your budget for a sports car and an SUV, however, the X4 makes a surprising amount of sense. But then again logic never really sold anyone a BMW. You buy an X4 for the same reasons you buy an M2, 740i, or 530e, or any other BMW: because experiencing the joy of driving is more important than anything else a car can do for you.

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Harvey Briggs

Harvey Briggs is the Founder, Editor, and Publisher of Rides & Drives. He has also written for Car and Driver, Winding Road, and the luxury lifestyle blog, Pursuitist.com. His passions run from fast cars, small planes, boats and motorcycles to music, travel, and sports. When he's not on the road testing the latest cars, he been known to turn up on stage playing rock and blues guitar at clubs around his hometown of Madison, Wisconsin. Follow Harvey's adventures on Instagram and Twitter @harvey_drives and find him on Facebook. Though keeping up could be a problem. As Harvey says, "If I don't slow down, time can't catch me."

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