POINTLESS. Far too much “in your face”. The critics of BMW’s new X6 – among them some members of the CAR team – are pretty scathing about the Bavarian manufacturer’s so-called “Sport-
Activity Coupé”. But there are just as many who laud the brave new design for its originality and its air of “macho cool”.
Most of the detractors point to the X6’s shortcomings as a utility vehicle. They say it’s nothing but a chopped X5. But surely they’re missing the point. After all, what is the raison d’être for a coupé? By their very nature coupés are eye-catching, sporty vehicles with compromised interior space when compared with their more mundane, practical counterparts. So, just as you have wagons that are happy – nominally, at least, in these days of SUVs that hardly ever venture off paved roads – to cope with harsher road conditions than smooth blacktop, why not a coupé?
This debate aside, the X6 actually makes great sense for BMW. Certainly, the company has the X5, built in the same plant in Spartanburg, South Carolina, as its truncated sister. But, dramatic as it was when it first came on to the scene, the “practical” X5 – which has grown significantly in length in its second iteration – has begun to look a little staid alongside newer entries to the market such as Porsche’s Cayenne and Range Rover’s Sport. You can see what the BMW management board had in mind: how could they out-bling the Rangey Sport? And how could they offer folks a sporty SUV to outdo the Cayenne? Bring on the X6!
Internationally, the range is topped by a dramatic Cayenne Turbo-rivalling xDrive50i twinturbo V8 model. However, until that blockbuster arrives here in April 2009, South Africans will have to make do with two sixcylinder models, the twin-turbo petrol xDrive35i that is the subject of this first CAR test, and the turbodiesel xDrive35d. As you’ll read later, the 35i, which uses the same sweet, boosted six as the 335i, is no slouch. But first to those dramatically different looks…
In the eyes of half the test team, BMW’s design department has done a brilliant job of integrating the sloping coupé roofline with the macho lower proportions of an SUV. But in the eyes of the other half, the naysayers, it’s, to quote: “deformed… with the section of the body above the waistline looking as though it’s from another car – a much smaller car.” And another pearl: “Looks like the love child of an X5 and a 6 Series Coupé”. So you’ll just have to decide for yourself!
Under the controversial sheetmetal is a typical BMW unibody chassis, with a double-track arm axle suspension system in front and BMW’s multi-link axle at the rear. Brakes are ventilated discs all round. Running on 20-inch wheels (optional) wrapped in low-profile Dunlop SP Sport Maxx rubber – 40-series in front, 35-series at the rear – the test unit certainly looked as though it meant business.
As already stated, under the bluff bonnet there’s a power unit capable of really doing the business. This lightweight engine, with its alloy block and all-aluminium crankcase, is the most powerful six-cylinder engine in the company’s armoury, featuring a combination of twin turbos, twin overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder and high precision direct injection to wring out peaks of 225 kW between 5 800 and 6 250 r/min and 400 N.m of torque between 1 300 and 5 000 r/min.
Power is taken to BMW’s xDrive four-wheel drive system via a six-speed automatic transmission with converter lock-up clutch. The system, common to all BMW four-wheel drive models, distributes drive via a multiplate clutch electronically controlled according to feedback from strategic sensors monitoring wheel slip. In normal situations, it apportions drive in a 40:60 split front to rear, but makes instantaneous adjustments according to changes in grip and vehicle attitude.
In addition, the X6 is the first vehicle to utilise a further BMW development, called Dynamic Performance Control, which takes the place of a limited slip differential between the rear wheels, but delivers vastly superior handling and traction benefits. Essentially a double planetary gear-set and multiplate clutch, operated by an electric motor, all within the rear final drive unit, Dynamic Performance Control (DPC) is actually able to cause the outside wheel to accelerate in certain circumstances to enhance stability. And all this is integrated with DSC III stability control, which intervenes much later as the result of the action of DPC.
Inside, everybody agreed that the X6 is a class act. Trim materials are of the highest quality, and fit and finish are impeccable.
The instrumentation is clear and simple, and the controls are slick yet solid in typical BMW fashion.
The pistol-grip gear-shift, borrowed from the X5, was liked by some, hated by others, and the shift paddles can be awkward to use. Also, why does BMW use a different set-up for its auto and auto-manual models?
Up front, seating is supercomfy and supportive, the electrically- adjusted front chairs providing an extensive range of permutations. A novel sporty feature is a pair of soft kneepads for driver and front seat passenger on either side of the centre console. Passive safety equipment includes pyrotechnic belttensioners and front, side and head airbags. ISOFIX child seat mountings are standard.
Legroom in the rear is good, and though one might expect headroom to be down, our measurements actually show that back-seat passengers are even better off than their front seat counterparts. The luggage compartment, accessed through the long, sloping hatch, is surprisingly roomy, accommodating 368 dm3 of our ISO blocks. Fold the split rear-seat backrest forward and you can pack in a sizeable 1 088 dm3.
That the X6 is no conventional vehicle is underlined when you climb into the driver’s seat. Although you’re seated high up, SUV style, that raked rear window looks slit-like in the rearview mirror. Fire ‘er up, and the six idles smoothly. But press the loud pedal and it gets a hard, almost V10-like edge. And it really delivers on this promise of power. No fuss: just slot her into drive, and you’re headed for the horizon in a surge of power. Out on our test strip, our 2 333 kg “ship” rocketed to 100 km/h in 7,66 seconds. And remember this is the six, with a twin-turbo V8 on the way next year… Keeping the pedal down, it roared past the kilometre mark after 28,43 seconds (at 187 km/h), and accelerated on strongly until it hit the speed limiter at 232 km/h. It was still extremely stable at that speed, the limit being imposed because of tyre performance.
As one would expect, braking is also a strong suit, the heavy X6 stopping in an average of 2,81 seconds in our 10-stop 100-to-zero test, without any sign of distress. And fuel economy is excellent for a vehicle of this type, CAR’s fuel index working out at 14,5 litres per 100 km.
But the X6’s tour de force is not its straightline performance.
In true sports coupé tradition, it’s the way this heavyweight goes around corners that impresses most. As the sales brochures promise, the driver cannot detect when the different systems intervene: all one knows is that the high-bodied vehicle corners amazingly flat, with the kind of sportscar comportment we’ve experienced in the Porsche Cayenne. In fact, the Porsche may well have met its match in the X6. And the leech-like grip isn’t achieved at the expense of ride comfort. Certainly it’s sportyfirm, but it’s cosseting at the same time, exhibiting the kind of balance one would expect of a sporting tourer.
Off-road? BMW doesn’t suggest for a minute that this is the kind of vehicle for bush-whacking. But, despite its size, it’s an excellent performer on minor roads. And if you do need to take to a bumpy lane to access that favourite fishing spot, at 215 mm it does have the ground clearance to do so…