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We drive the BMW X6

2008-05-08 07:31

Egmont Sippel

Egmont Sippel drives BMW's oddball new X6 during the "car's" world launch in the USA.

This is one weird baby, right here.

Or maybe babe is not the right epithet. Call it a brute, then, BMW's new X6; the onslaught is mighty.

And it overpowers from all angles: visually, conceptually, mechanically, dynamically...

Design and packaging, for instance, has the senses scampering for protection; one stares in disbelief and with some trepidation, even fear. The X6 looks scary.

Bi- and twin-turbo performance blasts concerns about weight and size into orbit. The X6 is longer than the X5, with a wider rear track. But it is also lower and lighter - and it goes like clappers.

And BMW mechanicals, in the shape of an innovative new rear diff called Dynamic Performance Control, quite literally launch the car with a kick up the butt, especially out of corners. Traction and stability are marvelous and steering astoundingly accurate; the X6 handles like a sports car.

On stilts.

BMW's oddball X6 is the automotive world's strangest production package in many a moon.

And it's on a mission from Munich.

Or should that read Mars?


Exactly what is this mission?

Simply put, to carve out a niche within a niche within a niche.

The X6, see, is a strange mix of sports car in a coupé shell on a SUV platform. Which, by the way, is the fastest way for a motoring manufacturer to increase sales: build not so much a better product within an established segment, but create a new niche and fill it yourself.

That's what BMW did when they entered the SUV segment in 1999. The "utility" concept was ushered out and replaced by a core BMW value called "activity".

In an instant, a void was both created and filled by the X5, the world's first Sports Activity Vehicle.

As if that was not enough - and it wasn't, for Porsche's Cayenne and Range Rover's Sport has since joined the SAV brigade - the X6 now comes along to splinter off a further sub-segment, dubbed Sports Activity Coupé, or SAC.

And yes, BMW is again the only company in the world with a contender.

That's unless you see the ugly SsangYong Actyon as a pioneer of the SAC concept. Or make that a forerunner, for it's hard to classify a four-cylindered vehicle - especially in diesel guise with two-wheel drive - as a pioneer of anything "sporty" or "active".

The X6?

Well, we haven't tested it off-road, as yet.

But it does boast a ground clearance of 212 mm, equaling the X5's to the last millimetre - even though the newcomer's roof, seating and centre of gravity is slightly lower (respectively by 70-, 50- and 30 mm).

The X6 also has everything else the Actyon doesn't have, of course. It's a point we would normally have been embarrassed to make, was it not for one unfortunate overlap: similarly awkward body shapes.


It's that sloping back, isn't it? It's simply out of joint with conventional aesthetic expectations.

A coupé roof should hug the road; not tower amongst the tree tops.

And a coupé roof is what the X6's unashamedly boasts.

It starts with a flatter windscreen rake than the X5's, before bobbling out over the driver's head in an uncomfortably pointy sort of way.

From there, it races downhill along an elongated slope, straight into the tailgate's high-flying deck-edged ridge, leaving a tall squat-ended back with lots of metal dropping straight down to the ground, in cliff-like fashion.

But not to worry; Bangle and Van Hooydonk used it to carve out a cartoonishly big frame for the diffuser. If nothing else, this armoured dressing bolsters the already impenetrable look of the rear even further.

Ditto for tailgate glass and reverse lights which, top to bottom, allow for the narrowest of apertures. The flat window rather limits one's rear view from behind the wheel, of course, but it also locks out any vulnerability from behind.

Such fortress-like buttressing is further bolstered by a clutch of strong horizontal lines. As such, this visual block pretty much works in tandem with the focused aggression of the front, the latter presenting a mean-looking face with piercing eyes split by a somewhat pugnacious nose which, in turn, is perched on the anger of a thick upwardly-curled lower lip.

Don't come near me, the X6 seems to suggest. I'm barricaded from behind. And I'm gonna hurt you up front.

Aesthetic failure

So far, so good.

There's not much of a bonnet bulge to denote the new twin-turbo'd V8's ferocious power.

But it's the side-on look of the X6, and especially the three-quarter rear view, that sinks the styling.

To secure the coupé aura, low-slung side glass severely tapers backwards to meet the strike line's steeply rising wedge. Yet, the greenhouse sits so high that never the twain shall meet.

The net result is vast vertical flanks filled with acres of metal which, in turn, squashes the rear wheels, which should have been exulted and showcased - into submission.

Big as they are - for the X6 runs on 19-inch alloys as standard - the wheels also fail to fill their humungous arches.

In final analysis, it is this incongruity of a sports hood stretched flat over sheer SUV bulk that plays havoc with the sensibilities.

It's an odd styling job, to say the least. It borders on ugly.

So, here's the interesting bit: the X6 has an ominous presence in black that supercedes its visual awkwardness. It even looks pretty mean in white, too - especially with smoke-blackened rims.

The X6 then, is tough-side-of-the-tracks kinda wheels. It represents dangerous glamour, even dirty glamour.

It is immanently blingable.


That's railroad tracks we're referring to, not Bushveld tracks. The X6 might belly-clear Mother Earth by as much as the X5, but it's not really intended for much off-roading at all.

BMW has taken their cue from the Porsche Cayenne. More often than not, there's only one guy lounging around in the latter, or two people at most.

Thus the X6's coupé shape, Munich says; it's perfect for this type of buyer. So are four individual seats - two up front, two at the back, each pair separated by a center console with cup holders and the like.

Rear leg and head room are therefore not overwhelming. But it's hardly disappointing, either. Ditto for luggage space beneath the long tailgate.

So, what kind of enthusiast buys this type of architecture?

Guided by X6 design and performance, we'd have to say somebody who wants to go fast and sit high. Or, alternatively, a guy who loves the status and style of SUVs, but also thrives on sporty impulses.

And what's sportier than a coupé?

Which brings us to X6 powerplants and the vehicle's new rear differential.

There are four mills to choose from: two diesels, two petrols.

1) The entry-level diesel, called X6 xDrive30d, delivers via third generation common rail injection from a turbocharged 3.0-litre straight-six (173 kW, 520 Nm, 0-100 in 8.0 secs, top speed 210 km/h).

2) The top diesel, called X6 xDrive35d, use bi-turbos to spice up the same engine to 210 kW and 580 Nm (0-100 in 6.9 secs, top speed 236 km/h).

3) The first petrol model, called X6 xDrive35i, gets the same twin-turbo 3.0-litre straight-six (225 kW, 400 Nm, 0-100 in 6.7 secs, top speed 240 km/h) as the one we're already familiar with in the 335i sedan, coupe and convertible, and the 135i coupe.

4) And no, Big Daddy - called X6 xDrive50i - ain't driven by the 5.0-litre V10, but rather by a brand-new directly-injected twin-turbo 4.4-litre V8 producing 300 kW and 600 Nm (0-100 in 5.4 secs, top speed 250 km/h).

The power and speed, let it be said, is also accompanied by a crackingly good tummy bellow.

That's a lot of power, right there, even for a car just 10 kg this side of 2.2 ton; the xDrive50i's 2 190 kg being 55 kg lighter than the X5 4.8i's 2 245 kg. The X6 xDrive35d, incidentally, undercuts the weight of the similarly-engined X5 3.0sd by 75 kg: 2 110 kg vs 2 185 kg.

On the road

The bi-turbo diesel has locally been driven in the X5 already; it is really strong, smooth and silent.

On top of that, the xDrive35d boasts a much lighter nose than the xDrive50i (compare vehicle weights above).

The latter's immense muscle, though, is hardly aware of its own weight. The new V8 is neatly packaged, in any case, with turbos and catalytic converters housed in the V-section between the two cylinder banks. This allows for low-slung pushed-back engine installation similar to the X5's 4.8-litre V8, all contributing to sharper nose dynamics.

Even so, the car's agility is as much a function of (the optional) Adaptive Drive's astounding ability to sync electronically controlled swivel motors on the front anti-roll bar with variable damper adjustment, the latter via electromagnetic valves.

The medium for all of this is superfast FlexRay data transfer.

The net result, though, is a flat body posture guaranteeing an almost perfectly stable nose on corner entry and minimum body roll through the apex.

That's all true of the X5, as well.

But the X6 goes one step further with Dynamic Performance Control, a system devised for correctional steering powers and hence more agile handling, plus an incredibly stable rear providing fantastic traction in just about any kind of adverse condition - whether it be weather, road or dynamically induced.

Dynamic Performance Control

It's all done via sets of multiplate clutches and planetary gears on each side of the rear differential, to compliment xDrive's front/aft torque division with a DPC power split from left to right amongst the rear wheels, even on the overrun.

And it's not done via limited slip diff, or braking a free-spinning wheel.

Nope. DPC can actually - via the electronic system's ICU - integrate all available data gathered from the vehicle's multitudinous sensors (including yaw, squat, dive, roll, steering, throttle, brakes, speed, etc. etc.) to accelerate the outside rear wheel, if necessary.

xDrive would, for instance, reduce power to the front wheels during understeer. DPC, in the mean time, instantly shifts drive at the back from the inner to outer rear, effecting a steering bias towards the intended direction.

The opposite happens during oversteer. xDrive reduces power transmission to the outwardly pushing rear wheels, whilst DPC withdraws even more drive from the outer rear, diverting it to the inner rear to build up the appropriate, counteracting yaw momentum.

All of this has the added advantage that the X6 does not have to rely as heavily on DSC to keep it on track, this momentum-sapping stability control system thus having to be utilised much less frequently.

Brakes, 'box and agile behaviour

Such electronic and mechanical wizardry simply translates into excellent usage of power and the best possible application thereof, yielding great agility and sharp, precise vehicle placement plus strong traction and thrust.

Yet, it all could so easily have been undermined by inferior brakes or transmission.

Not too worry. The six-speed auto 'box with paddles on the wheel is exceptionally fast and smooth.

And in relentlessly hard driving over many kilometres of twisty American mountain roads, the xDrive50i's four inner-vented discs (385 mm all round) impressed as much with its fade-free character as its sheer speed-slashing abilities.

Dynamically then, the X6 is supreme; nary a wiggle at the back, nary a scare, not even on wet surfaces. xDrive and DPC corrections, furthermore, are so quick and seamless that a driver is only aware of their supernatural results.

In fact, the X6 is almost too impressive, too perfect, in terms of stability and precision, especially for such a behemoth.

Where is the involvement, then? The excitement of a four-wheel drift, the snaking tail on exit, the quick correctional flicks of the wheel, the big power slide?

Look elsewhere.

For just once over the Caesar's Head pass between North and South Carolina could we induce a tad of understeer.

The rest was sheer technical brilliance.


Which begs the question: why build such a supreme dynamic and mechanical monster?

Because BMW can. It's in the company's value system to push the envelope. The men from Munich have always been on a mission from Mars.

That's the easy answer.

The real answer, of course, is that BMW wants to exploit what they see as a gap in the market: a niche (SAC) in a niche (SAV) in a niche (SUV).

Is there such a gap?

Would enough people be interested in a sports car on stilts?

This brute so defies categorising that entry to the soul is, for now, still blocked by the rational mind. One would first have to sort out the X6 on a cerebral level, I suspect, before it could possibly have a stab at the heart.

And that might be difficult.

For this is one weird baby, right here.

  • The X6 xDrive35i and xDrive35d will sell from mid-June, respectively for R654 000 and R710 000. The xDrive50i will reach our shores in January 2009.

    Egmont Sippel is Rapport's Motoring Editor and SA Motoring Journalist of the Year for 2007.

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