My wife and I had just climbed out of the X6 SUV, one of BMW's newest models, and were walking away from it when she summed up her thoughts on its interesting shape. "It looks like an Aztek," she scoffed, in reference to Pontiac's often-maligned (and now discontinued) SUV. That's sure to make BMW cringe, and while there are some similarities between the two from the outside, there's a lot more to this new BMW than just its looks — though they are among its signature elements.
What else, you ask? Despite its large size, it's a respectable performer thanks to a powerful inline-six engine and taut suspension, and it has a fairly large cargo area when you consider its rakish appearance. That look does make for some compromises elsewhere, though, particularly in terms of visibility and backseat comfort.
I tested the base trim level of the X6, which is called the xDrive35i, and briefly drove the V-8-powered xDrive50i.
With the X6, BMW takes aim at a model that's been relatively unchallenged in the SUV segment: the Infiniti FX. The FX is a true performance SUV — it shares its platform with the Nissan 350Z sports car — and it delivers a relatively engaging driving experience. Like the X6, it looks more like a coupe than an SUV, though both have four doors.
The X6 shares a number of design cues with the automaker's X5 SUV, like a large twin-kidney grille, pointy headlights and a scalloped hood. The X6, however, strikes a more aggressive look thanks to large ports and mesh inserts in the front bumper (see a side-by-side comparison with the 2008 X5).
When you look at the two of these models from the side, however, the similarities quickly fade. While the X5 had the traditional shape of an SUV, the X6's roofline angles downward over the backseat, and it keeps dropping all the way to the back of the vehicle, giving the X6 coupelike styling with a twist. The twist is that this is one big vehicle, and many coupes aren't. The massive back end of the X6 gives it a hulking presence that seems a little excessive, and the rear bumper height also makes it difficult to load cargo. Regardless of whether you like it or are of my wife's opinion, the X6's styling makes you choose a side.
Ride & Handling
The X6 surprised me here, and in a good way. Upon sizing up its aggressive design, you might think that this is an SUV that's all about delivering a performance driving experience, even if it comes at the expense of ride comfort. That's not the case at all. While the suspension is definitely firm, it doesn't crash over large bumps in the road — which are unfortunately prevalent on the roads I frequent in Chicago — the way other cars can. What made this even more surprising was the fact that the X6 I tested came equipped with the Sport Package, which features an adaptive suspension and can have P275/40R20 performance tires in front and P315/35R20 rubber in back. Even on a sports car those would be considered extremely aggressive tires. Sharp rises in the road are met with quite a bit of suspension rebound.
You can tell BMW wants you to think of the X6 as a performance SUV from how the company has tuned its steering characteristics. Rather than having a lightweight feel to the wheel, the X6 demands that drivers flex their muscles to maneuver it. In fact, it doesn't feel that different from the steering in BMW's new small two-door, the 128i. The X6 responds readily to your command, and while I generally like heavier-feeling steering, non-enthusiast SUV shoppers might find it to be tedious after awhile.
Going & Stopping
The twin-turbo 3.0-liter inline-six-cylinder that powers the X6 xDrive35i is the same engine that impressed us in the 335i and 135i, and it shows itself to be a capable SUV engine, too.
Even though the six-cylinder uses two turbochargers to make its 300 horsepower and 300 pounds-feet of torque, the engine doesn't display any of the negative characteristics in around-town driving — like power lag — that you might associate with a turbocharged engine; you just get smooth power when you press the gas pedal. Dropping the six-speed automatic transmission into its Sport mode shows off the engine's responsiveness better than regular Drive.
The inline-six should offer plenty of power for most buyers, but BMW also sells a 400-hp X6 xDrive50i. Its 4.4-liter twin-turbo V-8 rockets this big vehicle from zero to 60 mph in 5.3 seconds, according to BMW. You can feel that quickness in everyday driving, as the V-8 moves the X6 with a degree of authority that's surprising for a larger SUV. Even at highway speeds, if you mash the gas pedal the xDrive50i lunges forward with a level of assertiveness you don't see in a lot of vehicles. What's more, the V-8 sounds great whether you're driving around town or slicing through highway traffic. It creates a smooth, deep and powerful sound.
The V-8 pairs with a six-speed automatic. It makes acceptably smooth shifts and quick kickdowns, but where it excels compared to other automatics is in the shift quickness of its clutchless-manual mode, which enhances the appeal of this feature immensely. Clutchless-manuals aren't usually that compelling because many aren't that responsive — you might move the gear selector to change gears then wait a second for it to happen. When you nudge the gear selector in the xDrive50i — to downshift or upshift — the gear change happens nearly instantaneously, and this makes the mode much more enjoyable to use.
Gas mileage for the xDrive35i is 15/20 mpg city/highway; it dips to 13/18 mpg for the xDrive50i.
Toward the end of my time with the X6 xDrive35i, an electrical problem cropped up that nearly brought this SUV to its knees. All of the gauges and displays in the instrument panel went dead and the drivetrain defaulted to a low-power mode in which the SUV could still be driven, but with significantly reduced responsiveness. A BMW dealer was able to bring the X6 back to health, but it was disconcerting to experience a problem this big in a new vehicle.
The X6 comes with vented disc brakes at all four corners that stop this large SUV handily. The brake pedal only needs light pressure to engage the brakes, which are easily controlled.
The X6's cabin is something of a dichotomy. The severe dashboard angles and technology-laden center console — which features a joystick-style gear selector for the automatic transmission and the iDrive control knob — might be intimidating to some drivers, but the rich, upscale materials like wood, aluminum and soft leather invite you in a way that the design might not.
The front sport seats, however, are quite comfortable. They feature wide bottom and backrest cushions, include adjustable thigh support, and are covered in leather and suedelike Alcantara.
Climbing out of the driver's seat is more of a chore than it should be; in order to swing your left leg out to reach the ground, you have to clear a wide rocker panel that without fail rubs against your pants, even when you're trying to avoid it. This has always been a problem with the X5, especially in dusty regions and on road-salt-covered winter roads.
Most SUVs have a bench seat in the second row, but the X6 has two bucket seats, so its maximum seating capacity is just four. There's a center console between the rear seats that has cupholders, storage bins and a 12-volt power outlet. There's decent legroom in the backseat, but the X6's sloping roof noticeably encroaches on headroom. The rear door openings and the position of the bucket seats make graceful exits difficult.
Another downside of the X6's coupelike shape is poor rear visibility; the rear window is a mere slit in the rearview mirror.
Despite the X6's sloping back end, the SUV has more cargo room than a two-row X5: 25.5 cubic feet as opposed to the X5's 21.9 cubic feet. The FX, meanwhile, has 24.8 cubic feet of space. If you need more room, the X6's split-folding backseat folds down nearly flat with the cargo floor to make 59.7 cubic feet of space.
As of publication, the X6 hasn't been crash-tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The SUV comes with a number of standard safety features, including antilock brakes, side-impact airbags for the front seats, side curtain airbags, active front head restraints and an electronic stability system.
X6 in the Market
You might be thinking to yourself: Why is BMW coming out with another SUV? Well, the South Carolina-built X5 has been a solid seller for BMW, giving the brand a foothold in the SUV segment, but the X6, which is built alongside the X5, seems to better align with BMW's Ultimate Driving Machine motto. From its looks to its performance, the X6 holds to the idea of a driver's car more closely than the X5, but it does so without losing traditional SUV characteristics, like a taller seating position and cargo versatility.
The X6 goes up against an established competitor in the FX, which Infiniti has refined for 2009. The driving experience in the FX is much the same as the X6, but what's sure to appeal to many people looking for a performance SUV is the all-wheel-drive FX's significantly lower starting price, which is about $10,000 less than the X6's $52,500 base price. That's a big difference, even in this part of the market.
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