When BMW launched its X5 back in 1999, Munich’s marketing mavens refused to categorize it as a sport/utility vehicle; instead, proclaiming its unibody, all-wheel-drive people-mover a Sports Activity Vehicle or SAV. Pretty tricky, eh? Well BMW is at it again, but this time it’s gone even further — behold, the 2009 BMW X6 Sports Activity Coupe, aka SAC.
It probably won’t come as a surprise that the X6 borrows from the X5’s chassis and electronics. As I outlined recently in my last blog, BMW builds the world’s supply of Z4s, X5s and now X6s on the same line, at the same plant, in Spartanburg, South Carolina, although Z4 production is eventually moving to Germany. While previously thought to be starting its life as a 2009 model, BMW’s official U.S. release and its consumer site refer to the X6 as a 2008.
A key difference between the SAV and the SAC can be traced to the X6’s roofline, which BMW designer Adrian van Hooydonk claims is cribbed from the 6 Series. I say it looks more Z4-ish, especially with the slight upward tilt at the rear. Whatever DNA it borrows from, it’s definitely striking. The roof peaks above the driver and front passenger before trailing back gracefully. Obscure the lower third of the X6, and it could easily pass as some hot new sport coupe. But once those muscular fenders and 20-inch rims come into view, it’s clear this vehicle is something completely different.
The X6 will come in two flavors for the U.S. market initially (a hybrid is all but assured and a diesel option is a possibility). The entry-level X6 xDrive 35i is powered by BMW’s fantastic and now tak asing twin-turbocharged, 3.0-liter inline-six, massaged to make 300 horsepower and 300 lb-ft of torque. The X6 xDrive 50i — its ballsier, bigger-engined brother — features the first application of the automaker’s all-new 4.4-liter twin turbo V-8 that pumps out 400 horsepower and an extra-stout 450 lb-ft of torque. Both engines are mated to BMW’s standard six-speed, paddle-shift automatic transmission, and power is routed to all four wheels via xDrive, the automaker’s proprietary all-wheel-drive system.
The X6 also serves as the debut vehicle for BMW’s new torque-vectoring system called Dynamic Performance Control (DPC). I explained it in depth during my earlier drive of the prototype X6, but basically, DPC is akin to Honda’s Super Handling-All Wheel Drive — though there is a key difference. DPC uses a “mechantronic” system of two planetary gear sets, a multiplate clutch, and an electric helper motor to divide torque between the rear wheels. And, unlike Honda’s system, BMW’s works in both on- and- off throttle situations.
DPC’s capabilities came into focus during our wet-track test drive at Michelin’s Laurens Proving Grounds. Despite a curb weight past 5200 pounds, the X6 xDrive 50i often handles like a much smaller vehicle. Ride is a combination of traditional BMW firmness with a bit of the roll you get with tall vehicles.
During quick changes of direction, xDrive and DPC really shine; on the slicked-up slalom, the X6 never lost traction. More difficult were the track’s tight, decreasing-radius turns. Come in too hot, and lift throttle oversteer becomes understeering madness in a hurry. While not as bad as the regular X5 I drove at the earlier prototype review, it was enough to make one point very clear — fancy electronics can’t overcome the laws of physics.
On the dry track the boys from BMW set up for us to tear up, gassing the burly V-8 out of corners managed to induce a fair amount of push understeer, but the X6 never plowed outright. Instead, the feeling was more like a heated tug-of-war between momentum and those fancy planetary gears and clutches — all played out to a soundtrack of singing, sometimes squealing tires (especially the massive 315-profile, 20-inchers in the back).
Squeal too much, and the traction control goes off – cutting the throttle and killing the fun. If you want to ride the line between giggles and grimaces, then drive with the Dynamic Traction Control (DTC) switch enabled. This allows for a bit of yaw, a bit of slip, and a few grins, before reeling you back in.
If BMW’s newfangled torque-vectoring system illustrates one thing, it’s that these fancy, intervening aids require faith on the part of the driver. Fast or slow, wet or dry, when things start to slip, you must curb your natural instincts. Keep your foot in it and trust the system to carry you through. I did it all day, and for the most part, it worked.
On the street, the issue is keeping your foot out of it. The X6 xDrive 50i is smooth and stealthy fast. Triple-digit speeds come so easily, the X6 could be citation machine for the lead-footed. On highways, the X6 cossets you in such style and comfort, it feels, well, kind of slow. Then you look down and find you’re doing double the speed limit.
Really put the hammer down and the V-8 rewards you with a cranium-filling sonic massage. At full roar the engine’s low tone mixed with the turbine whoosh of the twin turbos permeate the X6’s largely sound proof, leather-trimmed cabin.
As for the rest, it’s what we’ve come to expect from BMW. The thick, beefy steering wheel is shod in leather and anointed with several buttons for nav and volume — there’s even a heater for the wheel if you desire. Our loaded-up X50i tester featured i-Drive, which seemed no better or worse than the version found in the latest models. The driver and front passenger do get a slightly cheesy, but ultimately useful addition to the interior — a leather kneepad mounted to the center console, useful for bracing for corners or for when you want to drive like Johnny Bench.
To differentiate it from the now seven-passenger MPV the X5 has become, BMW yanked out the middle rear seat and replaced it with a handy console for drinks and gear. Headroom is not as compromised as the low roofline would suggest. Through the magic of product packaging, BMW managed to squeeze in plenty of legroom and just the right amount of rake in the seats so six footers with normal haircuts shouldn’t have a headroom problem.
So the X6 is powerful, agile, and surprisingly engaging, but questions persist about its mission in the marketplace. Given rising gas prices and the sinking economy, is a 400-horsepower, four-passenger, all-wheel-drive rocketship like the X50i really what the U.S. needs right now? Only time will tell.
WHEN 4.4 + 2 = 50?
If you’re wondering why the BMW X6 xDrive 50i’s name is such a mouthful, blame the Koreans first and the odd logic of BMW marketeers second.
Apparently, the variations of the alphanumeric name X650i are already taken by Samsung for a line of camera phones. Why not then go with X6 4.4i, following the X5 naming convention? Because then it would appear the X6 is lower in the lineup than the X5 4.8i, even though X6 is clearly more powerful, more performance oriented, and targeted toward a more sophisticated and affluent buyer. Hence the rationale for including the name of the all-wheel-drive system (xDrive) and adding a couple of nonsensical digits to the end (4.4-liters + 2 turbos apparently = 50), so it’s clear the X6 is at the top of the heap.