Preview Drive: 2009 BMW X6

Brand-new Sport Activity Coupe has four side doors, but looks coupelike and behaves with BMW's brand of on-road excellence

by James M. Flammang

2009 BMW X6

GREENVILLE, South Carolina - Plenty of new models have been called distinctive, or even unique, by their promoters. BMW's latest, the X6 Sport Activity Coupe, is one that honestly deserves such a claim.

Nothing else on the market looks much like the X6, and few passenger vehicles are packed with as much innovative technology. Then again, this is a BMW, which suggests top-notch road behavior and energetic performance - accompanied by a hefty price tag.

It's not really a coupe, of course, despite BMW's claim that its "roofline makes it a real coupe." Sure, that roofline is coupelike - more so than some actual coupes, in fact. But that rearward-sloping roof sits above a four-door body, not a two-door. In that respect, it's a little reminiscent of the Mercedes-Benz CLS-Class; but that's strictly a sedan, while the X6 is closer to an SUV ... sorry, "Sport Activity" vehicle, in BMW's parlance.

Two twin-turbo engines are offered: a 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder in the X6 35i, and a 4.4-liter V-8 in the X6 50i edition. The latter whips up no fewer than 400 horsepower and 450 pound-feet of torque, whereas 35i buyers will have to be content with a mere 300 horsepower. Both engines drive a six-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters for manual gear changes.

All X6 models have xDrive (all-wheel drive), as well as BMW's new Dynamic Performance Control. That system delivers continously variable torque between left and right wheels. In a tight turn, additional torque can be applied automatically to the inner wheels, to help keep the X6 properly on course, correcting any oversteer that's occurred. What's available at each wheel is said to be "virtually independent of the level of input torque." Torque to the wheels can also be altered front to rear, according to BMW's Heinz Krusche, which may shorten braking distance. In effect, Krusche says the X6 can virtually be steered with the rear wheels.

Road behavior approaches perfection, matched by forceful performance - though snug back seat hinders practicality

Nothing is perfect, but the X6 50i comes awfuly close. Few vehicles hug the road, caressing its curves, as staunchly as this stylish new BMW model. Few take off in such a hurry, either - even when pushing the gas pedal only halfway. (Actually, response doesn't really increase much beyond that halfway point.) Touch the pedal and the twin-turbo V-8 delivers a startling wallop, to get you started vigorously toward cruising speed.

All this activity is accompanied by an exhaust sound that's reminiscent of old-time "muscle cars," a blend of gurgle and snarl. Yet, the X6 5.0i quiets down nicely while cruising.

Performance isn't much less energetic overall in the X6 35i, but that six-cylinder model doesn't start off with the same kind of "kick." With either engine, the automatic transmission does its job without fuss. In fact, it functions so well that the paddle shifters on the steering wheel aren't really necessary, except to maintain a lower gear when headed downhill. Manual gear-changing can take place while you're in Drive mode, too.

Ride quality on good roads is wholly satisfying. Even when the X6 50i hits a bump or hole, recovery is so immediate and effective that it hardly matters. The X6's relatively heavy steering feel is fully appropriate for a vehicle of this nature. This BMW's level of precise control through constant winding two-lane roads, some of the curves quite tight, is tough to beat.

BMW's iDrive control system, with its big knob on the console, tends to bring praise from some drivers and scorn from others. In the X6, naysayers may feel that it's more tolerable than in some other BMW models.

Everything has its downside, and in the case of the X6, it's the two-place back seat. Front seats are magnificent and roomy. The driver's seat feels like it was custom-made for the operator's physique: like a personally-crafted cocoon, with excellent support to match the comfortable cushioning and long seat bottoms. In the rear, it's another story. Headroom back there is close to nonexistent, especially when you lean a little to the side. Leg space is better, but still nothing to exclaim about.

A quick glance at the X6's profile reveals that it could hardly be otherwise. A roofline that slopes downward so markedly to the rear could hardly have much head space beneath it. Lack of grab handles for front occupants is another demerit in an otherwise masterful machine. Rearward visibility also is a drawback, both straight to the rear and through the back quarters.

BMW manufactures all X6 models, for U.S. as well as worldwide distribution, at its ultra-clean factory in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Some 4,600 "associates" work two 10-hour shifts to turn out about 660 vehicles per day. The X6 is assembled right alongside BMW's Z4 and X5. BMW is planning a $750 million plant expansion.

Prices start at $53,275 (plus $775 destination charge) for the X6 35i. Moving up to the V-8 version brings the starting price to $63,775. Plenty of options are offered, too, including Active Steering, navigation, and a head-up display. A Dual-Mode Hybrid version of the X6, dubbed "Active Hybrid," is planned for 2009.

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© All contents copyright 2008 by Tirekicking Today
Text and photos by James M. Flammang
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