BMW X6 Testdrive
Today I had a little bit of a treat. I had the opportunity to test-drive two different flavours of a very exciting car, the BMW X6. Derided by many for being a pointless example of a niche too far, an SUV with a headroom-compromising coupé roof line and only two seats in the back or Sports Activity Coupé (SAC) in BMW-speak, it is nonetheless a handsome, muscular looking vehicle in my opinion. And it drives like no 2+ tonne vehicle has any right to do – fantastically.
I apologise in advance for the ridiculous BMW naming-convention… First up was a black X6 xDrive 40d. In the past the numbering on a BMW would indicate the capacity of the engine e.g. a 740i would have a 4 litre engine, but in this case the 40d is actually a 3 litre diesel with twin sequential turbo chargers. It’s the most powerful diesel engine currently offered by BMW and has 225kW (306hp) and, more importantly, 600Nm of torque. This X6 was fully loaded with every imaginable option to the extent that I was a little scared to ask the price. The base price in Belgium is 68k€ and I would eat my Trilby if this one had a price that began with anything less than a 9. Here’s a small sample of the options on the car: Lane Departure Warning, Head Up Display, Active Cruise Control, Dynamic Damper Control, electric tailgate, soft-close doors, rear-view camera, front-view camera, side-view camera (I’m not kidding), electric memory seats, TV function, rear DVD player, ventilated & heated seats, sunroof… I could go on but I’m sure you get the picture.
I had a very quick explanation from the staff at the BMW Driving Centre before setting off because I hadn’t used the fancy new joystick-style automatic shifter before. It’s quite intuitive but a little instruction never goes amiss and I might not have noticed some of the features during my short drive such as the frankly excellent Auto Hold function. When activated, this function allows you to bring the car to a complete stop and then remove your foot from the brake. Despite being a traditional automatic it won’t creep forward as the electronic handbrake is now activated. Then when your traffic light turns green you simply press the accelerator and the handbrake automatically disengages. Seamless and simple. Excellent feature. I was also asked if I would go a little easy on the car during my test-drive as it had less than 100kms on the clock and was not run in yet. Not a problem for me – I’m nothing if not mechanically sympathetic – and this engine has so much torque you really don’t need to rev it hard to go fast anyway.
Setting off I was immediately impressed with the gruff rumble from the diesel engine and the eagerness with which it surged forward when requested. In this model the automatic is an 8-speed unit which gives almost imperceptible shifts and allows the engine to spend more time in its optimum torque band. I was also very impressed with the combination of the compliant ride and it’s ability to corner without any body-roll. This is down to the trick Adaptive Suspension Control which obsessively monitors and controls every tiny movement of the suspension. I had turned on all the nanny functions in the car so the cruise control would automatically slow when there was another car in front (all the way to a complete stop if necessary) and the steering wheel would vibrate in my hands if I wandered out of my lane without indicating first. My favourite feature though was the Head Up Display which projects an image on the windscreen so that it appears to be just in front of the car and can be easily focussed on without having to take your eyes off the road. It displays the speed limit for the road you are currently on and next to that, the amount you are exceeding it by… It also displays cruise control information, lane departure graphics and basic navigation information when you are using those functions. I found it to be extremely clear and not at all distracting. The only downside is that you can’t see it at all if you are wearing polarised sunglasses. I would buy new sunglasses…
After an hour or so I returned back to BMW to swap the 40d for my next flavour, a Vermillion Red X6 ActiveHybrid. First off, may I just say that that is a fantastic colour. A slightly deeper red than the Sedona Red on my 123d coupé, it really suits the X6 and attracted a lot more attention from the adoring public than the black one. The special 20″ aerodynamic wheels also make it stand out a little more. The hybrid version required slightly more explanation from the staff than the diesel even though you can just get in and drive it in the same way. It is a full hybrid like the Toyota Prius which means it can drive up to 60kph for a short distance entirely on electric power after which the petrol engine will automatically start and take over. However, whilst the Prius makes do with a yawn-inducing 1.5litre petrol engine and a 67hp electric motor the X6 has a 4.4litre V8 with twin turbo chargers and 2 electric motors, a 91hp one and an 86hp one, which, when combined with the V8, give it 357kW (485hp) and 780Nm of torque. Methinks the hybrid system isn’t really about saving fuel… they just wanted to make it even faster!
Anyway, my instructor showed me the graphical interface you can bring up on the iDrive screen which shows where the power is coming from at any given moment. It is just like the system on the Prius and shows energy flowing to and from the batteries. When the lines go red you are consuming petrol, warming the Earth, and hastening the extinction of low-lying nations (I expect) but when the lines go blue (blue is the new green apparently) you are either capturing braking energy to recharge the batteries or running on electric power. This is accompanied by cooling of the atmosphere, frolicking polar bears and a warm fuzzy feeling inside. Well that’s what the salesman said anyway…
The part-electric set-up gives the X6 four operating modes: eDrive, eBoost, Charge and Drive. eDrive is the most efficient and uses nothing but electrons to attain up to 60kph for up to 2kms. For the X6 to run solely on electric power you have to be extremely gentle with the accelerator. The slightest imprudent prod and the V8 will instantly surge into life. It took a little practice but actually works very well for meandering around towns and villages although the battery doesn’t last very long before the V8 is called into action to charge it up again. The most reliable way to keep it running on electric power is to just flick the cruise control on at about 50kph and it will happily cruise along consuming electrons rather than hydrocarbons. I drove the X6 through a small village near work and got a few curious stares as this giant red SUV glided silently past emitting nothing more than a faint whine from the electric motors. But really, as much of a novelty as this was, the V8 was more to my liking. eBoost uses the two electric motors to boost the V8 engine’s performance when needed and is the reason this beast never feels sluggish. ‘Charge’ mode means the regenerative brakes are capturing energy that would normally be lost from the discs, and finally, ‘Drive’ just means the X6 is using nothing but the V8 to move forward.
Once I was out on the highway I had an opportunity to unleash said beast and, Mother of God, does it go! I was lined up at the lights next to a sporty looking BMW 3 series, nothing but silence emanating from under the X6’s bonnet, with the occupants of the other car giving me a challenging look (in my mind anyway). The light turned green and I simply pressed the accelerator to the floor, the auto parking brake disengaged, the V8 sprang into life and 5.4 seconds later I was doing 100kph with a small 3 series-shaped object receding into the distance through the frankly ridiculously small rear window. Given that the X6 ActiveHybrid weighs 2,580kg this is a very impressive turn of speed although this acceleration potential is unfortunately reflected in the fuel consumption. It may be a hybrid but it’s certainly not a fuel miser. Still 13l/100km (18mpg) average probably isn’t that bad for such a heavy high-performance vehicle and it is 20% better than the non-hybrid V8 X6 xDrive 50i with similar performance. So let’s chalk that up as a win then.
I don’t believe that saving the planet was quite the point BMW was trying to make when they designed this vehicle. Instead it exists to show the motoring public that hybrids need not all be boring and self-righteous but can be dynamic, exciting and well, in-your-face. With it’s specially designed aerodynamic wheels (not available on any other X6) it intends to stand out as a beacon for BMW hybrid technology which will then flow down through the other models. It is already available in a slightly different form on the Hybrid7 and will soon be in the new 5 series and the up-coming 3 series. In any case, I found the X6 an amazing machine to drive, not least because of the intoxicating rumble from that big V8 and for that reason I would love to have one, but not the overly-complicated hybrid version. I would take the X6 xDrive 50i with the same V8 but no batteries or electric motors. Sure it doesn’t have quite the same power output but it weighs nearly 200kgs less and, unlike the hybrid, it doesn’t cost 120,000€! It does however fulfil all of my plutocratic fantasies. I’ll take it in red.