Is More Agility Worth Less Utility?
It looks awkward in pictures and some find it hideous, but the 2008 BMW X6 50i isn't nearly as warped when you see it in person. It's kind of a supermodel from behind, with a slim, narrow roof at the top and curvaceous hips at the bottom. Designers call this sort of thing tumblehome, and an SUV without it looks like a refrigerator.
The front is all BMW with a big twin kidney grille and fighter-jet-size intakes at each corner. The roof line goes on forever in profile, giving the X6 a hatchback-style look that's unique at best, a little too forced at worst. The designers at BMW say it's "coupelike," so they — and they alone — call the X6 a Sports Activity Coupe.
It gets better from behind the wheel. Fire up the new 400-horsepower, 4.4-liter V8 and it sounds more like a carbureted big block than a sophisticated twin-turbo engine with direct injection. We don't remember an X5 sounding this burly.
So far this much is clear — pictures don't do the all-wheel-drive 2008 BMW X6 justice.
Lots of Power, Lots of Weight
On the road in North Carolina to drive the 2008 BMW X6 for the first time, we're fully expecting the X6 to smack us silly with its 450 pound-feet of torque. But this never quite happens. Instead, the six-speed automatic transmission shifts tentatively, as if it's worried that unleashing too much force at one time might eat a driveshaft or two.
Which may be the case, but it makes us doubt BMW's claimed 0-to-60-mph time of 5.3 seconds for the X6. That's only 0.3 second slower than the last 135i we tested, and the tiny coupe weighs 1,906 pounds less.
Yeah, that's no typo. The xDrive50i, as it's known in BMW-speak, weighs in at 5,269 pounds. That's 319 pounds more than the Porsche Cayenne S, an SUV that has never once been called light on its feet. Porsche claims a 0-to-60-mph time of 6.4 seconds for the 385-hp Cayenne S, so BMW's estimate of the X6's ability seems a bit optimistic.
That said, the power of the new twin-turbo BMW V8 is hardly the problem. The torque peak arrives early at 1,750 rpm and doesn't waver until 4,500 rpm. Throttle lag from the two turbos buried between the cylinder banks is minimal and the all-aluminum engine spins up to its 6,500-rpm redline without a noticeable hesitation in thrust.
And the sounds this BMW V8 makes are unmatched by any SUV on the road. Whether it's burbling at idle or headed for redline, the X6 makes you want to drive with the windows open to hear it do its work.
We Want More for Our $8,500
Once we discover the 2008 BMW X6 isn't the rocket we expected, we figure maybe the handling will convince us that the X6 is worth its $8,500 premium over the BMW X5 4.8i. But after 20 miles of wet switchbacks in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, we're still not buying it.
Don't get the wrong impression; the X6 is shockingly agile. The quick steering makes it easy to arc into bends, and there's so little body roll that you feel like you're barely pushing the vehicle's limits. The massive 14.4-inch brake rotors up front burn off the speed in an instant and the fat tires are gripping the pavement like it's bone dry.
Unless you drive it back-to-back with the X5, however, you'd be unlikely to notice any particular improvement over the 2008 BMW X5.
Compared to the X5, a slightly revised front suspension helps the X6 track better over rough surfaces while a 2-inch-wider rear track adds some stability. Our test vehicle also has the optional Sport package, which adds an impressive set of 20-inch wheels wrapped in 275/40R20 tires up front and 315/35R20 rubber in back, a combination that's also available for the X5.
Yes, Another Acronym
One advantage the X6 has over the X5 — and just about any other SUV save the Acura MDX — is a new torque distribution system known as Dynamic Performance Control (DPC). In simplest terms, DPC is able to redirect power to each of the four wheels in varying degrees. And it's not just for traction control either, as DPC actively intervenes to help control the directional stability of the X6 as well. (The 2008 Saab 9-3 Aero XWD recently gave us a taste of much the same thing in a sedan package.)
Powering out of tight hairpins, we feel only the slightest hints of the system working, but there's no doubt that the X6 is firing out of wet corners with impressive drive. Still, BMW figured the X6 might need some help demonstrating the new system, so it arranged for us to drive a road course at Michelin's Laurens proving grounds that had been soaked by sprinklers.
Flat-footing the X6 out of soaked hairpins here makes the benefit of DPC far more obvious. In most SUVs, such a maneuver would initiate the intervention of so many various stability control systems that the gas pedal would be rendered useless. With DPC, you still get power, but it jumps from one wheel to the other as each one struggles to grab the pavement. The forward bite is a little jerky when you're hard on the throttle, and we have to remind ourselves that even DPC has its limits and we should be wary of pedaling the X6 right into the grass.
We get some time on a dry course as well and here again the X6 is solid and precise where most other SUVs would be flailing with understeer. There's so much grip from the massive tires we wonder if we could go much faster with a proper sports car. Yes, it's that good. Still, the X5 remains stuck in our heads. Would we be going much slower and with any less confidence in a 4.8i? Not by much.
The Utility of a Coupe
With all the fun stuff out of the way, we're left to consider the X6's cabin. The low roof makes it obvious that there's less space inside, but does it matter much? Depends what you consider important. Up front, we don't notice a thing. Without looking at the impossibly small hatch opening in the rearview mirror, we can't tell the difference between the X6 and the bigger X5.
Nearly all the design elements are the same. There are simple analog gauges, high-quality interior trim and an overly complex yet space-saving console-mounted shift lever. All X6s get a sport steering wheel as standard as well as cushions on the center console to help brace you while you're cornering hard.
The rear seats in the X6 are designed to hold only two passengers, so there's a big center console back there, too. The seats prove far more comfortable than your standard three-person bench seat, although the low roof shaves nearly 2 inches of headroom from the X5's numbers.
There's plenty of legroom and decent foot room under the front seats, but we quickly determine that with two adults in back, the overall rearseat space feels cramped. Maybe it's the fact that if you're over 6 feet you can rest your head on the roof, or the slightly reduced shoulder room. Either way, it's tighter and less comfortable than an X5.
It's the same story when it comes to cargo room. The X6 has a respectable 59.7 cubic feet of cargo space with the second-row seats folded, but the X5 offers up to 75 cubic feet in the same configuration.
Is More Agility Worth Less Utility?
When the drive is done, we're still scratching our heads. An extra $8 grand for a little more motor, fewer seats with less room and an all-wheel-drive system you'll hardly ever know is there?
The 2008 BMW X6 is trying to make the utility vehicle a personal vehicle, something stylish, powerful and agile. But the compromises in utility leave us wondering if BMW has just created a very heavy small car at a very big price. No amount of tumblehome is going to change that.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.