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The BMW X6 is a hard riding but generally accomplished big soft-roader. Just make sure you can live with the looks

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The BMW X6 was BMW’s third X model. Its first was the BMW X5, in 1999, which it claimed was the first Sports Activity Vehicle, because it was meant to be – and was, in truth – a decent drive on the road. That was followed by the BMW X3 in 2003.

BMW didn’t show a concept of the X6 until the Frankfurt motor show in 2007. The production X6 had its debut at Geneva the following March. It was the first BMW whose whole range will feature turbocharged engines.

The looks won't appeal to everyone, but there's no denying its impressive dynamics

The X6 represents another niche for BMW, and another answer to a question we thought no one was going to ask. But ask they have, because the BMW X6 has sold well.Think of it, really, as BMW’s tall answer to the Mercedes-Benz CLS. It’s largely the same as the car on which it’s based (the Merc Mercedes-Benz E-Class in the Mercedes’ case, the X5 here), only with rather more design flair and quite a lot less practicality.

Following a recent facelift, the range comprises three petrol engines and three diesels. The mainstream petrols are badged xDrive35i (using a 3.0-litre, six-cylinder engine) and xDrive50i (a 4.4-litre V8). The 4.4 V8 M is actually true to its badge; it uses a tweaked version of the 4.4-litre V8 that produces 547bhp. The diesel xDrive30d and xDrive40d use different versions of BMW’s 3.0-litre, six-cylinder diesel. The newest addition to the range is BMW's tri-turbo diesel, a three-litre unit based on the existing six-cylinder engines. It powers the X6 M Performance model, the M50d.

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DESIGN & STYLING

BMW X6 fake rear diffuser
This isn’t a real diffuser, but it adds some muscle to the rear end. If you get down low you can see the X6’s flat underbody

To make the BMW X6, the company turned to the mechanicals of its X5. The two models both roll from BMW’s Spartanburg plant in the United States and the oily parts of both are, if not quite identical, then at least separated at birth.

Ah yes, the X6’s appearance. Seldom has a car divided opinion as much as this one. And seldom has so much of that opinion been negative. But while the X6 does impose itself perhaps too abruptly for a lot of tastes, it has been adeptly converted from concept to production with little dilution, and it does have some striking angles.

Despite the huge external dimension, interior space is surprisingly tight

It’s all about presence at the front. The four swaged lines down the bonnet and the large headlights (gas discharge as standard) are all meant to make the X6 look imposing. They do.

The frontal air intakes are split to make the X6 look even wider than it is. Not that they really need to. At 1983mm, it’s 50mm wider than an X5 — about as wide as cars can get before they won’t fit in car washes.

The kidney grilles are the largest ever seen on a BMW. We’re told (though we have our doubts) that they need to be this big to feed the engine with the requisite amount of air. There’s no denying they lend a certain visual impact, though. The revisions have exaggerated this impact further by increasing the the impression of width with the X6. This has been achieved with repositioned fogs, even wider kidney grilles and a new light arrangement.

It isn’t a real diffuser at the back, but it adds some muscle to the rear end. If you get down low you can see the X6’s impressively flat underbody.

With such a beefy front, there’s a risk that the X6 could look limp at the rear. Its high bootlid, pronounced rear wheel arches and strong horizontal lines prevent that.

BMW has managed to give the X6 an authentic coupé roofline. Its height peaks above the front seats then slopes gently towards the rear.

INTERIOR

BMW X6 steering wheel
Paddles on steering wheel are standard on pseudo-sporty X6. They both perform upshifts and downshifts

Perhaps predictably, BMW has lifted much of the X5's cabin design for the X6, which is no bad thing at all. The dashboard, centre console and front seats are all the same as those of the X5, and in the front half of the cabin there’s plenty of room.

Differences over the X5 include a sports steering wheel with gearshift paddles and knee pads on the centre console, in a not entirely successful attempt to add some sporting appeal. Mostly there is just the same feeling as in the X5, in that the X6 has a well assembled cabin made from generally fine materials. The iDrive control unit sits on the centre console, together with the electronic gear selector and handbrake. The glovebox is a little small but it’s supplemented by a cubby between the seats. The seats themselves are excellent: large, well bolstered and highly adjustable.

BMW reckons the X6’s boot will take four sets of golf clubs. We don’t doubt it, but long clubs will have to come out of the bag

It’s easy enough to find a decent driving position, or possibly even more than one; the seats and steering wheel adjust high enough to allow a commanding view, but the seat also reaches sufficiently low, and the wheel sufficiently far, to allow a lower, more relaxed, pseudo-sporting position.

Rear accommodation – rather inevitably, given the slope of the roofline – is less impressive. BMW has done what it can; this is a strict four-seater, so there’s plenty of shoulder room, and the cabin roof is contoured to allow as much headroom as possible. Legroom is perfectly acceptable, anyway. But there’s no getting away from the fact that anyone of above-average height will probably feel cramped.

The boot is large enough for everyday use, although its load sill, at almost 900mm off the ground, is very high.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

BMW X6
To help counter the understeer, the X6 gets a new rear diff, dubbed Dynamic Performance Control

The BMW X6’s twin-turbocharged six-cylinder diesel is an excellent device in all its other applications, and so it proves in the X6. The 301bhp of the more powerful diesel makes it quick enough, as a claimed 0-62mph time of 6.5sec proves. But it’s the torque – some 443lb ft – that helps to make this engine, and a car as heavy as the X6, so driveable. The rev range is broad and smooth, while the six-speed automatic gearbox makes its shifts cleanly and intelligently.

The 30d is no slouch, either; its single turbo helps to produce 241bhp and the same amount of torque as its larger brethren, with a 0-62mph time of 7.5sec. If you are buying the BMW X6 while wearing your sensible head, then this is the powerplant that is most likely to tick the boxes of performance versus economy and emissions figures.

We didn’t like the electronic gearbox controller at first, but it grows on you; it takes up less room on the console and is intuitive enough

Both engines are sufficiently flexible that they rarely a need to ask the six-speed auto to kick down, but when it does the X6 is fast through itincrements. They are relatively quiet engines, too, and those noises they do make sound cultured and powerful.

Power for the M car comes from a 4395cc V8 motor that puts out 547bhp and 501lb ft of torque, providing the 2380kg X6 with the ability to pass 62mph from standstill in just 4.7sec. That makes this 4x4 faster than the manual BMW M3 coupe.

The engine is a masterpiece, delivering power instantly and in a constant surge. Much of that smooth delivery is due to the six-speed automatic gearbox (there is no other transmission option), but the engine has an impressive level of flexibility through the rev range, never feeling out of its depth.


Its new diesel equivalent, the X6 M50d, offers equally devastating performance. With 376bhp, it lags behind the petrol car for outright power but counters with a huge 546lb ft, a 45lb ft advantage. This is the figure that enable the M50d to accrue astonishing speed from almost any revs, although some lag is noticeable. Being equipped with an eight-speed auto helps to negate some of this effect by providing closely stacked ratios. For now, BMW's three-litre triple-turbo diesel is unrivalled for power and performance.

The lower powered petrols don't lack for performance, either, but they will remain niche choices at least in the UK, thanks to the workload they have to go through to haul the X6 along, and the subsequently poor economy figures they deliver.

In the dry, the X6 stops well. It is less impressive in the wet, adding 15 metres to the distance in the dry in our tests, though this remains fair for a car of the X6’s bulk.

 

RIDE & HANDLING

BMW X6 cornering
There’s a hint of body roll, but the optional active anti-roll bars soon step in to limit it

The title of this section suggests two different criteria, and few other recent cars, apart from the Mitsubishi Evo X, have divided themselves so distinctly across the two areas as the BMW X6.

Let’s consider the X6’s ride first, because of the two disciplines this is considerably its weaker one. The X6 rides amazingly firmly for a vehicle with such a large kerb weight – the sort of heft that usually means a car is able to brush off minor surface abrasions.

The new Dynamic Performance Control limited-slip differential shifts power to the outside rear wheel to help tighten the line

Not so the BMW. Despite the X6’s weight, its urban ride is very unsettled, thumping and jiggling continually over scarred asphalt. Things improve a little as speed rises, but not drastically. Even at motorway speeds the X6 seldom feels calm except on the smoothest of new surfaces, so regardless of how comfortable you can make yourself behind the wheel, it is not a relaxing car in which to cover long distances.

Having said that, certain improvements appear to have been introduced with the facelift. Whilst the X6 M50d does exhibit some road noise courtesy of its 20-inch wheels, we found motorway cruising very hushed. Its unsettled nature at urban speeds remains unresolved, though.

But there aren’t many tall, 4WD cars weighing this much that feel as agile as the X6; only the Porsche Cayenne GTS comes close. That’s partly because of the X6’s optional Active Steering, which increases assistance and speeds up the rack at low speeds, while reducing assistance and applied lock at higher speeds. At 2.0 turns lock to lock, the car feels more agile and easier to manoeuvre around town with this system fitted, while it feels more stable at speed. It works best around town, but most of our testers would still rather have a well judged conventional rack.

BMW admits that its four-wheel drive system is geared more for response on road than off it, so don’t expect great things from the X6 if you do take it off road. That said, it has a flat underside and a very short front overhang.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

BMW X6
The BMW X6 has challenging looks but impressive dynamics. It is good value too

The BMW X6 is priced comparably to the equivalent X5 models, although options differ a little. Standard equipment is reasonable, though there is an argument that a CD changer and satellite navigation should be standard. The options on our test car added the best part of £10,000, at which point the range has by some margin passed its sweet spot.

Running costs are respectable for a car of this size. It is predicted to depreciate in line with its competitors. Official emissions figures mean company buyers are only likely to contemplate the diesels.

The xDrive35d is the economy king of the range, but it'll still drink like a thirsty fish

But what it is not is frugal. The xDrive30d’s official combined consumption figure is 38.2mpg and the touring figure just over 40mpg, but we couldn’t get anywhere near BMW’s claims for the X6. We'd expect similar disparities to emerge across the range.

As you’d expect, the M version does the planet no favours with CO2 of 325g/km and claimed economy of 20.3mpg. The xDrive50i doesn’t do much better with an average of 22.6mpg. The 35i gets closer to a 30mpg claimed average at 28.0mpg. It’s no surprise, unless performance is your ultimate goal, that most buyers favour the pacey diesels.

Does the M50d offer the ideal compromise? It's real-world pace is on a par with the X6M, yet its combined fuel consumption is only fractionally worse than that of the xDrive30d’s 38.2mpg, at 36.7. Of course, this would be difficult to match with the performance on offer, but to add so much extra power for seemingly little cost appears remarkable.

That said, the X6 compares well with rivals such as the Range Rover Sport or Porsche Cayenne, none of which can match the BMW’s economy figures. The X6 also compares well when it comes to resale values; the 35d, as the most popular variant, should hold on to around half of its original price after three years.

VERDICT

4 star BMW X6
The X6 offers a genuinely sporty drive. Only the Cayenne GTS comes close

More than usual in a road test, it seems important to think about fitness for purpose with the BMW X6. Does the world really need a car with such large external dimensions that has such limited interior space?

Given the size and weight of the car, it handles with an alacrity that’s more in keeping with a 3-series coupé (which has a similar amount of space inside). BMW’s engines are a delight to use, whichever one you choose. And while none of them could be described as particularly frugal, they stack up well against rivals.

The only real disappointments are that it is not lighter, more frugal and that it doesn’t ride as well as it should. Having said that, it is hard to deny that in all other respects it’s excellent

Where the X6 falls behind, though, is on interior space and ride comfort. Neither a Porsche Cayenne nor a Range Rover Sport is particularly spacious or comfortable to ride in the back of, but they offer space for five (the X6 has only four seats) and head room in the back isn’t a problem. Nor can the X6 match its rivals’ ride quality. The X6 simply feels too rigid to provide any form of ride comfort.

So, what has BMW achieved? It has taken a sound platform with a smattering of all-road ability and given it truly excellent on-road agility and performance. It has given the X6 looks that are, if nothing else, distinctive, and it retains sufficient interior space for those who don’t routinely carry dogs or adults. Above all, it has made a car people want. The only real disappointments are that it is not lighter, it is not more frugal and that it doesn’t ride as well as it should. Having said that, it is hard to deny that in all other respects it’s excellent.

BMW X6 2008-2014 First drives