Friday, July 6, 2012

The Crossover

Exactly one year ago, I visited my long time friend who lives in the Black Forest of Germany, bordering France and Switzerland.  He has owned a BMW ever since I met him in 1990.  I’m not sure if living in this region inspired him to get a Bimmer or having a Bimmer inspired him to seek a challenging drive.  In either case, putting a BMW on the road in this beautiful mountainous area is always a recipe for an exhilarating driving experience.

The last time I had seen him was in 1999 and he had a 1996 BMW 3-series station wagon with a 6-speed manual transmission.  It was winter and I remember the two of us driving down the mountains from his house to go visit some of his friends in France.  The sides of the mountains were covered in snow and the roads were slick to say the least.  Of course I was nervous, but we made the two hour drive with no incidents.  It was a drive I’d always remember... for the way the Bimmer performed.  It was then that I gained a new respect for BMW.  Prior to that, I had a 1995 M3 and I knew it was a rocket on the street but riding in the 3-series on slick winding roads without any issues made me respect the brand even more.

This time, my friend picked me up at the airport in a 2009 650i and before you wonder, yes we took it on the Autobahn.  And yes we opened it up.  And yes it was awesome!  I was truly impressed, but then we got to his house and he had something even more impressive… a 2010 BMW X5 fitted with the M-Sport Package.  The X5 ended up being the car we took out daily during my week long stay.  I can go on for hours about how much this car impressed me.  The bottom line is that I had never been in an SUV that handled that way.  We took a two hour trip to Zurich through damp, winding, mountain roads at decent speeds and the big SUV ate up the road like a well-tuned sports car.  I was amazed at how this huge two ton “grocery getter” took care of every turn, incline, and decline with ease.  I was once again sold on BMW.  The only issue I had was that the X5 is big and not as sporty looking as I would like.  I always thought that if I could take the X5 and mate it with a 6-series, I’d have a nice looking sleek vehicle with very good utility.

Well, last week my wish came true… enter the BMW X6.  The guys at eCarOne gave me a 2009 BMW X6 35is to drive for a week.

We all know about the huge surge in the SUV market segment in the last 10 years or so but the X6 belongs in a slightly different market segment known as the Crossover, which is built on a car platform but combines various SUV features.  Some sources claim the term crossover began as a marketing term simply to entice young buyers who needed more cargo capacity but did not want to buy a minivan or SUV.  The idea of a crossover is to combine some SUV features such as light off-road capabilities, large cargo capacity, and good ground clearance with the features of a sports car such as sleek lines, good road manners and a sporty ride.

Today the crossover market segment spans a wide range of vehicles and lacks strict definition.  In fact, I think that some manufacturers have marketed vehicles as crossovers simply to avoid calling them station wagons.  Additionally, many vehicles represented as crossovers are really just SUVs but some are truly unique and can actually be called crossovers or sports activity vehicles.  In my opinion, there are two vehicles that have prioritized sportiness over utility and truly define what a crossover should be… those are the Infiniti FX and the BMW X6.

So, what is it about the X6 that makes it unique?  Well, for starters, it has four doors but only four seats… the back seat is split by a console much like a sports coupe like the 6-series.  This was the first big surprise, but I guess this feature further amplifies the uniqueness of this car.  What else?  Well, the design is truly different… we already deemed it a crossover, but unlike the Infiniti FX, the X6 does not have a typical SUV type rear tailgate.  It is actually a hatch that has a very coupe-like slope and hence it looks completely different from an SUV.  If this car was three inches lower and had lower profile tires, you could easily mistake it for a four door coupe (i.e. Audi A7, Porsche Panamera, Mercedes CLS).  That makes the X6 different from any other car on the road, in my opinion at least.

How about the driving experience?  I’m sure you can guess that I liked it because it’s a BMW and I have yet to dislike a Bimmer!  That is true, but it’s more than just the driving experience.  I expect to be impressed when I get into a 3-series or a 5-series, especially when equipped with the sports package.  However, I don’t expect any more from an SUV or a Crossover than to haul my kids to their soccer games, accompany me to the grocery store, and occasionally pull my jet ski to the lake.  This is all I expect from this market segment, but this is not all that BMW delivers.

The X5 in Germany was a 3.0 non-turbo V6 equipped with massive 315 tires in the rear, so no matter what we did, we could never lose traction.  Simply put, the tires were way more than this car needed.  On the other hand, the X6 has the same engine but with twin turbochargers so it has another 80 HP on tap and much more torque, yet it had much smaller tires.  In actuality, the engine/tire combo on the X6 is a proper setup, whereas the X5 in Germany was overkill.

In any case, I did not expect the X6 to handle like the X5 M-Sport in Germany.  I was wrong.  Despite the more powerful engine and the smaller tires, the X6 felt just as planted and sure footed as any other BMW I’ve been in.  What’s more impressive was the twin turbo 3 Liter V6 engine.  I’ve driven this engine in a 3-series coupe, a 5-series sedan and now in an X6 crossover.  I’ve driven it mated to a 6-speed manual, to a paddle shift automatic and a conventional automatic.  All I can say is that it is simply a masterpiece of an engine.  The torque is always available, and it pulls with no drama and no hesitation.  This has to be one of the best engines that BMW has produced to date.  Inside the car, the cabin was whisper quiet and rattle free (with 40,000 miles on the odometer).  I truly had no complaints about this car, except for the 2+2 seating configuration.

Although I’m not completely sold on the back seat having room for only two, I’m completely sold on the overall looks, performance and quality of the X6.  I have a large family, so it’s probably not for me but if you’re in the market for a sharp looking alternative to the prototypical SUV, then I urge you to consider the BMW X6, especially with the 3.0L twin turbo engine.  You won’t be disappointed.

Thanks for reading and happy driving.

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