Leave it to BMW to once again break the mold for the typical crossover SUV design with its 2009 BMW X6. It wasn’t long ago that the Bavarian automaker created the SAV (Sports Activity Vehicle) segment with its X5 series, boasting to the world that its first crossover vehicle was conceived outside the box labeled "SUV." Now BMW is penning a new acronym for the world's consumers to scratch their collective heads over: SAC (Sports Activity Coupe).
Based on the X5 platform, the X6 holds true to its unique moniker (SAC) with a sportier coupe-like roofline than the X5. With a drag coefficient of 0.37 and electronically actuated cooling flaps located just behind its twin kidney grill, the X6 cuts through the air effortlessly like a scalpel. Speed is very deceptive in this car. At 80 mph you feel like you are only going 60 mph. High speed stability is amazing and the slightly raised ride height gives you the allusion that you are going slower than you are due to the fact that you are farther from the road surface than you would be in a sports car. The X6 also has a relatively quiet cabin at highway speeds due to its improved aerodynamic efficiency.
The only drawback to the unique design is that entry into the vehicle can be a pain because of the combination of a lowered roof line and raised ride height. Furthermore, aggressive side bolsters on the seat cushions of Sports Package equipped models can be difficult to clear for anyone other than a contortionist.
While the SAC’s significant difference to its X5 relative may be summed up in terms of the hindrance to cargo capacity afforded by the X6's more seductive roofline, the new Bimmer actually differentiates itself from a driving-dynamics standpoint as well. BMW is using the X6 as a guinea pig to reveal a couple of new drivetrain and suspension system advancements.
The first new bit of technology is something BMW calls Dynamic Performance Control. Essentially it is a performance oriented improvement to the XDrive all-wheel-drive system. By varying the amount of torque sent to each of the rear wheels, Dynamic Performance control increases directional stability in high speed cornering situations. The system does an admirable job of helping the X6 track straight and true along the driver’s intended path even at high speeds on winding, grooved highways such as the treacherous highway 17 through the Santa Cruz Mountains.
The second piece of technology is what BMW calls Adaptive Drive. Available as part of the optional Sports Package, Adaptive Drive adds electronic damper control to BMW’s already proven Active Roll Stabilization system. There are two modes: normal and sport.
With the system in sport mode, the X6 gobbles up the PCH like it is merely an appetizer. With every twist and turn near Big Sur, you become more and more confident in the X6’s abilities. The harder you push it, the sportier and more capable it feels. Sudden dips and bumps do not unsettle the suspension despite the stiffness of the low profile run-flat tires. Together Active Roll Stabilization and Active Damping enable the X6 to handle high speed turns over bumpy and undulating surfaces without any noticeable sacrifice in ride quality while in Sport Mode.
Both engine and transmission perform up to BMW standards. Our tester was an XDrive 35i. Its 3.0 liter direct-injection twin-turbo inline-six was typically smooth and punchy. While the turbos can be a bit raspy while cruising around town with the windows down, the low-end torque they provide at highway speeds only adds to the X6’s ability to pour on the speed without breaking a sweat. However, the song of the inline-six at full throttle in the upper rev range can be an addictive melody that can take a toll on gas mileage.
There are three shift programs to choose from with the six-speed automatic transmission: normal, sport, and manual. While normal mode is suitable for slow paced, low rpm cruising, sport mode does a much better job of keeping the turbos spooled up and the engine in its power band for spirited driving. For those of you control freaks who just have to shift for yourself, you’ll be glad to know there is a manual mode that — unlike many autostick manual modes out there — does not override your gear choice no matter how absurd it may be for the given situation. Furthermore, manually enacted shifts are quicker albeit not as smooth as most manumatics on the market.
F1 fans may or may not appreciate the paddle shifter functionality. Unlike conventional paddle shifters, BMW gives the driver the ability to up-shift and down-shift with a single paddle. Depending on whether you are a righty or a lefty, you push your favorite paddle forward with your thumb for down-shifts and pull the paddle back with your fingertips for up-shifts. The benefit is that you will not have to worry about forgetting which paddle does what when you’re busily spinning the wheel through winding back roads.
While the X6’s steering is very precise and direct in fast paced maneuvers, some may find the electric power assisted rack and pinion a bit heavy and lacking in on-center feedback for parking lot maneuverability. But no one will have complaints about the brakes. Unlike many SUVs out there (not that BMW considers the X6 an SUV) the big Bimmer’s brake pedal is firm and fade resistant. Furthermore, there is no spongy section to wade through before you get to the affective zone of the pedal’s travel.
In summary, the X6 is not the most practical crossover on the market, far from it in fact. But, while a treasure map won’t likely lead you to the perfect blend of a sports car’s agility and an SUV’s commanding perch over the road, with the 2009 X6, BMW proves that, in this case, “X” marks the spot.
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