What happened when the curtains closed
So, at the end of the G30 ride and drive event, we had a sit-down with the manager of Product Communications, a smiley suit from BMW’s Group Communications Division, to have a word. The man is pleasant to be around and has a very good sense of humor. In our lively conversation, he at one point wanted to know if I had tried out the current lineup of BMW’s SAVs; what I call the X cars.
“Well, that’s no good. You have to try them.”
This is a conversation I have had several times before with other automakers, and it is usually followed by a promise to make a phone call to the local importer (what we know as “dealers” or “franchise holders”) instructing them to supply me with the vehicle in question within hours of my getting back home. These promises are sometimes (most times, actually) not kept, or the instructions not followed.
Not when the Communications Suit is around.
One of the support vehicles of our G30 convoy was an X6 M50d; while the shuttle van between the airport and the hotel was an X5 M50d – a pair of BMW’s top-tier diesel-powered landlubber tractors, and The Suit, thinking fast and exercising his powers, ordered them to be made immediately available for our appraisal. In other words, we got to play with them after the rest of sub-Saharan Africa’s motoring journalists had gone home. This is what transpired:
(The lengthy afternoon drive was preceded by a heavy lunch that threatened to send me straight to sleep, but once the black X5 M50d drove up to the hotel entrance, all the drowsiness left my head and I could not wait to get my hands on it. Well, I had to settle for the X6 M50d first because my Kenyan counterpart had the same desires as I did and he was not shy about acting on them. We agreed to switch cars somewhere up ahead; a fortuitous happenstance for me, as you will soon find out)
Since I drove the X6 first, then it gets looked at first
The exterior looks just like the outgoing car’s did: which means it is a mash-up of the roofline from a 6 Series Gran Coupé (the 4-door version) and the lower half of an X5. This also means I’m still not a fan, but when inside, at least you can’t see its silhouette. What you see instead is one of Germany’s finest interiors to ever grace a pretend-SUV. Then you fire it up. It is a diesel mill but there is no clutter or chug. Just oily, imperceptible smoothness and if you are absent-minded you might press the Start-Stop button again thinking the car is off, only to discover that you have just turned it off after all.
Nudge the throttle and the rev needle dances happily, again quite unlike a diesel engine. And this is one quirky diesel: it comes with not one, not two but three turbochargers. Eih? It says on the tin that this 3.0 liter tri-turbo six-cylinder is good for 380hp. Perhaps redemption looms for our past sour relationship?
The car is lovely to be in (up front), and has plenty of toys but it still suffers from the previous X6’s shortcomings, which is ironical given that the platform code for this transgender coupé-utility is F16, a name which immediately evokes thoughts of fighter aircraft.
As far as diesel-powered cars go, the X6 could as well be a fighter aircraft. It goes like stink and has a techy cockpit with displays on demand customized for the prevailing vehicle dynamics. I have not copy-pasted that last statement from a brochure somewhere, let me explain what I have just written:
In normal driving, you get a normal instrument cluster, with a speedo here and a tach there and little digits marking the various quantities and partitions thereof of each. The overall color scheme is white on black. Pretty regular stuff, really. In eco mode, the dash glows blue and the amount of details in the cluster increase. These now include a charging meter for the battery, whose significance we will be discussing in a later article. Then there is Sport mode. Everything goes red and all the little numbers disappear except for three of them: there is a large read out in the center of the speedometer that tells you how fast you are covering ground (the speedometer itself is now a red face clock with a needle; 0 on the bottom left corner, 260 on the bottom right corner and nothing in between… nothing else, just a black background.
Perhaps there is a good reason for this dearth of detail when in the sociopath setting, and that, I presume, is because you will not have time to decipher the readouts when you light up the afterburners on this F16. You will be too busy doing your damnedest to keep the car on the road.
The F16 may pull like an F16 but on uneven (not exactly rough) surfaces, it bobs and weaves a lot. You can feel its not-insignificant mass wiggling about, battling the suspension for composure. The car starts wandering all over the place. The steering is stiffer than the over-servoed affairs typifying the SUV experience as expected, and the car feels even bigger than it already is. You’d think you are in a Landcruiser, only with a much nicer interior. That means that the new X6 suffers the exact same problems that its predecessor suffered: it tries to be two things at the same time and fails at both.
What two things? Well, it is meant to be sporty, but the sport setting turns it into a bit of a handful on anything but mirror-smooth, arrow-straight tarmac. The X5 from which I presume it was derived and which I drove next, felt a lot better. It is also meant to be a lifestyle-y kind of car for mild adventuring; but one of those low profile tyres – back left – let go after taking a pounding on a murram road. Another fail became evident when, after installing the space-saver spare, there was nowhere to place the original massive rubber circle and it ended up filling valuable boot space, which was in short supply to begin with owing to the slanting roofline west of the B pillar.
[Note*: This X6, like the previous model I reviewed five years ago, and like almost all other BMWs, comes with run-flat tyres. They are convenient but they tend to compromise ride quality in general, and when the run-flat technology is in use – i,e when you have a puncture – the car is actually unpleasant to drive. That wheel change was not as necessary as it was desirable, if only to restore some of the driving niceness that comes from palming a BMW’s tiller. It is, after all, a BMW, all foibles aside].
The slanting roofline also brings about other complications. Let me deviate a little: when the “Bangled” 7 Series – the E65 – came about, one of its highlights was “cinema-hall” or “theatre” sitting, whereby the rear bench was marginally higher than the front pair. It makes for a nice view and commanding feeling when looking down (however slightly) on your chauffeur (7 Series have chauffeurs, not drivers; unless you are James Bond from last week). Quite a number of cars have tried to follow that formula with varying degrees of success, until in comes the X6.
The coupé-like curvature of the tin hat doesn’t require a soothsayer to immediately see that there will be problems with rear headroom, so the designers, to also immediately counteract this point in a smug I-totally-saw-this-coming way, sank the rear seat lower in the body to create space for people’s heads. Keep in mind that this is a 4WD vehicle and there has to be a driveshaft feeding the rear diff; and this driveshaft goes below the back-seat passengers’ derrieres and you can see that packaging becomes a whole new impediment. This, I think, is why the X6 is goddamn tall and yuuuge. Parts of the engineering had to be shoehorned into the design for it to make sense to those it makes sense to.
Enter the X5, code-named F15, and the difference is immediately noticeable. It feels more compact, visibility is infinitely better and like the 5 Series saloon, one can tell this was built with driver orientation in mind. It may not be the harbinger of inevitability* (*See Part II: The Implications of BMW’s New Tech, coming next week) that the X6 is, but it feels so much better. The X5 may seem a bit yesterday compared to the X6, but it is the one you will want to drive more; which begs the question: who exactly buys the X6 and why?
For starters, the F15 is a trifle more analog, which makes it just that much more appealing to old fogies like me. The instrument cluster is not digitally dynamic like the one in the new 5er or the F16. The steering is lighter and more direct, while the car feels more chuckable. It doesn’t seem as heavy as the X6, though, surprisingly, the numbers say otherwise: the X5 weighs in at 2265kg vs the X6’s 2185kg. Shocking, I know.
I didn’t get to try the X6M50d on unpaved roads, but mild off-roading in the X5 shows just how clever the gearbox is. There is plenty of engine braking when slowing down into corners or on descents; and this was without my having to press buttons or turn dials like in a Land Rover/Range Rover telling it where it is. The automatic downshifts were bang on; perfectly intuitive like the transmission control module was reading my mind.
The X5M50d trumps the X6 further in looks and practicality. Starting very subjectively with the colors of the cars at hand (the X5’s near-black and the X6’s muddy gray), more objectively the outline (the X5’s generic but handsome SUV profile vs. the X6’s centauride, lithe-upper stocky-lower frame) and ultimately the everyday usability (the X5’s “normal” boot vs the X6’s fastback hatch), the X5 has its brother against the ropes from the word go. The comfort levels and driving dynamics are just the final knockout punch, which again leads me to ask: who exactly cross-shops the X6 and why? I don’t quite buy the “his-and-hers” theorem that is always bandied about in explanation to the existence of both. Gender specification with regard to women as far as car design is concerned is a minefield you don’t want to navigate; Lamborghini (among others) famously found this out the hard way last year.
The “Third Wheel”
Now, you don’t think we were left to our own devices with the two expensive tractors, do you? Of course not. The Smiling Suit came with us, and he had his own special white horse in our flashy posse.
There is not much I can say about it until I get to test it on its own merit, but it is also an X5; though not as you know it. Called the XDrive40e, the “e” part is what makes it stand out, and yes, you guessed right: the “e” stands for “electric”. It is not a fully electric car, it is what we call a “plug-in hybrid”.
It looks just like a normal X5, until you start reading the badges and see the “e”. Born in 2015, the car borrows the tech from BMW’s famous “i” cars, particularly the i8. It can run on petrol only, both petrol and electricity (I see the irony here, shut up!) or electricity only; in which case the furthest you can go is 23km before the batteries run flat. To recharge them, you need to plug the car into a wall socket and wait. Yes, the tech seems a bit fledgling on the surface (e.g. why not charge the batteries while on the move?), but we are headed somewhere. More on this charging malarkey next week, it gets a bit interesting from here.
Epilogue: it so transpired by sheer happenstance that it was fortuitous for me to instigate proceedings with the X6M50 rather than the X5M50. You could call it “saving the best for last”, but you could also call it blind luck: not long after handing over the reins of the X6 to my colleague and taking over the X5, the X6’s rear left tyre divested itself of precious pressure via a sizeable rip on the inner sidewall. My colleague was therefore saddled with a limping steed while I sat smugly behind him reveling in the joys of helming a costly SUV in a scenic locale with no flat tyres to worry about.