This is a story about a newspaper article, an expensive car with a straight-six engine, a national park and an all-wheel drive torque deployment system.
It began about three weeks ago when a reader asked about the BMW X6, and the answer I gave was not exactly palatable to the marketers of cars bearing the Blue Propeller.
Priorities, relativity, comparisons, analogies, raisons d’etre, perspectives, personal taste… and headlines: these are words that were bandied about without actually being said in a rather tense meeting between interested parties.
“The X6 received unfair treatment,” somebody said. “You should try one again,” they added. “We also know where you live,” they almost said, but didn’t.
So I drove the car, in a conveniently-placed nearby national park. The vehicle had a 3,000cc six-cylinder, turbo-charged and inter-cooled diesel engine, and it would cost you about Sh11 million to get one just like the one I drove.
And it had something called xDrive, BMW’s interpretation of making all four wheels turn under power and torque from the engine. I believe I have covered all the sub-topics I mentioned up there, so end of story, right? Wrong.
As epiphanies go, this was one of the biggest. There are road tests, and then there are road tests. First time round involved the owner saying “Drive from here to there, no crazy stuff, hand the car back in 10 minutes”.
The second time round, however, was very different: Take our car, thrash it but don’t crash it, and only come back when you have a thorough report.
The “thorough report” involved, among other things, some tarmac blasts at speeds I refuse to disclose for legal reasons and for the purpose of self-preservation. But if there is an area the Bayerische Motoren Werke has perfected, it is the firepower under the bonnet.
The power plant
The X6 came with an engine (obviously) occupying 3.0 litres of space and spread over six-cylinders arranged in a queue.
Powered by diesel in common-rail fashion, it is worth about 245 hp (180kW), with assistance coming from a two-stage twin-turbo setup that allows 540 Nm of torque from as low as 1750 rpm.
Translated into the Queen’s English, this means that the car goes like stink and pulls like an electric train from almost no revs at all, and in any gear.
Overtaking was as simple as pause-point-squirt, and the defeated bit of traffic would rapidly vanish in the elephant-ear side mirrors of the X6 xDrive30d.
Irrespective of my line of work, it is not every day that I come across performance as fierce as this.
Blame the turbos. They work like an unfair, rule-flouting tag team in those wrestling matches we see on TV.
To eliminate lag, the engineers installed a small turbo that operates at low rpm (in the higher spec xDrive40d, it works from tick-over to about 1,800 rpm), giving the engine its absurd (in a nice way) low-end tugging strength. As you push further on, a much bigger turbine joins the fray and whoosh… 245 hp, and hello speeding ticket!
Part of this magic is also down to the deployment of aluminium technology to curb weight, and BMW’s complex Vanos (or double Vanos) Variable Valve Timing system, which I will refrain from delving into just yet.
The exhaust has also been sound-engineered, so rather than cluttering noisily like a typical diesel, the noise made is more like a muffled woof at steady-rpm high-speed runs, with a V8-esque growl under WOT (wide open throttle).
The reason I mention the engineered exhaust is because of the gearbox. The engine is mated to a six-speed autobox, with manual override, just like it is in a billion other cars, but it is a bit different here.
In M mode (not M as in the M5 or M3 sports saloons, but manual gearbox setting), one shifts up and down via paddles placed at the top of the steering wheel boss on opposing sides; right paddle shifts up, left paddle shifts down.
The shift speeds are quite good and there is almost no perceptible loss in drive in between shifts, but again, this has been done before. What really had me going was the downshift, especially when braking hard.
Gentle tug on the left paddle and… vroom! What was that? Yes, the engine and gearbox computers join forces in an impressive display of rev-matching; blipping the throttle on the downshift in a way that not even the heel-and-toe technique in a conventional clutch pedal-equipped manual transmission vehicle can match. Probably.
Handling and suspension
So, Nairobi National Park. It was not the lioness we saw stalking some deer that drew us there, it was BMW’s xDrive AWD torque vectoring system. Too complex to explain in this limited space, it works a lot like the one in the R35 Nissan GTR.
I managed to get the car drifting, tail out, power off (Scandinavian Flick, and on a loose surface; this car will not drift on tarmac, don’t even try), but let the nose clip the corner apex, floor the throttle, power is sent to the front axle and the car straightens out. Just like a GTR. Stability is guaranteed.
The suspension, on the other hand, was a bit odd. On very rough roads, crawling at low speed means you will feel every hole and rock on the road surface.
Stoke the kindling and the car actually becomes more comfy the faster you go. If you study or work at Daystar University Athi River and you drive an X6, the optimum speed at which to cruise over that rough road is 130 km/h. Any slower and… I did not just say that. Here is how I will summarise the experience:
Dislikes: The rear headroom is a bit minimalist, suspension characteristics are counter-intuitive, the design is opinion-splitting (in other words, I still don’t like the look of it) and the car is difficult to classify.
Likes: Everything else, particularly the confluence of engine performance and gearbox mapping.