- The Washington Times - Friday, September 19, 2008

The 2008 BMW X6 xDrive 35i doesn’t have any head-to-head competition.

And why should it? No carmaker has entered the ugly vehicle segment since the Pontiac Aztek was discontinued.

But BMW, which introduced the X6 at the Detroit auto show earlier this year, thinks it’s onto something. The four-door hatchback, which the German carmaker calls a coupe, may have a certain charm to it with its long hood and pod-like cabin. It’s part car, part truck and part moon rover.

Technically, BMW calls it a Sports Activity Coupe, a four-passenger utility vehicle with a twin turbo charged V-6 (there’s also a version with a 400-horsepower V-8 for those in search of va-va-voom).

The idea was to create a sporty utility vehicle that is distinctive, luxurious and all BMW. But something was lost in the translation between the design department and the factory.

The high back end and the 19-inch low profile tires pushed forward throw off its proportions. It may have a confident and athletic stance, but I can’t imagine it in the Olympics. It must have looked so good on paper. Even now, pictures of the X6 look fantastic.

But when you stand in front of the vehicle, you cock your head to the side to find just the right angle to enjoy the view, then tilt your head a little more, a little more, and whoops, you’re laying flat on your side, saying “hummm?”

Perhaps this vehicle is a piece of art that I just don’t know how to appreciate, like the first time you see a Mark Rothko or Jackson Pollock. For me, abstract expressionism plays better with oil and canvas than sheet metal and highways.

The mean part of me wants to call it an over-sized sedan with a lift kit or just another way to show your neighbors you have $60,000 you had no idea what to do with. What do you even say to them when they ask why you bought it?

“Yeah, well, I wanted something that got the gas mileage of an SUV but is less practical.” Then start polishing the BMW badge on the hood until they notice the brand.

Obviously, I’m not a fan of its exterior, but once inside, the smooth leather soothed me. Start it up and take off and the X6 provides an excellent ride. From the inside looking out, you never doubt that this is a BMW. Its performance lives up to its pedigree.

The 300-horsepower twin turbo V-6 has plenty of pep - making the X6 quick and nimble. It launches well from the line and keeps the precise German handling you’d expect.

The all-wheel-drive system, known as xDrive by BMW, also includes a Dynamic Performance Control that can vary the amount of force going through either rear wheel.

Using a computer control system and an all-new rear differential, the X6 can help steer the car with torque through the back tires. It can do this while the vehicle is speeding up or slowing down.

Really, it’s just amazing and works extremely well. Say you’re coming up to a turn too fast: the system begins to react when you take your foot off the accelerator. It provides you with a much more stable platform to handle nearly any condition. Chalk one point for the X6.

And in heavy cornering, the X6 stays flat as a pancake. The body doesn’t roll and the steering remains firm. On the highway, the ride is quiet and comfortable, though the low-profile tires transfer some road noise into the cabin.

Interior offers many positives

Inside, I like the X6. The high-riding position provides a commanding view in traffic and all the materials are what I’d expect from BMW: plush leather seats, clean sweeping lines across the dash and the simple but elegant instrument panel. Everything seems to be laid out across horizontal lines.

It took a few days to adjust to the center console mounted gear shifter, which reminded me of the steering column mounted gear shifter on many Mercedes Benz. It clicks but doesn’t really move and you have to push it forward to find reverse.

I have no problem with the much maligned iDrive. It seems fairly intuitive and when I’m not sure about something, I consult the owner’s manual, which is thicker than the New York City phone book.

And since BMW designed the X6 for four smoking adults (there are ash trays in the front and back), there is plenty of space to stretch out. The cargo department offers 25.6 cubic feet of space, which BMW says can hold four golf bags. If you need more space, the second row folds flat and allows for nearly 60 cubic feet.

While it may look different than other BMWs, the X6 comes with lots of complex techno features. There’s the optional active steering that can change the relationship between turning the steering wheel and how far the tires turn.

This means a driver can turn the steering wheel a little at low speeds and the front tires move more. At high speeds, it’s just the opposite. This, as BMW puts it, “offers exactly the right steering ratio at all speeds.”

There are loads of other features you can appreciate: power lift-gate, backup camera, heated and ventilated seats, second-row entertainment system and navigation system with real time traffic updates. It’s everything you’d expect and more.

Rear visibility an issue

While the higher driving position is nice, the way the back window slants it’s difficult to see much through the rearview mirror. One unnerving problem I ran into was the inability to see the roofs of cars behind me. For alert drivers, this means it’s more difficult to determine whether the car following you at night has lights on the roof that can flash in various colors.

But all the gadgets, gizmos and German-designed advanced safety features don’t make up for this ugly duckling that will never become a swan.

But I don’t dislike it because it’s homely. I dislike it because it lacks a true purpose. There are ugly vehicles made today that I adore, because they provide function. The X6 doesn’t. It’s easy to measure it by what it can’t do-like carry five people - instead of what it can.

Maybe that’s the reason no other carmaker has decided to enter this uncharted market segment.

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