The BMW X6's speed and handling don't make up for its odd styling, lack of a third row, poor gas mileage, and high price
Just to get the basics out of the way, I am not a fan of BMW's (BMWG) new X6. It's too big, too late, too gas-hungry, and too expensive. It's also ugly. In this era of downsizing to save on gasoline, it stands out like a sumo wrestler at a yoga retreat.
New for the '08 model year, the X6 is an all-wheel-drive crossover vehicle designed to combine the high-off-the-ground seating of a sport-utility vehicle with the driving characteristics of a sports car. You'd think designers would have made it smaller, nimbler, and more fuel-efficient than the BMW X5 SUV, with which it shares a platform. Instead, the X6 is an inch longer (at 192 in.) and two inches wider (at 78 in.). At around 5,000 lb., the X6 is also almost as heavy as the X5. The big difference is that its roofline is three inches lower than the X5's at its peak point, and curves down dramatically in the back.
The main problem with the X6 is that it only seats a maximum of four—two up front and two in the bucket-style backseats—vs. a maximum of seven for the X5 and Volkswagen's (VOWG) Audi Q7, and five for Nissan's (NSANY) Infiniti FX50 and Porsche's (PSHG_P) Cayenne. In keeping with one of the more inane marketing trends among German manufacturers, BMW calls the X6 a "coupe," even though it's essentially an SUV with four doors (plus a rear hatch). Traditionally, coupes are supposed to be smaller than sedans and only have two doors—but, never mind. Coupes have a sporty image, and tradition mustn't get in the way of a marketing gimmick.
The X6 also is far from cheap, even though it was excluded from the price hikes BMW announced on most of its '08 U.S. models as of June 1. It comes in two trim levels, the least expensive of which is the xDrive35i, which is powered by a 3.0-liter, twin-turbo inline six-cylinder engine that generates 300 hp and starts at $53,325. The alternative is the xDrive50i, which has a 4.4-liter, 400-hp V8 under its hood and starts at $63,825. (The '09s will cost even more: BMW announced a 2.1% U.S. price hike on its '09 models to offset rising materials costs.) Both of the X6's engines are paired with a six-speed automatic with a manual shifting function and steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters.
The X6's fuel economy is pretty abysmal. Even the xDrive35i only gets 15 mpg in the city and 20 on the highway. (In 294 miles of mixed driving in an xDrive35i, I only got 16.4 mpg.) In the xDrive50i, mileage falls to 13 mpg in the city and 18 on the highway. Those mileage numbers are about the same as for the X5, as well as for rivals such as the Cayenne, the Q7, and the FX. But the numbers somehow seem harder to swallow for a four-passenger vehicle.
There's no reason the X6 couldn't sell well if it struck a chord with consumers. Demand for luxury SUVs continues to be strong, despite high gasoline prices. U.S. X5 sales, for instance, were up 32.2% in August, to 3,380, and up 1.5%, to 22,347, in the first eight months of this year. U.S. sales of the Cayenne were off 6.9% in August but up 3.8%, to 8,219, in the first eight months of this year.
However, the company says the X6 is a niche product that isn't intended to sell in large quantities. BMW only sold 466 X6s in the U.S. in August, and has only sold 2,886 all year. The X6 appeals mainly to wealthy men. Only 30% of buyers are female, about the same as for the X5, and an amazing 68% of all X6 buyers pay cash, vs. only 22.4% for the X5, according to the Power Information Network (PIN).
Behind the Wheel
The X6's main selling point is the way it drives. This vehicle stays glued to the road like a sporty tank. That's partly because of its weight and partly because the X6 comes standard with 19-in. alloy wheels clad with enormously wide tires that put more rubber on the pavement than Shaquille O'Neal's sneakers. The X6's suspension is a little stiff so negotiating bumpy roads can be jarring. But there's virtually no hint of body roll when you push the X6 in corners and curves.
The X6 also is very quick for such a heavy vehicle. I clocked the xDrive35i at about 6.5 seconds in accelerating from zero to 60, which is what BMW says it will do. The xDrive50i does zero to 60 in just 5.3 seconds, according to BMW. That makes the X6 much faster than comparable versions of the X5, which do zero to 60 in 7.8 and 6.4 seconds, respectively.
The X6's front seats, instruments, and center console all seem very similar to those in the X5. However, the base X6 is fancier than the base X5, coming standard with leather upholstery, wood trim, and a sport steering wheel, as well as cool little leather pads on the sides of the center console to cushion the driver's and passenger's knees during hard driving.
If you look at the X6's radical roofline from the outside, you'd think rear passenger space would be compromised, but I found the X6's rear seats roomy and comfortable. A center console that holds drinks and personal items separates the two rear passengers, giving the rear-seating area a roomy, luxurious feel. Head and legroom is slightly less than in the X5, but there's plenty of space unless you're unusually tall. A sunroof comes standard.
Most of the space lost to the X6's sloping roofline is over the back storage area, but that shouldn't be a problem unless you need to haul tall, bulky objects. With the rear seats down, the X6 has nearly 60 cu. ft. of space in back. With the rear seats up, it still has a long, wide 25.5 cu. ft. luggage space in back that also should be adequate most of the time. There's a pass-through between the rear seats for skis and other long objects. Maximum towing capacity is 6,000 lb., same as for the X5.
Buy It or Bag It?
The X6 is expensive to begin with and most buyers end up paying a lot more than the base price. For instance, you have to ante up $1,850 for a premium package that gets you stuff like auto-dimming mirror, ambient lighting, a compass integrated into the rearview mirror, and a garage-door opener. A navigation system with a rearview camera and real-time traffic information costs $2,000. Satellite radio with a one-year subscription costs $595.
As a result, the X6's average selling price, $65,427, is nearly 10 grand more than the '08 X5's, according to PIN. That's well above the average price of competing models such as the '08 Audi Q7 ($54,143, PIN figures), the '09 Infiniti FX ($49,710), the '08 Infiniti FX ($41,300), the '09 Mercedes M-Class ($50,905), and the '09 Lexus RX Series ($40,674).
The only competitor that's more expensive than the BMW X6 is the Porsche Cayenne: The '08 Cayenne sells for an average of $68,075 and the '09 for $75,566, according to PIN. (PIN, like BusinessWeek, is a unit of The McGraw-Hill Companies (MHP).)
Personally, I'd be tempted to buy an Acura MDX, which is admittedly less speedy and chic than the X6 but handles very well. The '08 MDX gets about the same gas mileage as the X6, but sells for about $41,000. The 25 grand you'd save would pay for a lot of gasoline.
The bottom line is that the X6 is for well-heeled shoppers who value style and performance over utility. If you really like its unusual styling and can get by with a four-passenger SUV, go for it. But it's no bargain.
Click here to see more of the BMW X6.