Even after driving the 2008 BMW X6 for a week, we're still not sure what to make of it. BMW's marketing campaign calls it the coupe's evil twin, but with the 3-liter twin-turbo inline six-cylinder in our xDrive35i model, it doesn't feel particularly diabolical. It seems more like the coupe's fatter twin, although it might refer to itself as merely big-boned. But it does handle like a BMW, which is to say, excellently, and certainly doesn't look like an SUV, so you don't have to live with that stigma. The front seats are particularly nice, but the rear seats have compromised headroom, and it doesn't offer as much cargo area as the BMW X5.
What the X6 represents is a rare risk by BMW designers into the crossover market. Although the X3 and X5 have all the requirements to be considered crossovers, BMW's design for the X6 is much more car than SUV. The nearest thing in the automotive world is the Infiniti FX45. The Infiniti has more usable space inside, but offers similar handling. BMW and Infiniti make a good complement of electronics available in the cabins of their respective luxury crossovers.
Test the tech: Traffic avoidance
One new tech feature we've seen on an increasing number of cars is traffic reporting integrated with the navigation system. The best of these systems proactively warn you about traffic jams on the road ahead, and offer a detour. The 2008 BMW X6 gets this feature with its navigation system, so we put it to the test with some rush-hour traffic in the San Francisco Bay Area, consistently rated on of the five worst places for traffic in the country.
Instead of XM NavTraffic, used by Acura, Infiniti, and Cadillac, BMW uses the Total Traffic Network, a service provided by Clear Channel. We found two immediate advantages of BMW's system: one, you don't pay a monthly subscription fee, as you do in cars with XM NavTraffic, and two, we saw some highways around San Francisco covered by Total Traffic Network and not covered by XM NavTraffic.
However, we really wanted to test the system's traffic avoidance features, so we drove to Oakland at 5 p.m. and entered destinations in the navigation system that would take us through some of the worst traffic areas. In the X6, traffic flow information is shown as a series of black arrows overlaid on the road. No arrows means traffic moving more than 40 mph. Arrows spaced close together mean traffic moving slower than 20 mph, and arrows spaced a little further apart mean moderate traffic speeds, between 20 mph and 40 mph.
We first entered a destination in Berkeley that would take us along the perpetually clogged Interstate 880. After calculating the route, the navigation system gave a verbal warning about traffic obstructions along the way. It didn't offer a detour, but it did highlight the traffic incident icon to the left of the map screen. Clicking that showed slow traffic on the freeway we were supposed to take. We scrolled the map along the freeway and saw arrows indicating traffic between 20 mph and 40 mph. We figured this traffic wasn't severe enough for it to offer a detour. There is a feature in the system, accessible by hitting the New Route button, which will program in a detour based on how many mile you want to go off the route it originally calculated.
Our next destination was Half Moon Bay, Calif., which would require a trip across the bay and over to the coast. Again, the system warned of traffic along the way, on Highway 92, but this time offered to calculate a detour. We let it do its work, then looked at the results. The route it gave went through very slow, as in slower than 20 mph, traffic on Highway 92. In this case, we figure the system couldn't find any reasonable detours, understandable because the nearest alternate road over to the coast would have taken us a significant number of miles out of our way.
Finally, we drove across the bay and set a destination north, to CNET headquarters in San Francisco. As we drove along the Interstate 280, the navigation system suddenly piped up, warning us about a new traffic situation along our route. It offered a detour, which we accepted, avoiding a big snarl around downtown San Francisco. We were impressed by the system here because it noticed a new traffic incident while we were already driving along its programmed route.
In the cabin
The 2008 BMW X6 uses many of the design elements we've seen in other BMW models, such as the wide-screen LCD. The screen is split into a main and secondary display, with the secondary being used to show maps or trip information. But the X6 also gets a heads-up display that projects the car's speed low on the windshield. Even better, this display shows route guidance directions when the navigation system is in use. We found it extraordinarily convenient to keep our eyes on the road and at the same time see our next turn.
iDrive is still the order of the day for using the car's systems, an interface we have become used to, but we have not come to love it. Fortunately, BMW is making changes to the interface that will be seen on the new 7 series. As just getting a map to appear on the main screen involved four moves of the iDrive controller, we found ourselves using the voice command system, issuing the instruction "show map."
The navigation system offers one advanced feature, traffic, which we discussed above, but not much else beyond basic functionality. Its interface isn't very intuitive, with points-of-interest placed under the Information menu. It also doesn't offer text-to-speech, so can't read out the names of upcoming streets. The maps look good, though, and it can show them in 3D view. Our biggest gripe about the system is that it was particularly slow to calculate routes, although recalculation when we got off route worked quickly enough.