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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.
Arrows overlaid on the road indicate traffic flow.
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.
When the X6 detects bad traffic on a route, it offers to calculate a detour.
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.
Although this route shows bad traffic, the car couldn't find a reasonable detour.
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.
The heads-up display shows the car's speed and route guidance information.
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.
Our particular car abounded in disc drives. First, the navigation system has a DVD drive just above the console. There is a single disc drive as part of the audio system in the dash, and a six-disc changer hidden in the glove compartment. Finally, as our car had the rear seat DVD option, we had a disc drive at the back of the console, facing the rear seats. That's four drives total.
The iPod interface lets you browse albums, artists, and genres
We tested out both of the audio disc drives, of course, but in general driving we tended to use the iPod connector in the console. The interface for selecting music is good, letting you browse albums, artists, and genres, but iDrive steps in again, requiring three moves to get to the iPod. Mirroring the slowness of the navigation system, accessing the iPod showed delays. For example, when we chose albums from the menu, a screen came up saying it was loading data from the iPod for a second or two. BMW also offers Sirius satellite radio and HD broadcast radio. We found the audio quality of each radio source about the same, although HD radio suffers from the usual distance limitations.
The quality of the audio in the X6 was surprisingly underwhelming, as we had the premium audio option. This system uses 16 speakers, including subwoofers under each front seat and five sets of mids and tweeters around the cabin, with one set serving as a center fill. A nine-channel 600-watt amp powers these. With all this audio hardware we expected really excellent audio quality. It sounds very good, but just not fantastic.
We like the screen set up for the rear seat DVD option because it doesn't interfere with the driver's rear view.
The rear seat DVD option is nicely done, with the DVD screen mounted to the back of the console. It folds away when not in use, and doesn't block the driver's rear view when it is up. The screen looked good and the controls were easy to use.
BMW's excellent Bluetooth cell phone integration was also present. We like this system because it automatically imports a paired phone's contact list. As all this information is displayed on the LCD, making calls to contacts is easy. The system also saves recent call history. The voice system also does a good job understanding spoken phone numbers.
The parking assist feature is also worth mentioning. It shows an outline of the car with gray zones fore and aft. Objects in those zones, such as a pole you might back up into, appear first in green, then yellow, then red, depending on how close they are to the car.
Under the hood
The 2008 BMW X6 xDrive35i comes with the same twin-turbocharged 3-liter inline six-cylinder engine we've been so impressed with in the 135i, the 335i, and the 535i. You can also get the 2008 BMW X6 xDrive50i, which comes with the new twin-turbocharged 4.4-liter V-8. In the X6, we didn't feel the same amount of boost from the 3-liter engine because of the car's nearly 5,000 pounds of weight. However, the 300 horsepower and 300 foot-pounds of torque do get it moving at a good clip. BMW claims 6.5 seconds to 60 mph. The bigger engine cuts that time down to 5.3 seconds.
The spoke-mounted paddles are strangely designed, a little too chunky for our tastes.
The six-speed automatic transmission has three modes, drive, sport, and manual selection. We don't care for the wheel-mounted paddle shifters, small, thick protuberances that you push for a downshift and pull for an upshift. The shifter offers the same functionality, or you can just leave it in sport mode, where the transmission does an excellent job shifting gears. On one mountain run, we found the transmission shifting down to third when we braked moderately hard before a turn, then holding that gear as we put the power on in the latter half of the corner. It only upshifted as our speed climbed on the following straightaway. This is one of the smartest automatics we've tested.
During this sport driving, we also found some interesting characteristics of the handling. The car does not feel like an SUV at all in the turns, staying flat as the g-forces piled on. The suspension kept it straight and the tires digging in, until we pushed it hard enough that we got some rear wheel slip. That actually surprised us, the X6 being an all-wheel-drive car. But as with other BMWs we've tested, this slip didn't feel out of control. The car let the back wheels out a bit, assuming we knew what we were doing, but then the traction control and other mechanisms kicked in to make sure we didn't get sideways. It's a satisfying driving experience.
Where the X6 really let us down was fuel economy. The EPA rates it at 15 mpg city and 20 mpg highway. During our time with the car we barely saw it climb to more than 14 mpg, about 5 mpg less than we saw in the BMW 535i. We were a little suspicious of the low numbers coming from the trip computer, but the rapidity with which the fuel needle dropped confirmed that the X6 was gulping down the gas. Emissions rating are not yet published for the X6.
Our 2008 BMW X6 xDrive35i came in for a base price of $52,500, a couple thousand dollars more than the BMW 535i and about $6,000 more than the naturally aspirated six cylinder X5. We added the navigation system for $1,900, premium sound, which includes the iPod adaptor, for $2,000, the heads-up display for $1,200, and the rear seat DVD player for $1,700. Other sundry options and the $825 destination charge brought the total to a whopping $68,820. Even worse, the bigger engine xDrive50i starts at a base of $63,000, meaning an optioned up model will run close to $80,000. You really have to starting thinking about what else you could be driving for that kind of money.
For our rating of the X6, it is a serious tech car, given the cabin electronics and the power train. The transmission stands out pretty seriously for its smart programming. But it takes a number of hits as well. Although we really like this engine in BMW sedans and coupes, it doesn't perform as well in the X6, delivering poor economy and only satisfactory acceleration. We do give it credit for exceptional handling from its suspension components. The iDrive interface loses it points on design, as does the compromised rear head room. Aesthetically, a couple of staff members referred to it as the BMW Aztek, so we knock it a bit there. For cabin electronics, we give it good scores for the traffic reporting feature, Bluetooth cell phone integration, and the iPod adaptor. We also like the HD radio, a feature currently unique to BMWs and Minis. Although we weren't overwhelmed by the audio system, it's still very good, so doesn't really hurt the score. It just loses a point for the slowness of route calculation and iPod loading.