Niche work if you can get it

BMW has created a new class of car with its X6 – the first ‘Sports Activity Coupé’. But who asked for it? And will the niche outlast the product?
By Andrew Frankel

Just occasionally and even in these conformist days, a car manufacturer will produce something so unlike anything else on the market you have to stop and wonder which one of you has gone mad. The outstanding example of the modern era was the Suzuki X90. And if this highly original creation passed you by entirely when it was new in 1995, or if nature has merely been kind enough to exorcise its memory from your mind, you may count yourself blessed.

The unapproachably novel concept behind its creation was to create a two seat off-roader that couldn’t go off-road. Awful to look at, awful to drive, entirely impractical and prone to making your friends stuff handkerchiefs into their mouths every time you turned up. Well over a decade later I still can’t quite imagine the boardroom full of Suzuki executives who decided that, on balance, it was a good idea.

It will be interesting too to see how history receives BMW’s latest creation. In cold terms this new X6 is an X5 that has had three of its seven seats removed so it now accommodates fewer people than a Ford Fiesta. It has a dramatically lowered roof-line that decimates space in the back, and looks that, to me at least, are among the most unfortunate of any car produced by any major European manufacturer in the past 10 years.

BMW’s justification for its existence is twofold. First it says the X6 creates a new class of car – it is, apparently, a Sports Activity Coupé whatever that means – and perhaps rather more convincingly, its customers want it. The UK’s entire allocation for the rest of the year was sold before the first test drive was published.

Logically this seems impossible, but as one senior BMW engineer was good enough to put it, “the customer for this kind of car is not too concerned with logic”. What they want is a car with the style of a coupé but the lofty driving position of an off-roader and BMW has taken it upon itself to prove to the world that these twin desires are, in fact, not as mutually exclusive as might at first seem.

The result is a car with the four doors of a saloon, the roof-line of a coupé and the size (and weight) of an SUV. It is the automotive equivalent of the egg-laying yet mammalian, warm-blooded yet venomous, beaver-tailed yet duck-billed Platypus.

In fact had anyone other than BMW attempted as much, I suspect the car would be risible. Indeed I think the only reason it deserves serious consideration is because BMW has taken such a singularly unprepossessing concept and engineered it with a brilliance that borders upon the genius.

Its contention is that the X6 is better to drive than any other car that can even be loosely described as an SUV. And while I only drove the diesel-powered and tortuously entitled X6 xDrive 35d, at £44,145, it wasn’t long before I knew that this, at least, was more than just talk. BMW had given the X6 I drove the best possible chance by equipping it with optional active anti-roll bars that all but eliminate body roll, plus 315-section, 20in rear tyres, and I was duly astounded at its composure.

It comes as standard with a rear differential that transfers torque to the outside wheel in extreme cornering in much the same way as a rower does with an oar, a device that in all normal conditions reduces understeer to vestigial levels. And for a tall car with a high centre of gravity which weighs over 2.1 tonnes, it handles with an adeptness that makes you want to drive through the same corner several times, just to make sure you’re not hallucinating. I’ve not driven the two back to back, but it is my firm belief that no Porsche Cayenne would offer this level of grip, composure and confidence in corners.

And it’s pretty impressive in a straight line too, clocking 62mph in 6.9sec thanks to its 3-litre 286bhp motor, in my mind unquestionably the best multi-cylinder diesel on the market.

But here’s the thing. However impressive the X6 appears to be, it is only so in the context of what you might reasonably expect from over two tonnes of pseudo off-roader. By any other standards, indeed by the standards of a number of considerably cheaper, more attractive and practical BMWs, it’s nothing special at all. You could spend less money on an X5 fitted with the same engine which will accelerate just as fast, cause a lot less tittering among your friends and seat almost double the number of people, most of them in considerably greater comfort.

There are other problems too. As you might guess from that decaying roof-line, headroom in the back is at a premium and while children will be fine, adults of more than average height will likely find it rather cramped. And there’s a price to be paid even for all that dynamic brilliance, and you’ll know it the moment the car hits a bump or a pothole. One of the reasons it handles so well is that the suspension is so stiff it is responsible for the worst ride quality of any BMW I’ve driven, all M-cars included.

In short, and however much its individual talents may shine through in certain areas, I’m not sure that I’ve ever encountered a BMW which I cared for less than this.

It seems to be both unnecessary and undesirable, while also appearing entirely out of step with its time. From a company with perhaps the strongest product line-up of any mainstream manufacturer, it is a surprise and a disappointment.

Then again, this won’t worry BMW much. The X6 will be one of its most niche products, selling in approximately one quarter of the numbers of the X5 that spawned it; and even if the world does wake up to its manifest failings and limitations and runs screaming in the other direction, BMW will be able to comfort itself in the knowledge that, compared to an all-new model, the X6 didn’t cost much to create and won’t cost much to kill.

Even so, history may well show the X6 to have a significance beyond its sales. When a new market niche is created these days, it’s usually not long before other car manufacturers rush headlong to help fill it. Yet I know of no active programme by any manufacturer to produce a car that follows the lead of the X6, and in the current global climate, it’s hard to see such a plan now gaining the support required to earn it a green light.

Then again, at some stage Suzuki thought the X90 was the way forward so I guess anything’s possible. My suspicion, however, is that it will transpire that this BMW, like that Suzuki, will be a niche too far and will exist as the only example of its type ever created. And if the X6 does indeed turn out to represent the beginning, middle and end of the Sports Activity Coupé I, for one, will not lament its passing.