BMW X6 quirky but competent car

BMW X6: Contentious styling, but a big seller nevertheless.
BMW X6: Contentious styling, but a big seller nevertheless.
New colour: BMW's midnight blue works well with the curves and creases of the X6, even if its glossy highlights confuse the camera.
New colour: BMW's midnight blue works well with the curves and creases of the X6, even if its glossy highlights confuse the camera.
Room with a view: There are few better driving positions than this.
Room with a view: There are few better driving positions than this.
Load space: It's not really a dog fancier's machine, but the X6 will swallow a huge volume of inanimate objects.
Load space: It's not really a dog fancier's machine, but the X6 will swallow a huge volume of inanimate objects.

It's a pointless car, designed to solve a variety of problems that no-one has ever really had, and with fastback styling atop an SUV platform it's like wearing Doc Martens with a ballet tutu.

Drivetrain: AWD front-mounted twin-power turbocharged 24-valve DOHC 2993 cc in-line diesel six, eight-speed automatic.
Outputs: 225kW at 4400rpm and 600Nm at 1500-2500rpm, 237kmh, 0-100km/h 6.5secs, 7.5L/100km (combined), 198g/km CO2.
Chassis: Front double track arm axle; rear integral axle. Power assisted rack and pinion steering. Front and rear ventilated disc brakes.
Safety: Front, side and curtain airbags; full suite of traction, braking and stability aids; five-star NCAP crash safety rating.
Dimensions: L 4877mm; W 1983mm; H 1690mm; W/base 2933mm; F/track 1644mm; R/track 1706mm; weight 2185kg; fuel 85L.
Pricing: X6 40d as tested $152,000, other X6 models from $139,000 to $211,600. X5s from $111,000.
Hot: Cabin comfort; driving position; talented chassis; amazingly flexible engine; surprising when taken off-road.
Not: Sporty wheels and tyres don't ride very well and "tramline" on surface changes; styling an acquired taste.
Verdict: It's a controversial looking car that grows on you and drives so well you can forgive it just about anything.
But then I thought, the late great Merseyside comedian Kenny Everett used to wear just that combination, and everyone LOVED him.

It might just explain why I loved it. Yes, loved it. I can't justify the vehicle's sloping roofline, four rather than five passenger preference and why it costs $14,000 more than a similarly-powered and far more practicable X5 model - that's the one with a squared-off rear, and up to seven seats - but my word, it drives sublimely or at least it would have if I'd chosen the wheels and tyres rather than BMW. It also uses so little gas that you shout at the fuel gauge and tap it constantly, because you don't trust it. How can a beast weighing 2.5 tonnes fully loaded go like a low-flying aircraft and put oily rags out of business? But more about that later.

It's not even a dog-lover's car, for all its height and swoopy ruggedness. Not like the X5 can be, so sorry, Ruby (my new border terrier) you don't get your own space and light, like you do with a "proper" SUV, so you're not an X6 kind of passenger.

But I am. My life-ravaged back, with slipped and prolapsed discs and rotationally damaged cervical vertebrae demands decent seating, and up front and in the rear, the X6's chairs - "seats" as a term doesn't quite foot it - are superb, even if that standard wheel and tyre combination engenders more winces than fingernails down a chalk board when traversing the earthquake acne of my favourite city.

After some time with the car, I was actually getting quite fond of its styling. It has been said that the X6 was styled by a team that used one of those childrens' books with divided pages where you can flick over the ring-bound leaves and match-up cartoon upper halves with inappropriate lower halves. I remember in the mists of time that HM The Queen's top half looked hilarious with a Greek army sentry's skirt, tights and bobble-ended shoes.

But I started to defend it. When fellow carpark users would utter, unbid, things like: "what were you thinking?" and "geez that's ugly mate!" - and that's just the women - I'd ask what they drove and when they answered, I'd shake my head and just go "tsk, tsk." Well I didn't ask for their opinions, did I?

In a world of square-rigged conformity - the realm of every other 4x4 out there - the X6 stands out like an intact office block in Christchurch, and to some that's something worth paying extra for, just as coupes, the less practical two-door versions of sedans cost more because they look a tad different.

Where styling has no effect on a car is in its driving prowess - on and off road - and this car will go off road. I once took an early X6 petrol model from downtown Vancouver on the feery and on to a tour of Vancouver Island with a diversion from Cowichan Bay on the island's East Coast to the Jordan River surf Mecca on the Western seaboard. Proper roads ran out not far from Cowichan Bay and we didn't come across anything approximating tarmac until we spotted the northwest Pacific surf several watchful hours later.

We were watchful, because other cars, even SUVs ran out around the same time as the properly formed roads did, and the only other vehicles we came across were logging trucks. We'd see their smudge of dust well before such vehicles finally loomed into view, and with our wheels rim-deep in flinty gravel, and sometimes pattering over solid, rippled rock formations, the X6 tracked with amazing accuracy and nimbleness and proved to be a remarkably effective off-road tool.

The X6's all-wheel-drive system can take much of the kudos for the car's nimbleness. Its sensors can send from zero to 100 per cent of the engine's torque to the front or rear axle depending on grip, effort and attitude at the time. Dynamic Performance Control also monitors and distributes drive to the left- and right-hand rear wheels, which improves stability, and it really shows with the X6, whose on-road responses belie its 2.25 tonne weight and relatively tall centre of gravity.

The BMW X6 also features Dynamic Stability Control in which, when traction and grip is in danger of being lost, the brakes are applied selectively to each individual wheel, stabilising the vehicle. To my companions it must have made me look like quite a good driver in the route's semi-wilderness, but it was the car, pure and simple.

The X6 40d test car I drove this summer was even better. It had the same less than sensible low-profile wheel and tyre combination, but instead of the Canadian car's twin-power turbo petrol six, it had the good offices of BMW's gurglingly flexible 225kW/600Nm twin turbocharged diesel six doing the work, through eight brilliantly sorted gear ratios.

Using the Waimakariri riverbed to replicate the piece of "road" I used between Cowichan and the Jordan River mouth, it was so much easier to surf on the engine's vast torque curve and allow the transmission to do its own ratio shuffling. In Canada, the petrol engine required me to override it far more than the diesel did, and on the wicked screes, the diesel donk would have been a better choice. On part of that terrain even the trees didn't grip, so if you want to go further off road, diesel's best.

You can opt for three diesel versions of the X6 in New Zealand. There's the entry-point 180kW/540Nm $138,000 X6 30d, the $152,000 225/600Nm X6 40d (our test car) and the 280Nm/740Nm X6 M50d at $180,000. Just to confuse things a tad, they all use the same 2993cc 24 valve inline diesel six, with the numbers: 30, 40 and 50 denoting their pecking-order, power-wise, rather than capacity. Simply, the engines differ in that the bigger the numbers, the harder the turbochargers blow - and that would be harder to impart in the form of a chrome badge than the way BMW has chosen.

The M of the X6 M50d denotes a sharper chassis, even more sporty wheels and M-sport trim levels, and if you really want your X6 to fly, there are two turbocharged V8 petrol engines to pick: the X6 50i a $176,000 300kW/600Nm offering, and the $211,600 408kW/680Nm X6M, which will reach zero to "sorry officer" in about 4.8 seconds - which is not hanging about at all.

My drive experience in the X6 40d took place during our 104kmh limited holiday period, when cruise control is the only tool you have to guard against licence endorsement in cars as quiet and smooth as the X6.

Hooked-up in cruise control at 100kmh, the X6's tachometer reads just 1400rpm, which accounts for why one particular tank top-up average was a ridiculous 6.2L/100km - which included some low-speed city commutes and airport pickup runs - this is just under 45.6 miles per gallon in old money.

But you don't buy the X6 for its economy - though travelling 1000km-plus between fills is kind of nice. You don't buy it for its total space-efficiency, either - though the load area is Dr Who's Tardis-like in its ability to swallow bags and cases. It's not purchased as a sports car either - though trust me, even the test car's diesel powertrain and its two and a quarter tonne weight do not preclude it from being an enjoyable drive in twisty going.

It's not a dog-owner's car, either, but in this price bracket people will have other vehicles for that.

So why would you buy it? Well you'll meet interesting often opinionated people in shopping mall carparks. But you'll also have four great cozy chairs, a stereo that will knock your socks off and a chassis and engine of inordinate talent that will out perform your common sense any time you like.

Just to prove BMW's point, the X6 for all its perceived strangeness, has been a runaway success since its 2008 launch. In Europe it has often been out of stock with many dealers having waiting lists from day one.

So BMW is looking at making a smaller swoopy-roofed X-model, probably between the X1 and X3 model, and labelled as the company seems to be going these days: the X4. Many won't like it, but who's to bet that BMW won't be right this time too?