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  • First Drive: 2020 BMW X3 M, 2019 X2 M35i, X7, Rolls-Royce Cullinan

First Drive: 2020 BMW X3 M, 2019 X2 M35i, X7, Rolls-Royce Cullinan

From Racetracks to Mud Pits

Nick Kurczewski
Mar 18, 2019
Photographers: Courtesy of BMW, Nick Kurczewski
BMW has a reputation for building high-performance luxury vehicles that don’t wilt at high speed or when the road ahead gets curvy. But what happens when the immediate path in front of your Bavarian-bred machine is bogged down with water, mud, and rocks? At the BMW Test Fest, held in Palm Springs, California, the answer was simple: Hit the gas pedal and forge boldly ahead.
The point of this annual gathering of everything BMW—along with vehicles and brands that fall under the German automaker’s corporate umbrella, such as Mini and Rolls-Royce—is to highlight the company’s full range of vehicles in a wide variety of driving scenarios. Dozens of vehicles were staged and ready for action at the Thermal Club racetrack, which serves as an official BMW Performance Center. With its multiple race circuits, skidpad, and smaller autocross courses, the setting was ideal to nudge the limits of BMW’s lineup cars and SUVs.
And then it rained—and, boy, did it rain!
As residents in Palm Springs were being told by local officials to seek shelter and avoid going outside, we found ourselves with an unlimited amount of BMW SUV keys at our disposal. As the rain poured down and roads turned into bogs, we did exactly what you’d expect. We punched gas pedals in puddles, sank up to our ankles (and BMW axles) in mud and water, and took soggy hot-laps in BMW’s latest and greatest performance SUV. Here are some of the day’s highlights, along with a few soggy surprises thrown in the mix, too.
Photo 2/63   |   BMW Test Fest 2019 X3M

2020 BMW X3 M

The good news is that BMW brought the X3 and X4 M to Palm Springs! Set to arrive this summer, the X4 M and its mechanical twin, the X3 M, comes powered by a twin-turbocharged 3.0L six-cylinder that delivers 473 hp and 442 lb-ft of torque. Add the optional Competition spec and output jumps to a total of 503 hp. According to BMW, that should hustle the X3 M from 0-60 mph in only 4 seconds, and onward to a top speed of 177 mph. The only bad news is—well, we did mention the torrential rain? BMW was being especially careful with its new high-performance SUV baby, which still wore a minimal amount of black-and-white disguise wrap on its nose and tail. Strapped into the heavily bolstered passenger seat, since BMW wasn’t allowing journalists to take the helm in these pre-production models, we made sure our BMW Performance Center driver knew we weren’t in town for sun tanning and mid-century house tours. In other words, we goaded him into slithering and sliding the X3 M around one seriously drenched racetrack. The all-wheel-drive system worked hard keep the X3 M pointed in the right direction, while the turbo-six blared and blatted down the straightaway as the eight-speed automatic fired its way through the gears. Carbon-ceramic brakes are optional, though the steel stoppers fitted to our tester did an excellent job of hauling the X3 M down from speed. Next stop, sunny skies and a stint in the driver seat, thanks.

Photo 7/63   |   BMW Test Fest 2019 X2

2019 BMW X2 M35i

Screaming down a track is fun, but we were itching to put one of BMW’s sport/utilities through its paces on regular roads. While it might sound less than professional, part of our reasoning for jumping into the BMW X2 was because of its wild paintjob—BMW’s eye-popping and polarizing Galvanic Gold, to be exact. It was one of the few shades that didn’t look depressing given the gloomy weather. Oh, yes, the 332hp turbocharged four-cylinder under the hood certainly helped in the decision process. While the standard X2 comes with a perfectly fine 228hp turbo-four, the engine in the M35i variant is noticeably stronger, louder, and a stupid amount of good fun. Tiptoeing though some flooded roads surrounding Thermal, once the route was clear of quagmires, we opened the throttle and the pint-sized X2 M35i would snarl and lunge forward. BMW estimates a 0-60 mph time of 4.9 seconds. If anything, that seems on the conservative side. Despite riding on meaty wheels and low-profile rubber—available in 19- or 20-inch diameter—the X2 M35i does an impressive job absorbing bumps in the road, all while providing a solid and very BMW-like ride. The handling can feel a little overwrought, however, with too much artificial heft coming into play when selecting the Sport and Sport+ drive modes. At least the M Sport locking front differential ensured we could hustle this BMW SUV around corners and maintain sure-footed grip on the slippery road surface.

Photo 13/63   |   BMW Test Fest 2019 X7

2019 BMW X7

Our chariot to and from almost all of BMW’s Test Fest driving adventures was as a passenger in the brand-new X7. This three-row sport/utility sits above the current X5 in terms of size and price. The standard engine in the X7 xDrive40i is a turbocharged six-cylinder that delivers 335 hp and 330 lb-ft of torque. One step higher is the X7 xDrive50i, which comes with a twin-turbo V-8 that produces 456 hp and 479 lb-ft of torque. All-wheel drive and an eight-speed automatic transmission come standard with both engines. The entry price for the X7 starts at around $73,000, and this stretches north of $93,000 with the upgraded turbo V-8. This SUV’s posh price didn’t stop BMW from showing off the X7’s prowess in an off-road course that, despite being in a controlled environment, helped prove the X7 isn’t entirely about making statements while valet parking at suburban malls. The course itself had turned into a muddy mess but, as luck would have it, our run proved to be the last of the day. The heavy rain had rendered many of the obstacles invisible and turned a relatively shallow ditch into a waterlogged ravine. Still, thanks to a fording depth of 19.6 inches, the X7 managed to navigate its way through unscathed, though we did sacrifice a pair of sneakers while slowly sinking into the muck for photos.

Photo 21/63   |   BMW Test Fest 2019 Cullinan

2019 Rolls-Royce Cullinan

We did mention that BMW brought its entire toy chest to Palm Springs, right? The Rolls-Royce Cullinan is arguably the new king of the hill when it comes to outlandish SUVs. With a starting price of $325,000, the Cullinan is powered by a 6.7L V-12 that serves up a serene 573 hp. If Queen Elizabeth herself could wrench together a motor, this dignified and decadent V-12 would be the result. Better still, she could bring along plenty of prized Corgis for the ride, since the back seat delivers plenty of space—don’t you dare suggest they ride in the cargo bay!
Despite tipping the scales at more than 6,100 pounds, the Cullinan doesn’t feel especially large or ponderous. The ride is smooth but not pillow-soft, while the handling is accurate, though a degree lighter in feel than most mainstream SUVs. We think a Rolls buyer will appreciate this more white-glove approach to steering input. Our main complaint, other than not hitting the most recent Powerball numbers, is with the column-mounted gearshift lever. It feels like a dollar-store addition in a sea of Rodeo Drive opulence. It’s plasticky in feel and finicky in operation when switching between Park, Reverse, and Drive. To its credit, the eight-speed transmission does a seamless job shifting gears. Rolls-Royce estimates a 0-60 mph time of 4.8 seconds. We attempted this several times while in the middle of pond-size puddles, of course. Thankfully, Rolls-Royce equips its vehicles with built-in umbrellas that, in the Cullinan, are located within each of the rear doors. They cost roughly $800 apiece, in case the Cullinan itself is out of reach.

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