It was pretty hard to get much of an early read on BMW's newest -- and most controversial -- M model, the 2010 BMW X6 M (the X5 M, which is being launched simultaneously, was unavailable for testing). Our initial short stint featured a bit of highway driving and a quick run on some slightly twisty roads, allowing us briefly to feel how smooth, yet powerful this 5300-plus-pound beast really is. You're in touch with the road, but there's no bounce or jounce in the X6 M, just smooth sailing -- even in the more aggressive M mode.
BMW had some real driving fun in store for us at our final destination -- several hot laps on the 2.54 mile, 12-turn Road Atlanta circuit. After a few lead-follow instructional passes, we were set loose in the X6 M on the famed racetrack. The massive elevation changes, fast sweepers, and blind, off-camber corners really show you what the X6 M is made of.
Exiting the pits, you stay right, wait for the first slight left-hander, then dive into a hard right that leads you into the esses. A fast, sweeping-downhill left leads into a fast, sweeping-downhill right, where you hit the apex and let the 547-horse, 501 pound-foot, twin-turbocharged, 4.4-liter V-8-powered truck drift out to the left edge. Then it's back up hill through the rest of the esses, which you can basically take straight.
Stay right to set up for the uphill blind left, then its back down to another fast right, and into the tightest corner, an almost 90-degree right that leads you onto the long back stretch. Here you'll nudge 140 mph (the X6 M is limited to 155 mph) before jumping on the binders in a downhill braking zone, then a quick left-right and head back to the pits.
We couldn't run full laps, but that ended up being a good thing. More on that later.
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The X6 M seems to shrink around you the harder you drive. There's minimal body roll -- even through tight corners, the vehicle stays relatively flat. That planted feeling is no doubt due in large part to the X6 M's self-leveling air springs at the rear, and its Adaptive Drive system, composed of Active Roll Stabilization and M Electronic Damping Control. Normal and Sport modes are available, and all systems are calibrated to emulate BMW M's signature handling and ride characteristics.
However hard you push, the X6 M has your back. Even if you miss your apex in a turn, the M Dynamic Mode reels you back in -- keeping you on line and off the grass. The steering feel is what you expect from BMW: crisp, and responsive with good feedback, heavier when going slower, lightening up the faster you go.
We did our first three hot laps in automatic sport mode, letting the X6 M do the shift thinking. It worked like a charm considering the transmission is really just an automatic with the ability to manually shift. From the burble when you lift off throttle, to the exhaust brrrp when it shifts, it's raised the bar in the world of driver-oriented automatics. There were only a few times it upshifted where we would've stayed in the lower gear.
The last three laps were in manual mode and, just as the BMW engineers said, the tranny did not upshift automatically, bouncing off the 6800-rpm limiter until you grab the next gear. And the transmission will downshift for you at the appropriate revs if you just hold the downshift paddle while braking and entering a corner.
One thing we'd like to see BMW add is shift lights. The engine revs so quickly (peak horsepower is achieved at 6000 rpm, with peak torque available from 1500 to 5650 rpm) and you need the extra few hundred rpm for the shift carry over, the lights would complete the M package.
BMW estimates the X6 M will hustle from 0 to 60 in a scant 4.5 seconds. That's super quick for a vehicle this big, but after our laps, we have no reason to doubt that figure.
If there is a chink in the X6 M's high-tech armor, it's the brakes. The 15.6-inch, four-piston ventilated discs up front and 15.2-inch single-piston units at the rear started to fade toward the end of our lapping session. It takes a lot to slow a vehicle that goes this fast and weighs this much. Though the brakes never failed, the fade going into that last brake zone definitely increased the pucker factor a bit.
Inside the cabin of this four-seater is more of what we've come expect from BMW's M-badged vehicles. The M sport seats hold you comfortably and give you plenty of support when you hit the track. The standard M wheel is a nice addition to any vehicle, and the true left down, right up shift paddles are a great improvement over the up/down levers on other BMW automatics. Other interior highlights include an M driver's footrest, specific M instruments and functional displays, and, of course, the fourth generation of BMW's iDrive, along with all the other bells and whistles befitting a vehicle that lists for $89,725.
The X6 M defies all reason. BMW has made a big, tall, heavy truck drive and handle like a performance car, even if the brakes prove you can't really argue with the laws of physics. But one can't help wondering whether all that time, effort, and money would've been better spent on something more relevant to the storied M brand. Like a fast, light, highly fuel-efficient supercar.
| 2010 BMW X6 M |
| Base price || $89,725 |
| Vehicle layout || Front-engine, AWD, 4-pass, 4-door SUV |
| Engine || 4.4L/547-hp/501-lb-ft twin-turbo DOHC 32-valve V-8 |
| Transmission || 6-speed automatic |
| Curb weight || 5300 lb (mfr) |
| Wheelbase || 115.5 in |
| Length x width x height || 192.0 x 78.1 x 66.3 in |
| 0-60 mph || 4.5 sec (mfr est) |
| EPA city/hwy fuel econ || 12/22 mpg (est) |
| CO2 emissions || 1.29 lb/mile (est) |
| On sale in U.S. || Fall 2009 |