Hell freezes over

by Dinzo Tabamo | May 22, 2009
The past ten years have been tough times for the BMW faithful. These are the hardcore purists who fell in love with BMW when it defined what a sports sedan should be via the 3-Series, and when BMW designed them to be boxy and predictable. The arrival of the X5 in 1999 was a turning point for the marque. First, because despite BMW calling it by their marketing term Sports Activity Vehicle (SAV), it was obviously an SUV, that most American of automobile types. Second, Chris Bangle designed it, the man almost branded a heretic by traditional BMW owners for using anything other than a straight ruler in designing the next generation of BMWs. But lo and behold, the X5 was a hit. It turned out to be the perfect sweet spot for those looking for the commanding position and capability of an SUV without sacrificing the handling of a sports sedan. And not just any sedan, a BMW sports sedan. And so they sold the last unit of the previous generation without the need for any discounting. Not just that, Porsche and Audi followed suit with the Cayenne and Q7 respectively. The Germans realized that selling out may have an advantage after all-sales. It was no surprise that the next generation X5 would only be mildly restyled. In fact at first glance it was hard to tell them apart. But it was a continuation of the successful formula that the first X5 parlayed to great success. Further refining the formula of combining athletic grace with SUV size, BMW came out with the X6. It was not an SUV, even given how the X5 and the so-called crossovers have blurred the definition. But it wasn't a car either. The X6 existed in a twilight zone of categories; it was big yet cramped inside, powerful yet heavy, and oddly attractive. Whatever. I wanted one. I thought that was the end of BMW's experiments with the X cars, a series aptly named because of the ambiguity of their purpose and classification. Then the unthinkable happened, the X met M. In a press release I thought I would never see, BMW came out with M versions of the X5 and X6. This was monumental. I've driven both the first and second generations of the X5, and while they were deserving of the sporty character befitting the BMW badge, they were still SUVs. And the M badge on a BMW meant that it was a member of that rarefied fraternity of surgically precise track machines; if BMWs were strong coffee, M cars were pure espresso. The X5 M (MX5 was obviously taken) and X6 M both have turbocharged V8 engines delivering 555hp. This is another departure for the M cars, as they traditionally have normally aspirated engines because of the aversion to turbo lag. The new Twin Scroll Twin Turbo technology is supposed to offset the old disadvantages of turbocharging. Despite the look of the current X5 being derived from the old one, I realized after some time that the old one looked better. I was waiting for this current X5's looks to grow on me. It didn't. Surprisingly, the odd attractiveness of the X6 worked better for me. Its effort to be a sports coupé despite it being born an SUV made me admire its bravado to straddle both worlds. The M treatment did nothing to improve the looks of either the X5 or the X6. In fact, the larger bumper intakes don't complement both the soft roaders' looks at all. Sure they look properly done, but the design itself simply looks bad. The wheels look similar to the ones found on the M6, but I find the M6 wheels to be the least inspired of the M cars. In other words, thumbs down for the X6 M and X5 M wheels as well. I'm not writing the X5 M and X6 M off, not with the history behind the M badge, not with the reputation BMW has built. These are initial impressions after all. BMW doesn't build anything that isn't fun to drive. If and when a test drive offer comes for one of these vehicles, I won't linger over the looks (Yes we do that) and head straight for the driver's seat. I'm guessing vindication lies there.
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