BMW's New X6 Trades Cargo Space for Hormone High:

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By Doron Levin

April 24 (Bloomberg) -- Bayerische Motoren Werke AG's X6 is a stunning rebuke to anyone who thinks a big sport-utility vehicle has to be homely.

Many SUVs are, more or less, big shoeboxes on wheels -- overhanging fronts and rears with vast swathes of sheet metal, all in the service of maximizing cargo capacity.

Cargo space? I'll get to that.

BMW corrects any reference to the X6 as an SUV. Rather, insists the company's Munich-based marketing staff, it is an SAV, or sports-activity vehicle like the X3 and X5 before it. You might quibble with BMW on this name as it applies to those other models. They do look like SUVs.

The X6, for better and worse, is another story.

During a test drive of several days along highways and back roads of southeast Michigan I noticed many second looks, more than a few longing stares and one or two obvious frowns of distaste.

Perhaps the isolated disapproval reflects Michigan's dismal economic climate, which BMW's rising sales helped to create by stealing luxury-car sales from Cadillac and Lincoln. However you judge the X6, it won't go unnoticed.

Beyond its appearance, the vehicle is surprisingly agile, weaving smartly through traffic and around tight turns with little sensation that you're piloting a 4,894-pound (2,220 kilograms) vehicle, just 371 pounds lighter than a Chevrolet Tahoe.

Big, Lithe

BMW's engineering wizards have created a plus-size car that handles almost like a sports coupe by virtue of ``dynamic performance control.'' That's marketing jargon for a computer- controlled differential, or gearbox, in the rear of vehicle that adjusts power from the engine between the rear wheels. The X6 is the first BMW with this feature.

(A second differential in the front of the X6 adjusts power between front and rear wheels, depending on need. BMW's X3 and X5 already have this feature.)

Instead of distributing power equally to each rear wheel, BMW's differential senses when one or the other needs extra power -- torque -- to prevent the back end of the car from sliding or pulling in the opposite direction of a turn, an undesirable handling characteristic of large SUVs known as understeer.

In Control

To the driver, BMW has created the sensation of a car set on rails that tracks through a tight curve with little or no sensation of leaning, slipping or wobbling off course. Driving fast, maybe too fast, could be problematic, except for BMW's electronic-stability control, which automatically applies brakes to wheels and engine if the car threatens to roll.

Until now the only vehicle sold in the U.S. that offers a smart differential (that BMW gearheads also describe as a ``torque vectoring system'') was Honda Motor Co.'s Acura RL sedan and RDX and MDX SUVs. ``For marketing purposes we call it super handling all-wheel-drive,'' said Ed Miller, a Honda spokesman. ``You have this confidence that it's not going to spin out.''

X6's designer, Pierre LeClercq, 36, also created the X5, which is somewhat homely but much more utilitarian than the X6.

Both vehicles, as well as the smaller X3, are built in BMW's Spartanburg, South Carolina, plant, which helps the German automaker neutralize the profit-killing impact of the rising euro. This week the currency breached the $1.60 level for the first time. BMW said it expects about half of the first year's production run of 40,000 units will be sold in the U.S. with the balance exported worldwide.

More Than Enough

The xDrive30i variant of the X6, with a 3-liter, 300- horsepower engine, feels more than adequate to all styles of driving, from sedate to aggressive. It goes on sale at BMW showrooms on Saturday.

This summer the X6's fire-breathing xDrive50i version arrives with a 4.4-liter V8, packing 400 horsepower. The less powerful one starts at $53,275; nicely equipped it will run between $60,000 and $65,000.

The xDrive50i, with the more powerful engine, starts at $63,000 and might cost close to $80,000 with all available options.

In truth, X6 owners won't be able to haul too much in the way of children, pets or recreation equipment in their vehicles, since the cabin is designed and appointed for the sake of style rather than utility. The second row of seats, for example, has a console in the middle, meaning the car can't accommodate more than a driver and three passengers.

More for the Money

As for cargo space, you knew there are to be a tradeoff for that sloping roof and compact behind.

But just as Porsche AG found plenty of brand enthusiasts who also demanded a more useful vehicle than its sports coupes, so has BMW attracted growing numbers to its X-series models. X6 seems destined to win a well-heeled following.

Anyone considering an X6, who isn't a devotee of the BMW brand, might consider some of the impressive yet less expensive competitors, notably Infiniti's FX35, powered by a 3.5-liter, 275 horsepower engine.

Weighing almost 600 pounds less than the X6 and at a starting price of less than $40,000, the all-wheel-drive FX35 is built in Japan and has won strong reviews, although its hauling capability is similarly compromised by the priority given to stylistic flair., an automotive Web site, lauded the FX35's ``truly athletic character.'' But if cachet and the latest in handling technology are crucial, and money's no object, then BMW's X6 wins hands down.

(Doron Levin is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)