The BMW X6 M is extremely fast in a straight line. Beyond that, I’m struggling to think of anything positive to say about it. Its issues mainly stem from the chassis, as proven mere moments after first setting off in one at a recent BMW media driving event.
You always have to worry when a car makes you think it’s been left in Sport mode until realising that no, you’re in Comfort, and that’s as smooth as the ride is going to get. The X6 M clatters around at low speeds and fails to settle when you’re going faster, hampering both comfort and your confidence in the car’s abilities.
It’s appallingly firm, but that’s not the only suspension issue. Whether it’s down to the geometry, the tyres or the huge front and rear track widths, I can’t be sure, but the X6 M wanders and tramlines all over the place. It’s disconcerting if this happens mid-corner, and downright annoying if you’re in a straight line, with the car constantly shimmying from side to side on some roads.
Since it’s one of these ‘coupe’ SUVs, visibility out the back is diabolical, with a heavily raked rear screen proving less than helpful when you want to see what’s going on behind. The high driving position robs any decent impression of speed when you put your foot down, and the fake noise piped over the top of the 4.4-litre, 616bhp V8 sounds poor. And yes, we have to talk about the way it looks. If you think it looks bad in the pictures, wait until you see one in the metal.
The kidney grille treatment isn’t as OTT as some other modern BMWs, at least, but with that high-waisted rear, it looks positively gopping from some angles. I followed the car earlier in the day, and the sight of this ungainly, 2.2-tonne thing bouncing around on its overly-firm suspension is an inglorious one I wish I could unsee. The questionable styling direction of BMW deserves an article of its own, but it’s safe to say it’ll be this way for years to come, judging by the iX.
I’m not singling the X6 M out because it’s in the bafflingly popular coupe SUV sub-genre. I may not quite understand the appeal, but entries into this category can work well. Just look at the highly polished Porsche Cayenne Turbo Coupe, which makes the BMW look downright stupid.
Yes, I’m sure on a smooth race track the X6 M would be blisteringly fast, but what’s the point if it’s as good as useless everywhere else? Looks aside (the X6 isn’t the most handsome starting point), the X6 M could have been a decent car, but the execution falls well short of the mark. What’s worrying is that this isn’t a one-off for M Division.
While we’re yet to drive the X5 M, the chassis is the same, so it’ll suffer from the same issues, bar the rear visibility snafu. The X3 M, which our colleagues at evo awarded a paltry two stars out of five, is ruinously firm, and it’s the same problem with the X4 M.
With the M8 and M8 Gran Coupe it again comes down to ride issues, but the pair are also troubling on an existential level - what are they actually for? The M8 falls into a weird no-man’s-land, being too uncomfortable to be classified a GT, but not sharp enough to be considered a sports car. Oh, and the last one we drove was £140,000 with options.
Much like the Alien and Terminator franchises, the current M Division range has more misses than hits. But there are disappointments elsewhere. Over at the Mini sub-brand, there’s the GP, an odd car that mixes a hyper-aggressive chassis with a humdrum inline-four and eight-speed auto gearbox. Amongst car publications, it’s proven more divisive than Marmite. Objectionable things are happening in the lower ‘M Performance’ line-up, too. The M135i (above) sounds impressive enough on paper but is downright boring to drive - an impressive achievement for a car producing 302bhp. And while the M440i is on the whole very good, if you can live with the grille thing, there’s a sense of detachment to the way it drives.
This is arguably more significant than the M Division duffers - we could always rely on BMW to produce ‘normal’ stuff that felt great to drive, but it seems this is no longer the case. In that regard, the German company has been usurped by Mazda, we recently argued. Does that matter to the average consumer? It’s hard to say, but I’d like to think a non-petrolhead punter will subconsciously appreciate a car with spot-on controls and a decent level of feedback.
Granted, that’s hard to do these days when regulations further isolate the driver from the experience of driving, but Mazda and others - Alfa Romeo, for instance - have managed to avoid this feeling of remoteness in its cars. Perhaps this is all down to BMW not adapting as well to the changing times.
In terms of the M Division stuff, the departure of engineering boss Albert Biermann might be a factor in the way the things are now. Surely it’s not a coincidence that as M lost its way, the Hyundai N division that Biermann helped establish has flourished? Judging by comments he made in a Top Gear interview a couple of years ago, he isn’t too fond of the direction M has taken. “Now M badges go everywhere in the BMW range, but when I was there I had to fight like crazy for every car,” he said.
It also might not be a coincidence that the best-driving car in the BMW range, the M2, is the only car left in the line-up developed with Biermann’s involvement. The contrast between this relatively simple M car and its stablemates is telling. In a 2017 interview with Drive.com.au, he took shots at the established German brands, criticising their obsession with “stupid” technology that’s led by marketing. If I ever get the chance, I’d love to ask what he thinks of the BMW M8’s selectable brake modes.
And yet, it’s not all bad news. The M5, recently improved with an ‘LCI’ facelift, is tremendous, if a little too complicated. We’ve high hopes for the new M3 and M4 (and are already getting used to the idea of those huge kidney grilles), the former of which will, at last, be offered in ‘Touring’ estate guise.
The brightest hope to bring BMW’s fast car range out of the doldrums, though, comes without either M Performance or M Division branding. And it’s front wheel drive. Yes, perhaps the most interesting fast BMW to emerge in the last few years is the 128ti (above), which is shaping up to be an awfully tempting rival to the Golf GTI, even if if does have that less-than-inspiring engine and gearbox seen in the Mini GP.
So, while BMW seems to have lost its way in terms of fast stuff, there are glimmers of positivity on the horizon. Chances to turn things around. However, with it getting harder and harder to make shouty, petrol-powered performance cars, time is of the essence. We’re in the twilight years of the internal combustion age, which means we’ll see more and more ‘last hurrah’ projects like the tremendous Toyota GR Yaris.
The question is, can BMW rise to the challenge, or will we get more stinkers in the same vein as the X6 M? I’m crossing my fingers for the former.