LUXURY XDRIVE SUVS PACK A FEW PLEASANT SURPRISES ON TEST ROUTE
This isn’t the most direct route between Auckland and Doubtless Bay in the Far North, but if you want to test the attributes of BMW’s range of SUVs, it is certainly one of the most varied and thrilling.
BMW wanted to demonstrate the versatility of five of their xDrive luxury sports utility vehicles, across more than 600km of Northland roads, including an off-road session in the Woodhill Forest northwest of Auckland.
The remainder of the journey involved both main highway travel and windy trips on unsealed forest gravel roads, where the xDrive all-wheel-drive systems and other technological wizardry could be put under real pressure.
The five models survived the two days of hard, sometimes shuddering driving without a failure, the only mishap being a flat tyre on the fearsome X5M Sport large SUV, which was the only model not sitting on run-flat tyres.
The models ranged from the BMW X1 20d small SUV, introduced into this market at the end of last year, through to the X5M large SUV with its 4.4-litres of grunt, and the even sportier X6 30d large coupe.
In between, there was an X3 35d, and an X4 35d on the demonstration run.
In reality few of these relatively expensive luxury SUVs will go off-road or spend much time on rutted forestry roads, but the run though the backblocks of Northland proved they are much more than urban shopping trolleys.
All of them felt robust no matter how fast they sped around the windy forest roads, and they all coped with the conditions presented by the route.
Some were more fun than others, and by the end of the route one or two favourites had emerged.
Three of the models are what we have come to expect from a conventional SUV — a squarish practical utility vehicle — while the X4 and X6 are both sloping-back, large coupes.
All the models here except the X1 are manufactured in the United States. BMW NZ sources its X1 models from Germany. The models, in the order we drove them and the route taken:
This was the most expensive model on the run, and the model I drove from BMW headquarters in Mt Welllington to the Woodhill Forest off-road testing ground.
The X5M is one of the most popular BMW SUVs in this market. It has plenty of grunt, which is just as well because it is easily the heaviest of the models tested.
It is powered by a 4.4 litre twin turbo 8-cylinder engine producing up to 750 Nm of torque.
The X5, starting at around $149,500 (although the X5M model we drove costs more), is the most luxurious.
The merino leather interior is plush with its contrasting stitching oozing luxury and comfort.
The model sits on massive 21-inch tyres which help ensure there is always plenty of rubber hitting the road or dirt track.
In spite of its size, the X5 sits easily in heavy morning motorway traffic, pulls away smoothly and is exceptionally quiet.
Though there is plenty of ground clearance to handle some off-roading, I managed to get it bogged in sand at one point in the Woodhill Forest.
We handled a steep right-hand corner on the third attempt and the sheer grunt of the engine pulled it through. In more experienced off-roading hands it would have handled the terrain easily.
The course included a steep sandy decline where the descent-control feature provided a steady and reassuringly- controlled run down the steep decline.
BMW X6 30d
This is the largest of the sportsback all-wheel-drive models and is promoted as providing a sportier drive than the more conventional SUVs, or as BMW prefers to describe the models, sporting activity vehicles.
The appeal of these large sports coupes remains something of a puzzle, but there is a demand for them, with BMW rival Mercedes-Benz now offering competing sportsback models.
The manufacturers say they appeal to those who want a sportier drive with all-wheel-drive practicability.
The models certainly stand out on the roads compared with the squarer, more conventional SUVs.
My initial drive in the X6 was from the Woodhill Forest through Helensville, onto State Highway 16 through Kaukapakapa to Wellsford.
Compared with the larger M5 the steering was light and somewhat vague, although this improved dramatically once the vehicle was put in Sport and Sport Plus mode.
It handled the windy route up beside the lower reaches of the Kaipara Harbour and inland to Wellsford well, with the 3-litre diesel engine providing more than adequate oomph to pass logging trucks quickly and safely.
I remain a sceptic about these larger sports coupes, with their more restricted headroom in the rear seats, especially when the more conventional SUVs now handle so well.
BMW X1 20d
This is the baby of the BMW SUV range and is proving popular in this market.
By all accounts it is a significant improvement on the first X1 model, which was largely based around the 3-Series touring platform.
Despite stepping out of the most powerful models in the range, and into the smallest, the X1 was great to drive on forest roads between Wellsford and Pipiwai, northwest of Whangarei.
We sped through dirt and tarsealed secondary roads between Paparoa and Waiotira, and then north through to Pipiwai.
Though it may not have been the quickest or most powerful model through these stages of the run, it handled them without slipping or sliding or any other untoward drama.
The sharp bends could be tackled with confidence and the 2-litre diesel engine purred through what was a testing stage for drivers and vehicles. It was a thrilling and fun stage of the trip, through the dusty forest roads.
BMW X3 35d
The X3 is beautifully balanced and also fun to drive – it is fitted with the x-Drive pro-active system that anticipates what is about to happen on the road.
Once again I drove this on a combination of sealed but windy roads, including a short section of State Highway 1 between Moerewa and Okaihau where we returned to a gravel road through the Puketi forest.
This provided another fun drive at speed through tight corners, and — once again — there was no hint of wallow or drift that you often experience in some lesser SUVs.
It meant keeping up with the lead vehicle in the convoy was easy, although at times it paid to ease up to let the dust clouds settle so you could see where the road ahead led.
BMW X4 35d
This was the final leg of the day, from deep within the Puketi Forest through to the main road at Kaeo, and then the main tarsealed road to Coopers Beach and Doubtless Bay.
My reservations about the X6 on the first day of the journey had me approaching this second of the fastback models with doubt.
But I found the smaller of the two fastback models the more pleasant of the two to drive.
The steering is balanced and handled both gravel and tarseal with confidence.
It could even be thrown around corners at speed without drama or loss of grip.
Rear headroom may be limited in these models but especially in sport or sport plus mode, the X4 is a joy.
The X4 35d is listed in New Zealand at almost $130,000, and does provide a more dramatic appearance than the boxier workhorse SUVs.
Overall the X3, which in its original version was the first SUV in its class, was the most fun to drive in these conditions, followed by the M5, and surprisingly to me, the X4 Sportsback.