Territorial gain drives X expectation

X hits a new spot … we take BMW’s current off-road capable models to a place that might be unknown territory to an owner and also quiz the brand about some incoming new additions to the family.

JUST because the X5 sits comfortably as BMW New Zealand’s top selling product and sports utilities and crossovers now accomplish almost half of all new passenger sales, don’t assume that regular cars have become a secondary sales occupation for the Munich brand here.

Not yet, anyway. One interesting factoid emergent from spending two days on the xDrive Experience, an on-road and off-the-beaten-track (watch the attached video to see how they coped with sandhills and tracks in Woodhill Forest) refresher course involving the multiple mire-minded (theoretically) and café chic (realistically) machines that Munich makes and sells here, is that BMW still sells more cars than SUVs.

The latter accomplished 40 percent of its sales count last year. Who’d have ever guessed it wasn’t higher given there are so many X3s and X5s around.

Indeed, with the X-attack already delivering across five models (X1, X3, X4, X5 and X6) cumulatively presenting in 16 variants (with diesel engines in 2.0-litre four and 3.0-litre six turbodiesel formats plus a 4.4-litre petrol V8 for the big M models), you’d be forgiven for thinking that they were already in control.

It’s sure to happen. A swing to volume domination is probably less a matter of if but when, nonetheless: The market is SUV crazy and BMW is out to meet that demand even more fully than it does now.

It’s an open secret that Munich has two more models – the X7, a bigger and more affluent kind of X5 that will take on the likes of the Mercedes GLS (plus the Maybach edition that Benz has also confirmed), flagship Land Rover Range Rover and perhaps even Bentley’s Bentayga and the X2, a town and style-first coupe-styled version of the recently released X1 – are in development.

While BMW New Zealand’s corporate communications manager Edward Finn only wanted to discuss the larger of the two, there’s no doubt that it’ll be the cumulative impact of these cars that could bring tip the sales scales toward the SUV side.

Not that BMW here is keen on making any firm predictions yet. Indeed, the official word is that new flagship has yet to be signed off for sale here.

“That has yet to be determined. Certainly there could well be a market for a car that is obviously a lot bigger than an X5 and has different characteristics and passenger opportunities.”

BMW’s reluctance to confirm or deny local market entry is just an act – it’d be daft not to take it.

Though high-end bejeweled SUVs are well beyond the average household budget, these types of vehicle have potential to provide surprisingly good business locally. That the Auckland-domiciled distributor already moves a good count of heavily-optioned X5s in seven-seater format suggests its clientele has no problem spending big already.

“More cars (X5s) than not option in that third row,” Finn says.

X5’s position as the best-selling BMW model – and also the market’s top-selling premium-end SUV in 2015 – shows that it is in a comfortable position, Finn suggests.

Yet the international demand for luxury land yachts is also so strong that was only a matter of time before BMW chose to join the fray with its own extra-exclusive, extra-luxurious offer.

Indeed, the brand’s confirmation a couple of weeks back that X7 will go into production soon was not news in itself – the car’s existence has been an open secret for some years.

The size of the make’s investment into the project gives good idea of the car’s importance. It is putting almost $2 billion into the Spartanburg plant in South Carolina, USA, where all New Zealand-market X-cars save the X1 are sourced from, to build this new top-shelf SUV range.

And, yes, you read that last bit right. It is fresh news that X7 will be at least two models – one the super-sized SUV wagon with seven seats split over three rows that everyone knew about and the other an ultra-luxurious four-seater limo-style model that has been kept secret.

The X7 is being developed around the carbon fibre-infused platform that made its debut in the latest 7-Series, which means it’ll be a different thing to the new SUV from Rolls-Royce, which BMW owners. The latter will be based on the British brand’s own aluminium spaceframe chassis.

As for X2? Well, even the name is presumed – for now BMW Germany has confirmed only that a new compact crossover is en route – and Finn says he has “no information about that at the moment.”

Again, though, test mules - sporting a more practical, ‘sportback’ profile than the coupe styling of the larger X4 and X6 – have been spotted.

Comments Finn: “I believe there have been some spy shots but I have nothing to comment on it regard to the NZ market.”

The car is expected to share the same UKL platform that underpins the X1, 2-Series Active Tourer, the Mini hatch and Clubman and engine options will surely mirror the lineup already offered in the X1, which includes a range of three- and four-cylinder turbocharged petrol and diesel engines, offered with the option of front- and all-wheel drive.

It is likely that the X2 will be unveiled later this year, possibly at the Paris motor show in October, with the production version hitting showrooms sometime in 2017.

Would it appeal, in theory, to NZ? “It’s interesting. We’ve had a lot of success with our new X1 and, granted, the X1 and X2 – whatever that would look like – are different sorts of vehicles. We’re very comfortable and confident with the lineup as it stands.”

What is perhaps a given is that the X7 and X2 will built to meet the operational parameters that the existing X-models already conform to; meaning that they’ll prioritise sporty on-road behaviour over all-terrain excellence.

It might also be expected that there will also be the same differences in xDrive competence that the existing range already demonstrates.

The xDrive Experience was essentially a reinforcement of all we knew already about how these cars operate.

The X1, represented in $76,500 140kW/400Nm 20d form, differs from every other X model in its basic all-wheel-drive operation – it has a system that, in allowing for front-drive operation when grip is good is less reactive and not as driver-friendly as the larger X cars’ rear-drive based setups – and it was simply the least fun of the cars to play with.

Then again, the other bookend of the X-model lineup, that $198,000 423kW/750Nm M car, wasn’t worthy of that status, either. Sure, the massive performance is never less than impressive, but it’s massively thirsty and almost too grunty for its own good, not least on gravel where the massive 325/30 R21 rubber has a nasty propensity to skate across the stones.

Speaking off … a rock also was blamed for tripping up the big blitz wagon. Not during off-roading – it survived unscathed the toughest challenges offered in Woodhill Forest, anyway – but on the seal, where it picked up a puncture just a few kilometres short of our overnight destination at Coopers Beach.

Given that the M models are the only X cars exempted from using run-flat rubber, it was impressive that the low-profile Bridgestone escaped mortal damage since it potentially ran for several kilometres in wholly deflated form. 

Yet both rim and rubber looked none-the-worse. A quick fix from a local garage had the car back on four good feet the next day, so saving it the ignomy of a return drive to Auckland on a space-saver.

So if those weren’t so hot, what was? Well, any one of the three models running BMW’s magnificent 3.0-litre TwinPower turbodiesel – punching out 230kW and 630Nm in the $125,000 X3 35d and $128k X4 35d, and 280kW and 740Nm in the mighty X6 M50d, it’s a superb powerplant. The massive torque reserves provide genuine pace and huge muscularity, of course, but just as impressive is the powerplant’s refinement and thrift.

So for me, it was …? Actually, the X3. Because it’s surprisingly adept on and off seal and, to my eyes, the practicality that comes with this wagon shape easily matters more than the supposed panache that apparently attaches to the curiously bug-like coupe silhouette.

It also seemed to be the model that was least troubled by scooting around Woodhill though that exercise was clearly carefully planned.

The forest has specific off-road areas designed to give a good workout but given that the xDrive formula dismisses low-range gearing, lofty ride heights and even gnarly rubber to instead rely on electronic traction-assist and hill descent smarts to win the day, it was hardly surprising we steered well clear of the places where Jeeps, Land Rovers and Land Cruisers played.

Even so, it was a rare opportunity to test the range in an environment that will assuredly be foreign to the owner base.