THE DEATH of the internal combustion engine is going to come sooner than expected in Britain. Last month the government announced that sales of new petrol and diesel cars will be banned five years earlier than previously stated, in 2035. Not only that, but hybrids would likely be thrown out, too.
Around the world, auto industry chief executives could be heard spluttering coffee over their Macbooks and paging secretaries to arrange emergency board meetings.
The following day they had to book appointments with their cardiologists because the Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told the BBC this would happen by 2035, “or even 2032,” subject to consultation. Car makers are going electric but they can’t switch too quickly because we don’t want to buy them in large enough numbers yet, the supply chain needs time to catch up and the charging infrastructure needs a huge amount of work.
But the writing is on the wall for petrol and diesel power; their days are numbered. Which is why cars like the ones you can see in the pictures here are so interesting. The new third-generation BMW X5 M Competition and X6 M Competition (the sporty-backed coupé version) are 2.3-plus tonne SUVs featuring a high-revving 4.4-litre twin-turbocharged V8 petrol engine developing more than 600bhp. They’re capable of less than 23 miles per gallon, and belch out nearly 300 grams of CO2 per kilometre. And that’s according to BMW’s own, probably-quite-favourable figures.
Cars like this have targets on their backs. They’re brutish dinosaurs stomping over the landscape, sticking two fingers (claws?) up to the rest of the world, and the world is becoming increasingly hostile towards them.
Which is probably why some people love them so much, especially in places like China and America where it’s less socially unacceptable to drive gas-guzzlers. The cost also means these cars are out of the reach of most of us. Prices start at £110,610 for the X5 M Competition and the X6 M Competition is an extra £2,700, meaning these will be rare beasts in the UK. BMW UK expects to shift 100 and 60 units respectively this year.
They’re not especially beautiful machines (many find the look of the X6 especially vulgar), though the new versions are an improvement on the previous models — controversially enlarged kidney grille aside — and the M models get a few sporting changes design to improve cooling and airflow, such as the large air intakes in the protruding front aprons, M gills on the front side panels, streamlined side mirrors, flared wheel arches and rear spoilers.
And true helmspeople unlikely to love a car like this; they will want something much lighter and lower-riding to satisfy their motoring kicks.
But the titanic performance is undeniable. The four-wheel drive X5 M Competition (the base X5 M won’t be sold in the UK will hit 62mph from a standing start in 3.8 seconds and hit a limited top speed of 155mph. Pay for the M Driver’s package and a further 25mph is unleashed. Which is useful only on Autobahns, really, though it does allow bragging rights, which is what a car like this is all about. I mean, having spent over £110,000 on a car, could you honestly hold your head high at parties if the full 180mph wasn’t unlocked?
Joking and derision aside, the X5 M and X6 M Competition are phenomenal machines to drive. On twisty roads they handle in a way that makes a mockery of physics — cars this tall and heavy simply should not be able to go round corners as fast as they do.
BMW launched the cars in Phoenix, and although most Brits think America is full of straight highways, Phoenix has its own mountains and the roads around them are wonderfully challenging, with Alp-like drops in places. And because America is so vast the roads are delightfully free of other motorists, which means we were able to test where the line is between gripping the asphalt and a 1,000ft drop/ certain death.
The X5 M and X6 M didn’t end up at the bottom of the mountain because they have trick all-wheel drive, with a multi-plate clutch in the transfer box splitting power between the front wheels and an active differential doing the same at the rear. Both systems adapts to the driving conditions and drivers inputs thanks to an electronic dynamic stability system, which works out which wheel needs power and when. A rear bias elevates the sports car feel — it couldn’t be an M car without at least the majority of the power going to the back wheels.
Putting the car into Sport mode cranks up the bias, and via the car’s setup menu, the dynamics can be adjusted further. The suspension, for example, has extra-stiff mountings and F1-like double-wishbone geometry, but it also has active dampers that — like the differentials — respond to steering inputs, road surface conditions and body movement within milliseconds. Body roll and pitch can be controlled as well as bumps in the road can be brushed off.
The feel through the wheel is good, too, and the roughness of the road surface is clearly transmitted to the driver’s hands. Both cars feel very connected.
Stopping power is decent, thanks to six-piston fixed calipers with 395mm drilled, inner-vented brake discs at the front wheels and single-piston floating calipers with 380mm discs at the rear, and you can change the settings to have a more aggressive feel on the brakes if you like. But you can’t get over the fact this is a 2.3-ton machine, and slowing from a high speed requires careful planning in advance — these are not cars that can stop on a dime.
All of this means switching between Comfort, Sport and Sport Plus modes really does change the character of the cars. Push them hard and they’ll come alive, responding instantly to your right foot, and pivoting around corners with tautness and vigour. But back off and the X5 M Competition and X6 M Competition will relax with you. One of the most surprising things about these cars, aside from their ability to go around corners, is the comfort they provide on long motorway runs, even with their big 21in alloys. There’s a good soundtrack from the V8 powerplant but you are very aware that the cabin is ultra quiet, especially with the optionally “acoustic glazing” (found in the Comfort Plus pack). BMW has done an exceptional job of deadening the sound inside.
There’s also lots of space inside, the interiors are luxurious (think four-zone climate control and Merino leather as standard, with optional seat heating, cooling and massaging), they have first-rate tech including a customisable head-up display and Apple Carplay (although no Android Auto, which will always irk me, and the other 2.5bn Android users), and astonishing ride comfort for continent-crossing.
The cruise control with Driver Assist — a semi-autonomous system that will keep you in lane and a set distance away from the car in front, with a Tesla-like digital display showing where other cars and trucks are around you — is phenomenally good on long motorway runs, taking much of the strain off. You are required to be alert at all times, ready to take back control, and tight turns are beyond its capabilities, but although the system will tell you to put your hands back on the wheel if you take them away for too long, it can be tricked into silence by simply putting your hands up next to the wheel, suggesting it uses a cockpit camera system rather than one that detects resistance through the steering column. I found I was able to travel for miles along a highway with my hands resting on my knees, without ever touching the controls.
The only thing these cars don’t have for long runs is acceptable fuel economy (for that you’ll need X5 M50d, which can manage 40mpg, but only has a puny 395bhp and causes children to become asthmatic because it’s filled up at the black pump). Though buyers aren’t going to be short of cash, so cost at the pump isn’t too much of an issue, they might tire of the regular refuelling trips to the petrol station.
Oh, those poor souls, Nissan Micra and Hyundai i10 drivers are thinking. They’re most likely also of the opinion that there’s no need for cars like the X5 M Competition and its X6 M Competition sibling. But there’s was no need for the Concorde either (nobody really needs to get from New York to London in three hours), yet that aeroplane is an icon of the modern age and when you go to see it at the Brooklands Museum, grounded but rebuilt and preserved, I guarantee a tear will come to your eye. It’s amazing that such a wonder ever existed.
Similarly, the engine and suspension systems of these cars are astonishing feats of engineering. Will people feel the same way as Concorde about cars like this in 20 years’ time? Wonders of an age gone by, equally awesome and alien.