I pulled into the parking lot of the new Fresh & Easy market in Burbank on its second day in business. The lot was pretty packed with cars, but I glided into a space not twenty feet from the front door marked “hybrid cars only.” The car I was driving weighs over 5700 pounds, produces 480 horsepower, and can sprint to sixty miles per hour in 5.4 seconds. Was I violating the rule about what cars could park in that spot? Not at all.
My car that day was BMW’s new X6 ActiveHybrid, billed by BMW as the most powerful hybrid vehicle ever made. The idea of a store setting aside spaces for hybrid cars could be debated, but sure enough I was in a hybrid. It may not be the idyllic, save-the-planet transportation pod that the environmental crowd worships, but it’s the latest vehicle to offer gasoline-electric hybrid power as a way to reduce fuel consumption through advanced technology.
The X6 ActiveHybrid shows that not all hybrids are the same, as the classification continues to stretch. The earliest hybrid models on sale in the U.S. about eleven years ago were small, relatively inexpensive, and provided impressive mpg numbers. More than ten years on, hybrids are being developed to serve all kinds of transportation needs and wants.
Hybrids are hot in the U.S., especially in California. In certain neighborhoods like Santa Monica, it almost seems as if there’s open disdain for anyone who doesn’t drive a hybrid. The European makers have been slow to get on the hybrid-electric bandwagon, but they’re now introducing new models at a rapid pace. Seeing the popularity of Lexus hybrids flourish, rival luxury competitors BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Audi and even Porsche are joining the fray.
The X6 ActiveHybrid is a full hybrid, meaning that it’s capable of moving along on electric power alone at up to 37 mph according to BMW. Two electric motors are nestled in the transmission, powered by an advanced NiMH battery pack tucked under the floor of the cargo compartment. As with many other hybrids, an in-dash screen provides an animation of what’s happening with the system.
As you drive, a processor decides whether the electric motors should work by themselves, in conjunction with the twin-turbo gasoline V8, or if they should be utilized as generators to charge up the battery pack when decelerating or coasting. It all happens seamlessly, and you can use the display screen for what seems like a hundred other functions once the hybrid diagram becomes boring. There’s also a hybrid battery gauge in the base of the tachometer which glows in a vivid shade of blue.
There are two sides to the X6 ActiveHybrid. The performance side means a quick romp up to speed as the engine’s turbochargers provide maximum boost and the dual electric motors add a bunch of torque, somewhat defying the laws of physics and lurching the slope-backed pseudo-SUV forward with great urgency. After all, this is a premium BMW model and its owners will expect it to perform.
Its other side is the one that saves fuel and reduces carbon output, at least compared to other vehicles that offer its level of performance. When crawling slowly in freeway traffic, the engine will shut down while the electric drive takes over. The engine can also turn off when stopped at an intersection (this could be especially handy in Burbank, where the logo on the city flag might as well be a red traffic light). If you think about when the most gasoline is wasted, it’s at low speeds on a gridlocked freeway or when sitting still with an engine at idle.
This new BMW is efficient compared to its non-hybrid counterparts, but you won’t likely be blown away by the official EPA numbers: 17 and 19 mpg for city and highway travel, respectively. According to BMW, that’s a 20% improvement in consumption, and the vehicle’s carbon output is lower too. All other things being equal, the X6 ActiveHybrid is efficient within its performance realm.
As with the conventional X6, creature comforts abound in this hybrid model. Very comfortable leather bucket seats for both front and rear passengers feel nice and cozy on short or long trips. Entertainment and communication features are numerous, and after a thorough tutorial and lots of practice, the gizmos available via the iDrive mouse-wheel-thing on the console should make long commutes much more tolerable.
The X6 ActiveHybrid also gets a unique color choice called Bluewater Metallic, as well as aero-type 20” wheels. These styling elements, along with small badges on the doors and liftgate, help drive home the efficiency theme while helping the hybrid stand out from the other X6 models. The price helps it stand out too: base sticker is $88,900. Hey, being fast, luxurious and efficient isn’t cheap.
If you think that’s expensive, wait until BMW launches its next hybrid model, an ActiveHybrid variant of its flagship 7-Series. That hybrid limousine will have a base price of over $100,000 when it goes on sale next month. BMW must figure there are people who will pay good money for premium high-performance cars with a hybrid system.
As for me, I’ll just enjoy the heck out of this X6 ActiveHybrid for the remaining days I have the key. My goal is to make use of the car’s performance while marveling at the technology that lets it save a little fuel. And I’ll certainly be making use of that special parking space again.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7. He’s also a car enthusiast and owns several classics. Dave can be reached at TVCarz @ pacbell.net