Hubert Burda Media

THE BEAST IS BACK

Part SUV, part coupe, BMW's brawny X6 is what you might call an acquired taste. But its second-gen M variant is hugely capable

THE BEAST IS BACK

THE URGE TO develop ever more diversified model ranges, which has seized several motor manufacturers and especially those in Germany, occasionally results in cars that cause us seriously to wonder whether they answer a question anyone in their right mind was asking. Think, for example, of the late and largely unlamented Mercedes-Benz R-class, which, depending on how you look at it, was either a station wagon on an overdose of steroids or a severely sat-upon SUV, but never the “sports tourer” of marketers' hype. Clearly a case of back to the drawing board – or to be more accurate with the R-class, discreetly kill it off and pretend it never happened.

Beauty, though, is definitely in the eye of the beholder. Many of us blanched when we first clapped eyes on Audi's truck-like Q7 and the BMW 5-series GT, and perhaps even pondered what on Earth the guys in Ingolstadt and Munich were smoking when they signed off on such monstrosities. Yet so successful have both been in the marketplace that a replacement for the former was unveiled early this year (the bad news: it doesn't look much better), while a secondgeneration GT is said to be well on the way.

Part SUV, part four-door coupe, BMW's X6 crossover also provoked extreme reactions on its arrival in 2008. Some loved its idiosyncratic boldness and tall stance, and others frankly loathed it, with those in the middle being simply baffled. Yet like the Porsche Panamera, another vehicle whose looks have tended to polarise opinion, once you've actually driven the thing it all begins to make sense. For, over time, the X6 has turned out to be really rather good – so good, in fact, that we're not only inclined to forgive its curate's-egg styling but have even stopped finding it offensive. It, too, has carved out a niche for itself in the market, with sales of around a quarter of a million – a niche deemed sufficiently lucrative that rival manufacturers (hello, upcoming Audi Q6) are busily readying their own contenders.

Stealing a march on its competitors and underlining its “ownership” of a segment that the company refers to as “sports activity coupe”, BMW announced its second-gen X6 last autumn, following it up in February with the launch of a somewhat more berserk, M-badged version at the Circuit of the Americas (COTA) in Austin, Texas. While surprising to those inclined to doubt the X6 M's pukka performance credentials, that choice of venue was clear evidence of the Bavarians' confidence that this hefty new beast really can cut the mustard on one of the most technical F1 racetracks.

For a largely new car, the 2015 X6 looks so similar to its predecessor that many will have problems telling them apart. If you really need to know, however, it's a few centimetres longer and there's a swage line above the rear wheel arches Distinguishing it from less powerful models, the X6 M also gets bigger front intakes, side vents, a rear diffuser with a pair of twin exhausts, a rear-deck spoiler and 21-inch alloys. All the test vehicles lined up on the COTA infield wear a handsome metallic blue paint job – the colour du jour, it seems – that visually at least helps shed kilograms off the M's corpulent physique (it remains a big and heavy car, though, tipping the scales at 2.35 tonnes).

Underneath, it's superficially similar to the earlier M version, with an identical wheelbase, all-wheel drive and a 4.4-litre V8 occupying the engine bay. With the exception of its dimensions, however, the power unit is almost entirely new, featuring a pair of twin-scroll turbos and a raft of completely changed internals that help lift maximum output towards 570bhp and torque to earth-moving levels, at 750Nm. Out, too, goes the old six-speed automatic, to be replaced by an eight-cog unit that, once we're out on the circuit, proves unexpectedly quick to shift, especially when using the paddles. In spite of the M's weight, the car's performance is shattering: maximum speed is a limited 250km/h (though in some markets BMW can raise this to 280), with 0-100km/h in a fraction more than four seconds.

Playing follow my leader behind DTM (Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters) and former F1 driver Timo Glock, who BMW has flown in for the occasion, the X6 M is not only unfeasibly quick – on COTA's kilometre-long main straight I'm pushing 220km/h before I stop checking the speedo – but also massively assured on corners, where with stability control engaged, virtually zero body roll, hugely impressive grip and phenomenal braking power I'm finding it hard to believe we aren't about to make a spectacular diversion into the scenery. Quite how BMW has engineered such ability into a vehicle like this is hard to fathom, but that they've made it behave and sound almost like a proper M-car (it even fractionally shades the brilliant M5 up to 100km/h) deserves serious praise.

Off the track, we're sent out to explore the back roads around Austin, where the X6 M reverts comfortably into the cruising mode that one assumes will be its more customary gait. The cabin, of course, is impressively luxurious and as ergonomically excellent as I expect (with the exception of BMW's gear selector, which after all this time I still can't get my head around). Ride, though on the harder side of supple, is perfectly acceptable, and with so much torque on hand the throttle just begs to be dumped whenever we hit a straight. Do that and the M fairly flies, while some especially fruity engine noises are piped into the cabin.

Impressed though I am with the X6 M, I'm still not entirely sure who'd want to buy one – not that BMW has any worries about that, as it clearly expects this explosive new behemoth easily to replicate the sales success of the outgoing car. I don't, however, harbour any such reservations about the 228i Convertible in which I end my brief tour around this tiny corner of the Lone Star State with a late-afternoon spin through the countryside.

One of the sweetest cars I've had the pleasure of driving in a long time, this newly launched cabrio embodies almost everything a compact BMW should be, from its responsive and punchy twolitre turbocharged four-cylinder engine to its precise steering and gloriously predictable rear-wheeldrive handling. With a proper ragtop rather than the retractable hardtop that's sadly becoming de rigueur these days, it looks just like a classic convertible, too, and with the roof folded (raising and lowering takes just 20 seconds, and can be done at speeds up to 40km/h) the redleather interior of our silver test car is shown off to stunning effect.

In fact, I have only two gripes about this utterly desirable little runabout. The first is that it only comes with an eight-speed automatic (though a six-speed manual can be ordered for the hotter M235i version). The second is that there are currently no plans to bring it to our part of the world. The campaign for a rethink starts here.

+Prestige Hong Kong