Chris Bangle may have been maligned for a good deal during his tenure at BMW, but there are some things one can never quite forgive.
All evolutionary pathways have their variances, those points of deviation from the natural course, most of which lead to dead-ends. Some however mutate, leading to strange and unnatural creations. In 2007, BMW unveiled one such grotesquery, an incongruously formed fastback SUV concept, dubbed a Sports Activity Coupé, which was revealed the following year in production form as the X6.
Chris Bangle is a man who seems content to wear his notoriety as a badge of honour. During his tenure as design leader at BMW’s FIZ technical centre in Munich’s Petuelring, he presided over a succession of car designs which alienated a sizeable proportion of BMW’s traditional customer-base, yet brought many new customers into the fold. A man who it appears, thrived on disruption and visual discord, and while his design legacy has been misunderstood and misinterpreted to a large extent, the X6 remains his greatest and perhaps most grievous stylistic offence – one even his most ardent proponents find indefensible.
In 1999, BMW introduced its first purpose-built off-roader (or Sports Activity Vehicle in Munich-parlance), the (E53) X5. Unlike its M-Class Mercedes rival, which employed body-on-frame construction, BMW’s X5 was a unitary bodied car, allegedly designed with the benefit of BMW-controlled Land Rover’s input. An immediate sales success, both the X5 and Porsche’s Cayenne which followed two years later were pivotal in the SUV format gaining serious (up)-market traction, not to mention credibility amongst affluent carbuyers, especially in American and oil-rich Gulf State markets.
Amidst the boardrooms of the European car business during the late ’90s, there was a powerful belief in the ethos of ‘grow or be eaten alive’, as illustrated by Daimler-Benz’s 1998 takeover of Chrysler. BMW, shielded to some extent by the largesse of the Quandt family, but already regretting its purchase of the troubled Rover Group, began looking increasingly to its own laurels for growth and expansion.
Matters were further intensified by an industrywide push into new sectors of the marketplace, with product planners and design teams tasked with dreaming up new frontiers. With the 1991 acquisition of the Designworks facility in California, BMW’s designers, product planners and strategists gained a window into the region of the US car market which was habitually several years ahead of fashion.
Seeking what he termed a “leap of faith for BMW” Bangle sent a team of designers to a remote corner of Malibu during 1996 on a secretive mission, codenamed Deep Blue. Sequestered in the grandeur of a villa previously inhabited by Elizabeth Taylor, they spent six months in resplendent isolation absorbing the affluent, the sun drenched and the self-regarding in their natural habitats before mapping out the concept vehicles which would whet their appetite for the new.
Out of this creative hothouse came the germ of an idea for a cross between off-road vehicle and coupé. E71 saw this principle made flesh. Based on the platform, drivetrain and suspension of the contemporary E70 X5-series, development for the X6 is said to have begun in 2003, lead by FIZ engineer, Peter Tuennermann. Meanwhile in Bangle’s Designworks studios, a styling scheme from Belgian designer, Pierre Leclercq, working under Adrian van Hooydonk was chosen to go forward for production.
Following similar styling themes to that of its more generically SUV-shaped X5 sibling, the major formal shift took place aft of the B-pillar and above the beltline. Most obvious was the wedge-shaped bodyside, which rose towards the rear of the vehicle to meet the sharply sloping rear of the slammed canopy at a bustle-back tail. Resembling to some eyes, a predator in the act of consuming its prey, the X6’s visuals were very much of the love it or hate it variety.
Technical novelties included the first outing for BMW’s innovative ‘Dynamic Performance Control’ rear axle in conjunction with the X-drive four wheel drive system. This electronically controlled rear axle employed ‘torque vectoring’ which apportioned power not only from front to rear but also from side to side to provide optimum traction. This allowed the X6 to change direction with the agility of a considerably lighter vehicle.
Engines were shared with the X5, the top-range model being powered by a 4.4 litre turbocharged V8, while the well regarded 3.0 litre twin turbo diesel made up the lower end of the performance scale. Later, a twin turbo version of the petrol V8 powered the M-performance version, while in 2009 BMW announced a petrol-hybrid version, which was sold in selected markets.
While opinion differed wildly as to the X6’s merits – some within the UK motoring press for instance being quite vocal in denouncing it, and despite launching into the teeth of the worst economic conditions of the post-war era, the X6, apart from making a slow start in its first year, sold strongly and consistently from the off, with slightly over 300,000 in total finding buyers when the first series was phased out in 2015.
During the post-crash era, the X6 also became something of an emblem for a style of weaponised, highly aggressive road behaviour which has since become the default for a notable subset of latterday SUV owners and drivers. But having opened a Pandora’s box, not only has the BMW inspired a host of imitators – from Sindelfingen’s carbon-copy-coupés to the Lamborghini Urus and Audi Q8 twins – but closer to home the monster has been equally fecund, spawning both X4 and X2 offspring.
As today’s hyper-aggressive ‘driver-focussed’ SUVs mutate and proliferate, the original X6 now appears almost (if not quite) demure. But with Bangle’s befringed one-time apprentice now readying the vast and obnoxious X7, a similarly proportioned X8 cannot realistically be outside the realm of soon to be realised fantasy.
Meanwhile, bucking the narrative arc of the creator tormented by the terrible reality of his brainchild, Bangle remains blithely unrepentant and continues to defend the car. So much so, he is said to retain one for his personal use – a matter of personal choice of course, but one which remains difficult to defend on any basis other than one of provocation.
But this has been and remains Chris Bangle’s stock in trade. Is it conceivable that the X6 is the perfect embodiment of his ethos – the personification of the Bangle doctrine? Perhaps dreams of reason really do produce monsters.