First Drive - 2010 BMW ActiveHybrid X6

Miami, Florida -- BMW has a problem: the swanky South Beach clientele who love their impractical $80,000 four-seat trucks (you know, the ones with the 400-hp twin-turbo V-8) may one day start caring about fuel economy. They might have a diesel-powered X5 in their polished marble driveway if practicality weren’t so gosh-darned unappealing.

Enter the ActiveHybrid X6, a big solution to the big dilemma of suddenly environmentally conscious nouveaux riches. We’re using the word “big” because the idea of a BMW hybrid has a big problem: all of the drawbacks of a full-blown hybrid system (the lack of progressive brake feel, the artificial electric power steering, and the lack of discrete gear ratios) directly attack the Ultimate Driving Machine virtues that have made BMW so successful.

2010 BMW ActiveHybrid X6

But notice we also used the word “solution.” Problem solved -- the Toyota Priuses of the world no longer have an excuse to drive like numb, computer-controlled appliances. The X6 proves that, thanks to some creative engineering, hybrids don’t have to be less involving.

First of all, the X6 uses the two-mode transmission that it codeveloped with GM, Chrysler, and Mercedes-Benz. Like the other vehicles that use this transmission design, the X6’s gearbox offers four fixed gears and two ranges of CVT operation. But unlike the GM and Chrysler applications, which switch back and forth between CVT and fixed gears, BMW has programmed the transmission to pretend it’s a conventional seven-speed automatic. It shifts through seven fixed ratios that never change -- even though all of the even-numbered “gears” are actually created by keeping the CVT at a constant ratio. (The transmission uses an eighth ratio, but only for coasting.)

2010 BMW ActiveHybrid X6

BMW’s second trick is to eliminate the strange pedal feel as the braking system apportions declarative duties between the electric motor and the brake pads. To this end, the X6 uses a fully by-wire system, meaning the brake pedal is just an electric switch. It had us completely fooled -- it feels absolutely no different from any other BMW brake pedal, and easily gives the X6 the best brake feel of any hybrid on the road.

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