Photo by Peter Lyon.
X-Rated? My Extraordinary Test Drive In BMW’s Latest SUV (With Police Escort) – Forbes
Never before have I encountered such an incredible test drive as I did in Indonesia last month. From the sublime sunrise overlooking four volcanoes, to an other-worldly off-road excursion on the “Sea of Sand” desert, to the BMW 10-car convoy conducted inside a police escort, each progressive experience felt more surreal.
Police escort, you say? With sirens wailing and blue lights flashing? Yes, for three days our BMW X-Series convoy, made up of new X3, X4, X5 and X6 SUVs, was escorted around the Surabaya area in eastern Indonesia by three police motorcycles and one patrol car. Why go to such lengths? Firstly, Surabaya is the country’s second biggest city with a population of around three million, and you’d be forgiven for thinking the city has one million motorcycles. They’re everywhere.
When you’re trying to navigate hordes of motorcycles and trucks, dodge multiple traffic accidents and general rush-hour stickiness, while staying in convoy formation and pressured by a tight time schedule, the only way to guarantee the success of your test drive is to enlist the services of the local constabulary.
One other important factor is the safety aspect. Invited by BMW Indonesia, our gathering of media from Singapore, Philippines, Japan and Indonesia driving a dozen of the latest BMW crossovers, is, to be honest, a definite security risk in a country that has a higher crime rate than some in the region. And keeping everyone together in a convoy is the best way to maintain a high security level.
Keeping up with the police
After the surprise of driving inside my first ever police escort, I began to wonder how I was going to actually test this X range of vehicles stuck in a convoy. It wasn’t until later in the day that I realized we’d all been testing the cars, quite aggressively, by just keeping up with the boys in blue.
Every time the police blocked traffic at an intersection to allow our convoy to go sailing through, every time we changed lanes, every time we veered over into the oncoming lane to overtake traffic jams, every time we had to brake suddenly or swerve to avoid wayward motorcycles, every time we had to accelerate, brake and make 180 degree U-turns, we were essentially testing BMW’s handling, ride quality, stability, lane changing ability, all-round visibility and comfort levels.
While the whole range proved powerful enough, comfortable, quiet, suitably composed with well-weighted steering and less than expected body roll, I particularly liked the driving experience in the X4 xDrive28i M Sport and X5. One of the sportiest looking SUVs on the market, the X4 M Sport’s 2.0-liter TwinPower turbo generates 240hp through its quick shifting 8-speed automatic gearbox.
It would appear BMW’s plan was to make the X4 even sportier than the already sporty X3 on which it’s based. To that end, the 2.0-liter feels satisfyingly quick in a straight line and corners with purpose and poise boasting minimal body roll. The X4 is however quite stiff and while it handles the twisties surprisingly well, there is a slight trade-off in ride quality. The only down sides are the limited rear seat headroom, luggage space and rear visibility. If you’re looking for a more compliant ride, go for the X3.
Not just for soccer mums
The X5 was my favorite of the BMW bunch. It is just the right size for a family, has good looks and enough leg and headroom, plush trim quality, loads of luggage space and good visibility. Its 3.0-liter 6-cylinder turbo engine produces 306hp and is teamed up with an 8-speed transmission. That means you always have enough power on tap and quick shifting to overtake and look for narrow holes in traffic — one thing we found ourselves doing more than once inside the police escort. It also takes hurried lane changes in its stride and stops on a dime.
Wanting to show us that the X range of vehicles were not just luxury limos for soccer mums, our BMW hosts — minus the police escort — directed us the other-worldly Sea of Sand at the foot of an active volcano, Mt Bromo. In shifting sands so fine that a mere spin of the tyres created a dust storm, we took turns testing the X range’s more than capable off-road capabilities.
A star on the slippery stuff was the X6 with its macho looks and gutsy 3.0-litre six channeled through a responsive 4WD system with five drive modes. If you care about ample rear headroom, then perhaps this one’s not for you. If you like power, style and poise, then it is. In a mix of challenging hard and soft sand, the X6 powered through the low traction surface, as competently as far more heavy-duty off-roaders, revealing a definite Dr. Jeckyl and Mr Hyde type of double talent.
The reason for staging such an exhaustive test drive in Indonesia became apparent at dinner that night. BMW is a growing brand here and while sales are still modest at just over 3,500 units in 2015, they are increasing by around 5% annually. What is crucial for the brand is that they make their own cars locally. The three biggest selling models in the country are the 3-Series, the X1 and the 5-Series. “But the X3 and X5 are gaining popularity rapidly too,” says BMW Indonesia communications vice president Jodie O’Tania. “We are considered as a premium brand and the quality of our locally assembled cars is on a par with those built in Germany. And the customers appreciate that.”
While the first BMW was assembled locally in 1977 under license, local company PT Gaya Motor has been assembling cars and SUVs under license from BMW AG since 2005, surpassing 50,000 units in 2014. Producing the X1, X3, 3-Series, 5-Series and 7-Series locally, the company assembles over 75% of its lineup locally — a fact that helps to keep the price down and sales rising. In fact, it only started assembling the 7-Series in late 2016 as BMW Indonesia seeks to tap into the expanding long-term demand for luxury vehicles in Southeast Asia’s biggest economy with a population of 250 million.
As we ran our 10th red light, with a wave-through and blessing of our constabulary cohorts, then spun a tight U-turn across three lanes of traffic and made a quick left-hander into the hotel, I realized that it was possible to conduct a test drive inside a police escort. Who knew?