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The third-generation BMW X6M is billed as an SAC – a sports activity coupe.

Doug Firby/The Globe and Mail

Life is full of sacrifices, and a lot of them are linked to age and stage. When kids come along, many a driving enthusiast has had to forego their beloved sporty sedan in favour of the roominess and (cringe) practicality of an SUV or minivan. It seems like a heavy price to pay just to haul a couple of ungrateful little passengers and the dog to the cottage.

Way back in 2009, the driving nuts at BMW challenged the inevitability of that life event. The result was the first generation of full-blown, mind-bending sports cars cleverly dressed in a utility vehicle’s clothing.

BMW’s M series of performance SUVs and SACs (sports activity coupe) are based on the X5 and X6 models, which in standard form can be had with engines as small as four cylinders. But before tacking on the M badge, the company served these vehicles a healthy dose of spinach.

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In spite of their premium prices, BMW’s M series of performance SUVs have developed a solid following. Year-over-year sales of the second-generation M utes were up 32 per cent internationally in 2019, says Lars Beulke, product manager for the X5M and X6M.

The third generation of the X5M (the SUV) and X6M (the SAC) models raise the extreme-performance bar once again through the application of sophisticated electronics, studied beauty and acceleration that defies mere adjectives.

The X5M SUV is larger than the X6M, but the differences in drive quality are minimal.

Doug Firby/The Globe and Mail

These are vehicles that in “comfort” mode can cruise quietly and softly down a freeway, modestly sipping at fuel as the big 4.4-litre V-8 engine loafs along. Switch your steering, braking, suspension and engine to the preset sport mode and the M turns into a snarling, aggressive twin-turbo monster ready to paw through twisty curves with cat-like agility.

“The push of a single button transforms it into a sports car tailored to your specific needs,” says Rainer Steiger, head of the X5M/X6M project.

German automakers such as BMW, Audi, Porsche and Mercedes are engaging in a high-performance arms race, and it has reached heady heights. Consider: The Competition version of the Ms are rated at 617 horsepower, which delivers the ability to launch from dead stop to 100 kilometres an hour in a neck-snapping 3.8 seconds.

Meanwhile, the xDrive all-wheel-drive system splits the drive torque between the front and rear axles to maintain optimum traction. An electronically controlled multiplate clutch transfers the power between the front and rear axles, while the Active M differential further divides the power between the two rear wheels as needed.

The standard M wheels are 21-inch cast alloy all around, and the Competition model gets 22-inches in the rear.

Doug Firby/The Globe and Mail

The standard M wheels are 21-inch cast alloy all around, and the Competition model gets 22-inchers in the rear.

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The eight-speed transmission shifts instantly and flawlessly, with paddles on the wheel for those who insist on do-it-yourself shifting. But why bother? Linked to the GPS, the automatic pro-actively downshifts as you approach a bend. Quite honestly, unless you are race-car trained, it’ll do a better job than you can. Get over it.

Pushing the 5 and 6 to their limits is transformative. With the xDrive engaged, the vehicles track flat and stick to the road well beyond sane limits. Push them hard enough, and the sport Michelins on these 2,300-kilogram machines will eventually slip and chirp for mercy, but the car keeps its composure.

Enhancing the experience is the dual-branch exhaust system. Electronically controlled flaps modulate the amount of growl emanating from its quad 100-millimetre tailpipes, and because the sound is artificially enhanced in the cabin, the exhaust sound note can be tweaked with the M Sound Control button in the centre console.

The Competition models boast a neck-snapping 0-100 km/h time of 3.8 seconds.

Doug Firby/The Globe and Mail

The differences between driving the X5M and X6M are subtle enough that you’d need more than a day of thrashing around the desert and hills north of Phoenix to pick them out. What is different is the headroom in both the front and rear seats, cargo space and rear visibility (the lower-slung coupe is the lesser in all cases). The fastback roof line in the coupe leaves a pretty small slit to see what’s behind you. Of course, at speed, most cars will be quite far behind you.

All that power and agility means these vehicles are made to be driven well beyond posted limits. BMW caps the top speed at a mere 250 km/h, or 285 km/h with the optional M Driver’s Package. With no Canadian speed-limit-free Autobahn, the only legal way to satisfy that urge is to head to the track.

So most of us will have find what pleasure we can by smoking past whatever stands in our way on the long drive up Highway 400 to Muskoka. With these two sports-cars-in-disguise, it’s hard to imagine a more fun way to bring the whole family along.

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The X5M and X6M are to be available at dealers on April 18, 2020. Pricing and fuel economy figures have not yet been announced.

Tech specs

The Competition model adds 17 horsepower to the base X6M's 600.

Doug Firby/The Globe and Mail

Base price/as tested: To be announced this spring. Previous models were $116,250 (X5M) and $119,950 (X6M)

Engine: 4.4-litre twin turbocharged V-8 gasoline engine

Transmission/drive: M Steptronic eight speed automatic transmission with Drivelogic, the M xDrive all-wheel-drive system

Fuel economy (litres/100km): Transport Canada figures are not yet public. Previous model rated 16.6 city; 12.1 highway

Alternatives: Porsche Cayenne Turbo, Range Rover Sport, Mercedes AMG GLE, Audi SQ8

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Looks

The vehicles' design is markedly aggressive, with big air intakes and an M-specific kidney grille.

Doug Firby/The Globe and Mail

Massive front bumper air-intake openings and M-specific kidney grilles state in no uncertain terms that when you see one of these in the rear-view mirror, you need to get out of the way. The rear deck is set off with a mini spoiler and integrated quad exhaust.

Interior

The M vehicles get a handful of signature interior design cues, including red control buttons on the centre console.

Doug Firby/The Globe and Mail

The 31-cm digital instrument cluster is easy to read. Brightness on the heads-up display is adjustable. The M performance level delivers a variety of colour clues, with a splash of red on the control buttons on the centre console, a custom leather steering wheel and gearshift lever, and coloured seat-belt stitching. Premium leather and meticulous attention to detail convey a sense of quality.

Performance

The standard M puts out 600 hp, and the Competition model 617 hp. Handling is precise, and the rigid body handles tight corners with minimal fuss.

Technology

All the standard safety features we’ve come to expect in premium vehicles, plus the use of complex algorithms to optimize acceleration, cornering and stopping. Like most premium cars, however, you need a least a day of driving to get comfortable with the menu-driven 31-cm centre tablet-like display and haptic controls.

Cargo

The X5M is the superior hauler, as the X6M's fastback design reduces rear cargo space.

Doug Firby/The Globe and Mail

The X5M is very SUV-like in capacity. Rear seats can be folded down in a 40/20/40 split configuration, which can increase cargo space from 960 to 2,047 litres. The X6M sacrifices head room and cargo space in favour of the fastback style. Cargo space is 776 with the seats up and 1,688 litres when they’re folded.

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The verdict

These are premium-priced cars that emphasize driver experience. If you want the practicality of an SUV but the joy of a sports car, these are hard to beat.

The writer was a guest of the automaker. Content was not subject to approval.

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