The latest addition to our long-term fleet is possibly the most unique car we’ve ever had. Is it a car? Is it an SUV?

Well, probably more the former than the latter. I like to call it a crossover crossover. BMW calls it the 550i Gran Turismo. Even more than half a year after the car’s introduction to North America the GT still turns heads, even on the car-jaded Southern California freeways. Some people just think it’s funny looking. More people just want to know what the heck it is exactly. One gent driving a Mercedes S-Class was so intrigued I thought he was going to ask me to trade cars for the afternoon.

At its North American launch, the GT seemed something of a leap of faith for BMW, and it sort of left us all scratching our heads. After all, it’s well documented that Americans just don’t like to buy wagons, hatchbacks, basically anything that sits like a car but incorporates a lift-gate or fifth door in the rear. Why this is should be left to open debate, but it seems to be a widely nationalistic thing, a mindset unique to the United States. But then again, Europeans have always been more progressive, and Americans have never really been defined by our frugality or overall sensibility when you look at things on a worldwide scale. Frugality usually takes a back seat to emotion on this here side of the Atlantic.

Whatever the case, I’d argue that the 5 Series Gran Turismo is not really a wagon or a hatchback, at least in the traditional sense. In essence, it’s the latest 5 Series sedan platform wearing the upper rear three-quarters of an X6, the company’s sporting sport-ute. Their respective profiles are eerily similar.

This combination of attributes gives the Gran Turismo a couple of advantages. First off, its 5 Series underpinnings make it drive like a car rather than a traditional high-riding SUV. And second, the big back end gives it the utility of said SUV. Win and win.

In fact, BMW claims the GT offers more interior headroom than even the X5, and we can attest to that fact. The cabin is absolutely cavernous. Not only does it offer a surfeit of vertical space, but, like the late Eazy-E said, front and back, and side to side.

The back seat in particular is a really nice place to spend an afternoon. There’s an available Luxury Rear Seating Package that imbues the rear passenger area with individual bucket seats divided by a solid center console, as well as four-zone climate control, so that back-seat passengers are allowed to ride in the same snug and cosseting style as those up front. Ours doesn’t have that option; instead, it’s got the traditional 5 Series bench-style seat that can accommodate up to three people. It’s still a pretty nice place to be, especially considering this car does have the rear-seat entertainment bundle, which embeds 8-inch LCD screens in the front-seat backrests. The tilt-adjustable screens can be operated independently of one another, each has its own set of headphones, and all video and audio sources can be operated from the rear using a remote control unit. It seems to be an ideal setup for anyone with kids or unruly inlaws.

Having now driven both this car and the other new 5 Series offerings, we were a little surprised the GT didn’t quite show all of the sedan’s sporting characteristics. In fact, it really seems to drive like something between the 5 Series sedans and an X6. Which is really where it falls in the model lineup anyway. On tight sections of road it feels a bit top heavy with a tendency to lean when under load in the corners. This is most noticeable when the Drive Select is set to Normal or Comfort. Bumping it up to Sport or Sport+ makes a huge difference in the car’s overall composure on a winding road. But even so, the GT doesn’t quite drive like its sedan counterparts, mostly due to its expanded roofline, and more importantly, the extra 500 pounds it wears versus the 550i sedan.

Then again, that expanded roofline is what helps give the car its mentioned utility. It’s a compromise, sure, but a completely subjective matter on whether that’s good or bad. If your thing is pure driving dynamics, you’d likely still go for the 5 Series sedan. If you want to expand on the car’s overall utility but still retain a large portion of the 5 Series’ driving manners, you go for the GT.

All things considered, the 550i GT could be the ultimate road tripper, and we’ve had it on a couple of extended road trips, you can be sure. It might not necessarily be the BMW you want to take up that winding mountain road on a regular basis, but it does allow you to chew highway miles in complete and unmitigated comfort.

One other thing: The 550i is a thirsty beast. But that’ll be a fact of life whether you go for the sedan or the GT, with the 400-hp twin- turbo V8 sucking down as much fuel as you’ve got dollars to pump. I’m not sure if that’s a complaint exactly, because at speed this thing just flies, and with all that power you’d expect some kind of impact on fuel economy. Not that the economy is bad considering what the engine is and the output it generates; BMW estimates it will return 12 to 18 mpg in the city and up to 25 mpg on the highway when treated with a light foot.

What we’d really like to see, especially in a vehicle as substantial as the Gran Turismo, is one of the two diesel variants available in Europe (530d and 535d) make it over to this side of the ocean. A pipe dream at this point for sure. But there’s little doubt a torque-rich, more efficient clean-diesel option would offer a huge benefit to a car like this.

Maybe next year? (We won’t hold our collective breath.)

2010 BMW 550i Gran Turismo

MSRP: $63,900

Layout
Longitudinal front engine, rear-wheel drive

Engine
4.4-liter V8, dohc, 32-valve, twin-turbocharged

Transmission
Eight-speed automatic

Options
Convenience Package (Comfort Access, power tailgate, soft-close automatic doors), $1,900; Premium Sound Package (premium hi-fi audio, iPod and USB adapter), $1,400; Sport Package (20-inch wheels and performance tires, leather sport steering wheel, Multi-Contour seats, Shadowline exterior trim), $5,200; Integral Active Steering, $1,750; ceramic controls, $650; heated front seats, $500; rear-seat entertainment, $2,200; Head-up display, $1,300; gas-guzzler tax, $1,000; destination charge, $875

Performance

Peak Power: 400 hp @ 5500 rpm

Peak Torque: 442 lb-ft @ 1750 rpm

0-62 mph: 5.4 sec.

Top Speed: 155 mph (limited)

Fuel Economy: 15/21 (city/hwy)

Price as delivered: $80,675

At a glance

Plus +
Lots of room, extreme comfort, tons of power

Minus -
Options tend to pile on the $$$ (typical), evident girth on tight roads

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