Karl Brauer, Editor in Chief
We already know what you're thinking: "Oh no! Not another SUV! And from BMW no less. Has every carmaker in the world sold out to fad marketing and higher per-unit profits?" We know this because it's exactly what we were thinking when word of BMW's impending SUV was first used as a "get them to pick up the magazine" cover blurb on all the major buff books at the newsstand.
But as unbiased and open-minded automotive journalists (no, really), we decided to reserve judgment until we had actually driven the X5 ourselves. After all, labeling a given SUV as an ill-handling, resource-devouring, vision-blocking status symbol, without actually driving it, would be like labeling the Y2K doomsayers as a bunch of paranoid and pitiful prophet-wannabees.
Before describing BMW's SUV, we should note that BMW prefers the term SAV, or Sports Activity Vehicle. The company insists that the X5 does not fit the standard SUV mold -- that it is not just a truck chassis with extra sheet metal and seating. Because BMW doesn't produce any trucks (yet), there's no arguing this point.
Instead, the X5 represents an SUV/ultimate driving machine hybrid. Like the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Lexus RX 300, it uses an integrated unibody construction to reduce weight while simultaneously contributing to its car-like ride and handling characteristics. This design not only gives the X5 excellent torsional rigidity (on par with the 5 and 7 Series sedans), it also helps control and distribute impact energy for enhanced crash protection. In combination with the many safety systems standard on every X5, including BMW's head protection system and its dual-threshold smart airbags, this is one of the safest vehicles currently produced.
Safety is undeniably part of the draw when buying an SUV, but BMW's research showed several additional elements as well. Among them was the sense of control and power that comes from driving a high-profile vehicle. These feelings can be somewhat deceiving because the very nature of SUVs, specifically their high center of gravity, tends to make them roll over more easily than a "low-riding" car would under similar circumstances. BMW addressed this issue by giving the X5 a four-wheel independent suspension, nearly 50/50 weight distribution over its front and rear axles, and an optional sport suspension that utilizes firmer springs and shocks, along with 19-inch wheels and low-profile tires.
Even with its standard suspension, the X5 is by far the most stable and confident SUV we've driven. Feedback through the steering wheel and overall handling traits are unlike anything previously available in this class of vehicle. In a few rare situations, primarily when swooping through off-camber turns, the X5's high profile and 4,800-pound curb weight was impossible to hide, but we have to give BMW credit for creating such a competent "all-road" vehicle.
Horsepower from the 4.4-liter V8 is rated at 282 while max torque is listed as 324 ft-lbs. All of the same technologies used in the 540i's engine, including double-VANOS valve control, silicon-impregnated cylinder walls and a liquid-cooler alternator, are found under the X5's hood. BMW also got the exhaust note right, giving this engine a terrific rumble at higher rpms. However, don't expect to escape the inevitable gas bills that go with an engine of this nature. Its EPA rating is 13/17 mpg in city/highway driving. A six-cylinder version will go into production next spring and should offer better mileage as well as a lower price tag.
As solid as the X5 felt on the public byways of central Georgia, the real test of its BMW-ness came during a flogging at Road Atlanta. This 2.54-mile, 12-turn track sees everything from Trans Am to Superbike racing and proved more than adequate for measuring the X5's on-road abilities. Heading out in a sport package-equipped model proved entertaining -- with its 255/50R-19 tires up front and 285/45R-19 tires in back -- giving gobs of grip and plenty of breakaway warning. If things did get out of hand, we liked knowing that BMW's dynamic stability control was waiting in the wings to save us (not that we ever needed it, but just in cas). For SUV buyers who hate giving up performance-car thrills, the X5 should prove a godsend.
Which brings us to the $64,000 question (somewhat less if you keep the option-checking to a minimum when ordering your X5): Can a vehicle so capable of on-road thrills also handle off-road demands? Or to put it more bluntly: Is the X5 really just a tall, all-wheel-drive 5 Series? In considering the answer it is important to remember that BMW never intended the X5 to compete with the likes of Jeep's Grand Cherokee or Toyota's Land Cruiser. Research has repeatedly shown that luxury SUV buyers rarely embark on serious off-road adventures. Their demands are limited to capable all-weather performance and the occasional light off-road jaunt (like scampering across the soccer field to pick up Johnny).
Rather than investing substantial time and money into creating another LX 470, BMW figured a proportional gain in on-road performance could easily justify a similar loss in off-road capability. To that end, the X5 readily gives up any claim of Rubicon Trail conquering (as any vehicle costing over $50,000 should) and focuses instead on the real-world situations that 99 percent of all X5 buyers will encounter. This is not to say that the X5 is useless off-road and, in fact, its list of advanced features is quite impressive. Besides the requisite full-time all-wheel drive and traction control that you might expect, BMW gave the X5 a hill descent control system to help maintain a slow speed when descending steep inclines.
We tried out all of these systems on a brief, and relatively light, off-road course. While not up to Jeep Playground standards, the terrain we covered was still far more demanding than anything most X5 owners will ever see. The traction-control system performed flawlessly and the hill descent control system did an excellent job of keeping us at a slow pace on steep and muddy downhill sections. There was no "low" gear option to switch to for increased torque, but the 4.4-liter's 324 ft-lbs. of twist never felt overworked by even the steepest sections of the course.
Perhaps the most bizarre element of the off-road experience came from the steering wheel feedback we experienced when bouncing and slogging over the semi-rough terrain. In the majority of today's SUVs, the steering wheel becomes somewhat of an adversary once you leave the pavement. Bumps, rocks and other assorted debris cause quick suspension compressions at one of the front wheels (but rarely at both front wheels at the same time). These quick, uneven compressions travel through the suspension and steering gear, ending in a sudden twitch to the right or a jerk to the left of the steering wheel. Not so in the X5. To our delight, BMW's trademark steering feel and composure is present in the X5 even when driving it off-road. That alone almost makes up for any lack of pure rock-climbing ability.
Other BMW features found in the X5 include a quiet, vault-like highway ride (impressive for such a tall, boxy vehicle), supple leather seating surfaces, a functional gauge cluster, and numerous high-tech luxury items. One-touch power windows, a power driver's seat and steering column with memory, automatic tilt-down right outside mirror for parallel parking, and automatic dual-zone climate control with microfilter are all standard equipment items. Options like a retractable load floor, rain-sensing wipers, on-board navigation, park distance control and halogen headlights can be added individually or as part of several option packages.
In our opinion, BMW has perfectly identified the luxury SUV buyer and targeted the X5 for him or her. They've created a supremely capable on-road performer that boasts a raised ride height, all-weather driving ability and plenty of cargo storage (54.4 cubic feet with the second seat folded down). It's undeniably safe, uncompromisingly luxurious, and unequivocally a BMW. Certainly the $49,970 base price is a bit steep, but don't expect to haggle with your dealer on these vehicles for quite awhile. Regardless of how BMW wants to label it, the X5 is a luxury SUV with a premium nameplate, which means there will be 20 people in line behind you waiting to sign the paperwork.
So maybe BMW did sell out to market pressures...just a little bit. Hey, at least they're also selling us a unique twist on the SUV theme.
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