Stay on the Asphalt
It's pretty easy to like the 2002 BMW X5 4.6is. All it requires you to do is forget any potential that the SUV-looking vehicle may hold of actually being an SUV.
Huh? If it's not an SUV, then what is it? Well, that's the thing; the X5 was never meant for traditional SUV duties, such as climbing a precipitous, rocky incline or hauling home-improvement items. Instead, the X5's mission is to provide all the finer points of SUV-ness, such as a high ride height, all-wheel-drive capability for slippery road conditions, a cargo-friendly rear and the supposed safety that comes with driving a bigger and heavier vehicle.
We've already done an exhaustive road test of the X5, as well as gotten a taste of the 4.6is in its European-spec iteration, and determined that it's a sport sedan in SUV guise. Take it merely as that, because if you expect the tall Bimmer to fulfill its SUV duties, you may be disappointed. With a paltry 54.4 cubic feet of cargo space (that's more than 10 cubes less than the 5-Series sport wagon, and not easily reached due to the hatch's clamshell design) and meager 7.1 inches of ground clearance, it could be argued that the X5 is more of an exercise in style than a revolution in function. It has most of the sublime driving demeanor of a BMW, just in a different guise.
Driving home the point is the super-tuned 4.6is, new for the 2002 model year. BMW's mission is to expound upon the fact that the X5 is still an Ultimate Driving Machine, and so engineers made alterations to the X5 4.4i to highlight its performance potential.
Scooting the X5 along is a specially tuned engine with an output of 340 horsepower and 350 pound-feet of torque that peaks at 3,700 rpm. Thanks to increased bore and stroke, the displacement of the 4.4-liter V8 engine has increased by 0.2 liters to a total of 4.6. The compression ratio is up from 10.0:1 to 10.5:1, and redline has been increased from 6,200 to 7,000 rpm. Along with a new exhaust system, these changes are good enough to get this 4,824-pound vehicle moving from 0 to 60 mph in a blazing 6.2 seconds. That's 0.3 seconds better than that other German super-tuned truck-type vehicle, the Mercedes-Benz ML55 AMG, thank you very much.
In response to the obvious question of why they didn't just shove the M5's 5.0-liter powerplant into the engine bay, BMW's engineers responded that its power peak is too high for a vehicle that ostensibly is to be used to tow a trailer of up to 6,000 pounds. Well, we suppose consumers need a method of carrying home the trophies of an after-Christmas sale at Henri Bendel's. And why not an M badge? BMW says it wants to keep the Motorsport realm pure and only include cars; they're truck-bigots, those Bavarians.
Complementing the potent engine is a sport-tuned five-speed automatic tranny with an automanual function. This unit, specially tuned for the 4.6is with a higher stall-speed torque converter and heavy-duty hydraulics to temper it, shifts with more acuity in its response than the regular transmission. Want to rev it up to redline? Like the M3 and M5, a variable tachometer warning gauge will tell you to wait until the engine's been properly warmed.
The X5's sport suspension calibrations with firmer damping are standard on the 4.6is, and with four-wheel independent suspension with twin-tube shock absorbers all around, it felt as at home on the race track as would a 5 Series. A self-leveling rear air suspension is standard, but the adjustable ride height feature isn't available on the 4.6is.
Off-roading wouldn't be a smart idea, considering the W-rated performance tires that come with the package, leaving extensive tracks from the 275/40R20 rubber up front and 315/35R20 in the rear. Don't worry, the 4.6is has vehicle speed-sensitive steering boost so that navigating your X5 around tight parking lots won't strain your delicate wrists. But don't even ponder taking this puppy on anything less refined than a road slightly neglected by maintenance crews; that's a large contact patch on which punctures could occur. For that matter, forswear the Capitol Beltway altogether. Stay put on a glassy asphalt road and you'll be perfectly content. Why wouldn't you be? The X5 is replete with BMW's heroic driving dynamics, along with its perfectly weighted, communicative steering, progressive pedals and the intoxicating engine roar.
Tempering the galloping stallion are immense 14-inch ventilated disc brakes, the biggest BMW has ever offered, for the front and 12.8-inch plates in the rear. They peeped out like caged beasts from behind the gorgeous five-spoke wheels with a menacing glower. Along with an electronic brakeforce distribution, Dynamic Brake Control (BMW's BrakeAssist program), Automatic Differential Brake (which is, in essence, a limited-slip differential) and Electronic Stability Program, you should be able to keep yourself out of trouble.
If that long list of active safety systems doesn't deter you from forcefully making contact with another solid object, a veritable army of passive safety systems will pop up for your benefit. Six airbags (front, side, head protection) come standard, while rear side and head protection airbags are optional.
Those, along with a navigation system and a retractable load floor, are the only options on the $66,845 vehicle, because everything else, including xenon headlamps, a power sunroof, a trunk-mounted, dealer-installed six-disc CD changer and a park distance control system for the front and rear, comes standard on the 4.6is.
A few visual cues distinguish the 4.6is from its (relatively speaking) plebian brethren: The dual exhaust pipes are oval, the bumpers sport air intakes and wind splitters, and the whole package rides on spectacularly massive 20-inch wheels. Two colors are available for the 4.6is Imola Red and Estoril Blue.
Inside, you'll find the sport seats trimmed in either Alcantara/Nappa (a rather strange netted effect) or the full Nappa leather. The Imola Red version comes with red interior bits you've really got to like being ensconced in red to dig this version. We prefer the traditional wood trim, which is a no-cost option.
The BMW X5 appeals to a limited niche of consumers, and the 4.6is version further narrows the field. Yet for those who enjoy many (but not all) of the aspects of driving an SUV, but still need the sheer joy and thrill of driving a BMW and leaving the Mercedes-Benz ML55 AMG tasting dust in the quarter-mile, well, then, the 4.6is is your only choice, isn't it?