Before the first BMW X5 arrived way back in 1999, most SUVs were built for tackling mud, climbing rocky trails and towing ski boats. Their clumsy on-road manners were something you endured for the pleasure of sitting high, mighty and apparently invincible.
But BMW reckoned there was a market for a sports activity vehicle rather than a sport-utility vehicle, and while it's easy to argue about the semantics of these labels, what Munich had in mind was a big all-wheel-drive beast that you would actually enjoy driving.
BMW was not alone in realizing that the off-road element was a lot less important than a four-wheel-drive's implied prestige, imperious seating and ample cabin space. The X5 ended up a pioneer, to be followed by the Porsche Cayenne, Audi Q7 and Range Rover Sport. That success is one reason why the styling of this third-generation X5 "refines and reinforces the X5's look of presence and elegance," according to designer Olivier Heilmer, rather than offering anything truly new.
More Quiet, Less Weight
That said, this midcycle update goes to the X5's core, its chassis reworked to add strength and lightness and the shell now 5 percent stiffer without imposing a weight increase on a vehicle that's significantly better equipped. Some versions weigh much the same, but others are as much as 200 pounds lighter. Drag has been reduced, too, the coefficient of the slimmest-wheeled version dropping from 0.34 to 0.31.
The toughest mission, however, was to tackle criticisms of the outgoing model's ride and refinement. Reducing noise transmission via the front bulkhead, the glass and the wheel housings has cut noise levels by a useful 2.5dB average across the range, while new seats similar to those in the 7 Series sedan have quelled vibration.
There are numerous changes to the suspension which has been reworked to smother small bumps more effectively. This has been achieved, says BMW, by changing the front suspension geometry, relocating the lower spring pans to sit closer to the axle and improving bump-stop progression. The springs are softer, too, and the dampers have been recalibrated to suit. The rear axle gets the same spring, damper and bump-stop mods, although its geometry remains the same. Most significant of all — though not necessarily beneficial from the driver enjoyment perspective — is a switch from hydraulically assisted steering to the electric variety.
More Power, Eventually
At launch, the most powerful drivetrain available comes in the xDrive50i, which combines a twin-turbo 4.4 liter V8 with an eight-speed paddle-shift transmission and all-wheel drive. A 3.0-liter straight-6 powers the xDrive35i, while the diesel-powered xDrive35d model will join the lineup next year. For the first time, a rear-wheel-drive X5 will also be available with the 3.0-liter gasoline power six only.
Output in the 2014 BMW X5 V8 climbs 10 percent to 450 horsepower and torque is up to 479 pound-feet. It's enough to shave half a second from the 0-62-mph time, which falls to an impressive 5.0 seconds flat. BMW says fuel economy improves a little, too, but there are no EPA numbers to back that up just yet.
Despite all the grunt, and the traction to make maximum use of it, the V8 X5 is not the fastest thing off the line. The engine and transmission need a few moments to absorb your right foot's command before launching the BMW forward with the urge you'd desired moments earlier. It's a pause that appears when you're on the move at lowish speeds, too, although switching to Sport mode does a bit to enliven the drivetrain. The twin-turbo V8 does make a nice sound, however, providing a satin V8 beat that turns impressively muscular when the throttle is sunk deep.
Deft Chassis, Dulled Steering
Not surprisingly, the X5 chassis is more than capable of handling the V8's efforts. Or it does in the form we tested the car in, which included the $4,500 Dynamic Handling package, which adds an air-sprung rear suspension, adjustable dampers, active antiroll bars and cross-axle torque-vectoring. The standard setup is rather ungenerously specified with steel springs, conventional shocks and passive antiroll bars, a combination we didn't get a chance to sample.
Even so, we would recommend the upgraded setup for two reasons. The first because this is a big load carrier in need of self-leveling, the second because we suspect the ride will need softening for broken tarmac moments. Dialed in to Sport mode, this X5 proves satisfyingly agile through bends both tight and sweeping. It's a vehicle that feels smaller than its bulk implies, and certainly nimble enough to entertain. It's also stable, steers accurately, stops convincingly and rolls enough to let you know what you're doing without turning remotely floppy and uncooperative.
A shame, then, that the new electrically supported steering takes the edge of this accomplishment by coming over curiously vague through the first few degrees of its movement. This faintly disconnected feel applies in both Comfort and Sport modes, too. Happily, it does little to undermine the accuracy of the X5's steering, but it does dim the sporting appeal of this sports activity vehicle.
As for the ride, it swallows most small bumps whole as promised, although the odd clatter across ridges and potholes in Sport suggests that it's the Comfort damping mode you'll mostly want on U.S. roads. It's unfortunate that in this setting the steering is a little too light — and you can't mix and match the steering, drivetrain and suspension settings to achieve an ideal blend.
There's no shortage of electronic driving aids in other departments, however: lane-keeping, radar-controlled cruise that extends to traffic jam stop-and-go, and (from December) a lane-keeping traffic jam assistant, too. Night vision and BMW's excellent head-up display also appear on an expensively lengthy options list.
Cleaner, More Spacious Cabin
Inside this X5 you're greeted with a slightly more sophisticated cabin than before. Apart from the permanently affixed infotainment screen, the architecture is essentially familiar, right down to the signature twin air-vent stacks at the dashboard's outer edges.
But there are subtle improvements, such as the gentle curves of the decorative wood, aluminum and double-stitched leather that heighten the luxury ambiance. They make up for some of the more pedestrian switchgear in the center stack that looks a little cheap.
Solid rear-seat space is another one of this X5's upsides, a factor made even more useful by the very comfortable back bench. There's also slightly more cargo room thanks to some packaging changes, along with the continued option of a third row, now split 40/20/40. It's still far from a full-size SUV in this regard, but for those who only occasionally need a third row, this X5 is more useful than it has ever been.
Hasn't Forgotten Its Roots
At its heart, though, the X5 is still the sporting SUV that it was back in 1999. Perhaps too much so aesthetically, as this restyle is certainly short of imaginative flourishes. BMW would doubtless argue that the existing formula is very successful so there's little reason to make drastic changes.
It's certainly more polished this time around with its mix of big cabin comfort, luxury trimmings, sporting performance, all-weather security and accomplished manners. The 2014 BMW X5 is slightly spoiled by the V8's lazy step-off and that flawed steering feel, but neither shortcoming is pronounced enough to dampen the average buyer's enthusiasm for it.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.