BMW of North America head honcho Tom Purves doesn't like when you call the 2007 BMW X5 a sport-utility vehicle.
We're not sure that we even finished pronouncing the "U" in SUV before Purves piped in, "S-A-V!" All right sure, it's a "Sport Activity Vehicle."
We didn't mean anything by it. It's just that, like its predecessor, the new X5 is one of those vehicles that's kind of tall, has four side doors, all-wheel drive and other, you know, SUV-like characteristics. We call the "four-door coupe" Mercedes CLS a sedan, too. We're just like that.
However fine a hair BMW might be splitting with its alternative acronym, the original X5's combination of sporty handling and limited utility made it distinctly different from any other SUV of the time. Thanks largely to the X5's success, that's certainly less true today. The list of vehicles that BMW might describe as SAVs is getting long and includes the Acura MDX, Audi Q7, Cadillac SRX, Infiniti FX, Porsche Cayenne and Range Rover Sport.
The shape of things
The handsome new X5 is an evolution of that original, um, SAV concept. Its look is familiar. The little ducktail detail on the tailgate remains, as do the tailpipes that exit from the rear bumper cover.
But now sharp creases break the flow of the X5's curved panels in a curiously pleasant way. This surface drama also gives the X5 more than a passing resemblance to a tomatillo with its husk still intact. The new X5 has grown slightly taller and wider, but it's really only the stretched overall length that changes the look of the thing. It is 7.4 inches longer than the outgoing model, with 4.5 inches of that increase given to the wheelbase. The result is a more planted, station-wagonlike appearance compared to the tall-and-tippy look of the original X5.
This subtly more stable look accurately telegraphs the evolutionary changes of the X5's driving behavior.
Ride, handling, whip and whoa
If the original X5 had a major fault, it was its sometimes flinty ride. But the '07 model barrels down the highway with the stability and serenity of a large luxury sedan. This is particularly impressive given that the standard wheels on all X5s (3.0 and 4.8 alike) are 18-inchers, wearing run-flat tires.
And it hasn't traded any of its signature handling prowess for this improved comfort. In fact, the X5 handles brilliantly. The narrow, rain-soaked roads we drove should have made driving this 5335-pound SUV feel like riding a pig wearing roller blades. Yet, even without the optional sport package (electronically adjustable dampers, trick antiroll bars, 19-inch wheels), we could place the X5 with surprising accuracy. The front end bites with unexpected tenacity and will hold its line without correction. It's easy to flow smoothly through transitions without the disconcerting weight transfers normally associated with SUVs. How much of this can be attributed to the new double-wishbone front suspension (the first non-strut front on a BMW since 1961), we cannot say.
Although a new 260-horsepower 3.0-liter inline-6 is the new X5's base motor, BMW had only V8s available for testing. The new 4.8-liter makes an impressive 350 hp and 350 pound-feet of torque (an increase of 35 hp and 26 lb-ft compared to the outgoing 4.4-liter). Paired with the new quick-shifting six-speed automatic, the X5 4.8 should be able to reach 60 mph in 6.4 seconds. That's almost a half-second quicker than the old V8 model despite a weight increase of 408 pounds.
As we've come to expect from the X5, and from BMW in general, braking performance is excellent. To compensate for its increased heft, the company has enlarged the new model's brake discs, by about half an inch up front and almost a full inch in the rear.
More utility ability
And hey, the cargo hold of the X5 is now larger than that of the 5 Series wagon, something that could not be said of the original. So there is a little "U" in this SAV. Into this slightly larger rear, the company will install what it calls a "third row of seats." They — two mini-seats separated by cupholders — could be straight outta Gitmo. Even BMW doesn't recommend that anyone taller than 5 feet, 5 inches sit back there. In truth, no human should be forced to. And without LATCH attachments they aren't ideal for safety-seat-bound toddlers either. They are useless, but at $1,200, they are not cheap. Unless you regularly carry 1:18-scale adult passengers or have children badly in need of punishment, forget them.
The interior is a new design and is handsome and comfortable, with a particularly nice driving position — halfway between a Land Rover LR3 and a BMW sedan. The materials are of excellent quality and the craftsmanship is top-notch. Rear-seat legroom is excellent.
The only sour notes in the interior are on the center console, where both an iDrive knob and a heavily designed electronic shifter have found a home. Despite half a decade on the market, iDrive is no more intuitive than it was at introduction. In our test vehicle, which had neither a navigation system nor a rearview camera (both are part of an option package that adds $2,600 to the V8's $55,195 base price), the iDrive was simply an unnecessarily complicated way to change the radio station.
The shifter, which is roughly the shape of a New York strip steak, operates something like the little spring-loaded stalk shifter of the 7 Series. You toggle forward for Reverse, backward for Drive and push a button on top for Park. BMW says that the shifter's oddness allows for more center console space, compared to a conventional automatic shifter. The company says this made room for two sizable cupholders. Indeed there are two cupholders. They are not, however, as large as those in many vehicles with conventional shifters. And they are not, as the company claims, Big Gulp-ready.
But as Tom Purves would surely point out, utility was never really the point of the X5. It still isn't. The goal was to build a premium SUV-like thing that handles like a BMW. With more luxury, surer handling and just a pinch of additional utility, the new X5 remains atop that niche — whatever you call it.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.