Extraordinary turbodiesel thrust, excellent fuel economy and highway range, impressive handling, superb visibility, road-trip-ready front seats.
Big-rig engine note, dated interior elements, leather looks and feels like vinyl, indifferent rear-seat comfort.
The new 2009 BMW X5 xDrive 35d is late to the diesel-fueled German luxury crossover party, but fashionably so. Like its countryman rivals from Audi, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen, the X5 xDrive 35d achieves 50-state legality for its turbodiesel inline-6 via an emissions control system that injects urea into the exhaust stream. On the road, though, the BMW trumps them all, posting the best fuel economy, quickest acceleration and sharpest handling in this segment. It's also the most expensive, but in this case you get what you pay for. The X5 xDrive 35d is the most capable diesel-powered SUV on the market.
That's not to say that the others are slouches. The Audi Q7 TDI comes standard with third-row seating, the Mercedes-Benz ML350 Bluetec's sumptuous cabin stands out even in this company, and the Volkswagen Touareg 2 V6 TDI provides a premium experience while being the cheapest by thousands.
The 2009 BMW X5 has answers, though: A third-row seat is optional, its overall interior quality will please most and its stellar power plant arguably justifies that price premium. Oh, and with the optional Sport package in place, this 5,120-pound bruiser slipped through our slalom cones at an astonishing 65.8 mph — dead even with the 2010 Chevrolet Camaro SS.
Modern turbodiesels promise a superior mix of fuel economy and power, but few deliver like this one. In addition to dusting its direct competition, the X5 diesel is 38 percent more fuel-efficient and just 0.1 second slower to 60 mph than the pricier X5 xDrive48i with its gas-powered V8. One potentially significant caveat: The soundtrack from the engine bay evokes truck stops more than country clubs, whereas the other diesels are relatively demure. But if you can find some charm in its gruff baritone, the 2009 BMW X5 xDrive35d will reward you with class-leading performance that easily excuses its late arrival.
The all-wheel-drive 2009 BMW X5 xDrive35d is powered by a 3.0-liter twin-turbocharged diesel inline-6 that pumps out 265 horsepower and a monumental 425 pound-feet of readily available torque. A smooth six-speed automatic with manual control is the only available transmission.
In performance testing, our X5 xDrive35d dispatched with 60 mph in 7.2 seconds and crested the quarter-mile in 15.3 seconds; the latter is actually 0.1 second quicker than the V8-powered X5 xDrive48i can manage. Braking was similarly impressive, as our 60-mph panic stop required just 121 feet.
EPA fuel economy ratings for the X5 xDrive35d are 19 mpg city/26 highway and 22 combined, and we observed exactly 22 mpg over about 1,400 miles, including one remarkable 601-mile tank without the aid of hypermiling techniques (don't try that one at home). Maximum towing capacity is 6,000 pounds — not quite what the Q7 can handle (6,600), let alone its Touareg cousin (7,700), but still a healthy figure for a luxury crossover.
In real-world driving, the 2009 BMW X5 diesel is a torque-laden monster off the line, blowing past slow-moving boulevard traffic with even a half-hearted squeeze of the throttle. Unlike most turbodiesels, this one keeps pulling, too, all the way to its unusually high 5,000-rpm redline. The power delivery is perfect for such a heavy vehicle: sufficiently broad-shouldered at low engine speeds for most applications, but ready and able to let loose with a uniquely exuberant high-rpm roar when necessary.
As for handling, our Sport packaged X5 was easily one of the most athletic SUVs we've tested, with sharp steering (albeit needlessly heavy at low speeds), disciplined body motions and far higher limits than its prodigious curb weight and tall body would suggest.
Even with the two-way adjustable suspension on its normal setting (versus the stiffer Sport mode), our 2009 BMW X5 xDrive35d rode firmly enough that we'd advise skipping the Sport package if you don't want or need enhanced handling capabilities. Wind noise is minimal, though, and road noise rarely intrudes despite the 19-inch tires.
In typical BMW fashion, the driving position is beyond reproach, thanks to a perfectly sized and contoured sport steering wheel, a commandingly elevated driver seat and excellent outward visibility fore and aft. That seat also provided faultless long-distance support for one of our editors on a 601-mile fuel economy slog, though we found the "Nevada" leather upholstery to bear an uncomfortable resemblance to BMW's vinyl "leatherette" upholstery.
Rear-seat comfort is a low light, however, due primarily to a low, shapeless cushion. Rear headroom is plentiful, so we can't figure out why the seating position isn't higher. Furthermore, there's an odd lump where the cushion meets the seatback — one unimpressed staffer likened the sensation to sitting against a rolled-up towel. Our test vehicle lacked the optional kids-only third-row seat, but its availability notably enhances the X5's appeal relative to the five-passenger ML320 and Touareg.
The 2009 BMW X5 xDrive35d's non-iDrive controls are logically arrayed for the most part, and the center-stack readouts are even visible with polarized lenses, a rare treat in a BMW. The optional head-up display was not easily read with those lenses, however, though we were fans of its navigation functionality — head-up directions are a rare treat in any car.
The iDrive system was a pain in our collective tushes, but it didn't have to be: Most BMWs are now equipped with a new version of iDrive that offers additional physical buttons, improved graphics and a more logical menu structure, so we were surprised to find the unfriendly previous-generation iDrive in our X5 tester.
The navigation system employs a similarly outdated DVD format (most BMWs now feature hard-drive-based systems), and it came with a rearview camera that struggled mightily to maintain its frame rate and quality in low-light conditions. Also past its prime is the cell-phone holder next to the shifter, which was clearly designed before the advent of iPhones and Blackberries, as neither fits.
Speaking of receptacles, the glovebox lives behind slick dual panels that motor open silently at the touch of a button; if only that kind of engineering prowess were evident elsewhere throughout the cabin.
In real-world functionality testing, the X5's 21.9-cubic-foot cargo bay easily swallowed our standard suitcase and golf bag; however, with a rear-facing child seat installed in one of the backseat's outboard positions, the corresponding front seat was practically uninhabitable by those with longer legs.
Design/Fit and Finish
The current X5 has aged well during its three years on the market. Its restrained sheet metal incorporates classic BMW styling cues in a modern fashion, yet it's refreshingly free of attempted avant-garde flourishes. Inside, the sleek and simple dashboard design calls to mind the new 750i sedan, right down to the oversized iDrive/navigation display screen. However, our preproduction test car was plagued by some un-BMW-like fit and finish issues, including creaky front seats and a remarkably noisy power tailgate motor.
Who should consider this vehicle
The 2009 BMW X5 xDrive35d is the only game in town for luxury crossover shoppers who want class-leading power, fuel economy and handling, and it also offers available third-row seating for larger families. Despite some notable flaws, the X5 diesel is the best all-around vehicle in this segment.