Powerful and efficient new engine, confident ride and handling, sublime front seats, loads of available high-tech features.
Options quickly cause price to skyrocket, not as spacious as some rivals, low-mounted backseat.
The 2011 BMW X5 eases its twin-nostril nose into an alligator-infested Florida everglade, the murky water rising higher and higher toward the driver window. The BMW representative riding shotgun urges a cautious speed. "A driver vent too fast earlier and got stuck. He had to vait for an hour in zee vater." Doesn't that sound fun?
Yet big luxury SUVs like the X5 are all heading into metaphorically murky waters. With gas prices hovering around 3 bucks, green consciences expanding and governments from around the world enacting or threatening strict new emissions regulations, the future has the potential to be gloomy for the X5 and others. As such, big changes are in order for it to stay ahead of the rising tides.
Not that you could tell by looking at the redesigned 2011 X5, though. Note how BMW moved the foglights inward, raised the rear bumper reflectors a few centimeters and resculpted the lower valances front and rear. The iDrive screen is now wider. Not exactly a Heidi Montag makeover.
It's actually under the hood where the 2011 BMW X5 sees those major changes. Not only does the V8 model get the 4.4-liter twin-turbo V8 from the 7 Series, the base model now features BMW's latest twin-scroll, single-turbo inline-6 that features direct injection and Valvetronic throttle-free intake technology.
Not only does this new 300-horsepower X5 xDrive35i out-accelerate the old V8 model and produce 40 more horses and a whopping 75 more pound-feet of torque than the outgoing xDrive30i, it achieves significantly better fuel economy thanks to a bevy of new high-tech features like an eight-speed automatic and brake energy regeneration. Indeed, this new X5 is more fuel-efficient than an all-wheel-drive Ford Flex.
While we trudged out of that everglade successfully unstuck and uneaten, the BMW X5 likewise seemed capable of making a similar metaphorical escape by lowering its fuel consumption while not only maintaining performance expectations, but exceeding them. At the very least, this powertrain achievement certainly gives the X5 a leg up against competitors like the Acura MDX, Infiniti FX35, Land Rover LR4, Porsche Cayenne and Range Rover Sport. How does it fare in other ways? Well, trudge on.
The 2011 BMW X5 xDrive35i is the base model in the three-trim lineup (four if you count the X5 M), but there's really nothing base about it. With 300 hp and 300 lb-ft of torque available, this turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-6 elicits a simple question: Why would you need anything else? Power is immediate and robust, without any trace of turbo lag. There is the same irritating throttle delay found in several of BMW's recent products, but this can be eliminated by selecting Sport mode and its sharper throttle response.
The eight-speed automatic produces the sort of smooth shifts and quick responses you'd expect, but more importantly, its additional ratios are a big reason for the 35i's impressive fuel-economy numbers. According to BMW, the base X5 will return 17 mpg city/25 mpg highway and 20 mpg combined. That's only a few mpg lower than the diesel-powered xDrive35d, which is noisier and slower off the line.
The X5 has always put a premium on its handling, however, and for 2011 that doesn't change. Its balance of ride and handling is still exemplary, and although our driving route in South Florida didn't provide many twists or turns, the X5's high-speed stability and driver confidence are indicative of (though not synonymous with) a much smaller sport sedan.
Our test car came equipped with the optional Active Steering system, an advanced variable-ratio and assistance technology available on most BMW models. Normally, we consider it a needless expense, as BMW's standard steering is typically characterized as being a hallmark for communication and response. In the X5, though, it's also characterized by a heavy effort at lower speeds. Active Steering makes things easier on your arms, so even though communication through the wheel isn't as good as with the standard steering, we think it's better suited to a vehicle like the X5.
Despite the commendable handling, the 2011 BMW X5 rides quite comfortably while still feeling buttoned down at elevated speeds. Just as the xDrive35d proved during the severe desert wind storm that struck our Fuel Sipper Smackdown 3, wind and road noise are remarkably well controlled in the X5.
In typical BMW fashion, the X5's driving position is about as good as it gets, thanks to a well-positioned power-adjustable steering wheel, a commanding elevated driver seat and excellent outward visibility fore and aft.
Front-seat comfort is excellent in standard form, but our tester's optional 14-way "multicontour" seats with adjustable lumbar and bolsters are best described as "beyond reproach." The rear seat is a different story, however, as the cushion is rather low and shapeless. A third-row seat is optional, but even if you get it, it's virtually uninhabitable by anyone old enough to remember the Clinton administration.
With its fully loaded features list bursting at the gills, there's a whole lot of functionality to be had in the 2011 BMW X5. Let's address some of the key points, however. For 2011, the X5 finally gets the complete up-to-date iDrive electronics interface with the addition of the 8.8-inch widescreen LCD featured in other BMWs. This, along with last year's revised controller layout and menu structure, makes iDrive an exponentially friendlier interface than loathed previous versions. Climate controls are a little complicated (especially the soft, medium and intensive Auto settings), but most other basic functions are easy to find and figure out.
Our tester came with the optional head-up display, and although it comes in handy by putting navigation directions closer to the driver's line of sight, it is mostly redundant. The optional multiview parking cameras and sideview cameras are more useful. One provides a bird's-eye image of each side of the X5, making parking that much easier, while the other gives you a helpful view when nudging blindly into traffic.
In our real-world functionality testing, the X5's 21.9-cubic-foot cargo bay easily swallows a large suitcase and a 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.
As mentioned earlier, you'd need a side-by-side picture to tell the differences between the 2010 and '11 BMW X5s. Inside, only the bigger iDrive screen is different. In terms of quality and construction, nothing has changed: The X5 still exhibits premium materials, high-quality switchgear and strong fit and finish.
The 2011 BMW X5 is not an inexpensive vehicle, especially when loaded with options. Indeed, if you're looking for similar performance and handling for less money, the Infiniti FX35 is a good alternative. If you want more space for your money, the Land Rover LR4 could be a better choice. The Acura MDX is an alternative on both performance and space counts. Perhaps the vehicle closest to the X5 is the Porsche Cayenne, though it's even more expensive.
If you have your heart set on an X5, though, the xDrive35i could be the pick of the litter. The 35d gets better fuel economy, but it's noisier and slower. The V8-powered 50i is, of course, a real kick in the hind end, but you certainly don't need it, given how swift the 35i is.