BMW answers the trend with road-going performance.
by Sam Moses
Base Price (MSRP) $38,900
As Tested (MSRP) $55,720
Originally called a "sports activity vehicle," the BMW X5 delivers superb handling and performance. It may be the best-handling SUV on the road. It almost feels like an oversized rally car. Muddy trails are easily negotiable, though this isn't what we'd call a highly capable off-road vehicle. And cargo capacity isn't a strong point.
Two models are available: 3.0i ($38,900) and 4.4i ($49,400).
BMW launched the X5 for 2000 as one upscale model powered by a 4.4-liter V8 engine mated to a 5-speed automatic Steptronic transmission.
For 2001, the 3.0i was added with a 2.8-liter six-cylinder engine. A 5-speed manual gearbox (ZF Type C) comes standard; BMW's 5-speed Steptronic is optional.
The X5 is immediately recognizable as a BMW. In fact it looks like a 540i wagon on steroids - and it is remarkably close in overall size. From the kidney-shaped grille to the tailgates, the curvy X5 is all BMW. The slope of the tailgate looks almost identical to that of the 5 Series wagon. The major difference is that the X5 is 10 inches taller than the 5 Series wagon. This increased ride height is the key element of making this vehicle more like a sport-utility.
BMW's X5 is called a light-duty truck by the government. Most truck-based SUVs, including the Mercedes-Benz M-Class, are built with the body bolted onto a frame. The X5, however, uses a monocoque body shell like that of a regular sedan. This unit-body construction provides a much stiffer body shell, which improves handling, reduces noise and allows better fit and finish. The X5 is not the first monocoque SUV; the Lexus RX 300 and the Jeep Grand Cherokee follow the same design concept. Because of the unit-body construction they share, the Lexus RX 300 is the X5's closest competitor in terms of ride comfort and handling.
The X5 rides on big-diameter 18-inch wheels with low-profile tires that lend an aggressive appearance, and even more aggressive 19-inch wheels are an option.
The X5 is all BMW inside. A simple, uncluttered layout with touches of wood lend an air of elegance. The door handles have a nice brushed aluminum finish and the soft plastic surfaces somehow feel more like leather. X5 comes with a long list of standard features. The one we drove had an integrated navigation system that was a little confusing to master in the short time we had the vehicle. The seats are excellent and the ergonomics are good. Despite the X5's greater height, inside headroom is all but identical to that of the 5 Series wagon, which is itself slightly better than that of the larger 7 Series.
Surprisingly, the cargo carrying capacity is no better than that of the 540i Sport Wagon. That's not to say it's bad but don't expect the X5 to be a substitute for a minivan or Suburban in the haulage business. A very sturdy rollaway cover that can be removed for a larger load carrying capacity covers the rear cargo area. The rear seats are split 40/60 and can be folded down to provide a flat surface. The height of the load floor looks high and it seems to take a bit more heft to load cargo; a 150-pound English mastiff accustomed to climbing into dozens of different SUVs found the pitch too steep to climb up his ramp into the BMW.
The rear hatch is split with a flip-up window and a tailgate similar in design to the Range Rover's. The rear window can be opened independently of the tailgate, which is useful when you want to quickly put something in the rear cargo compartment. One annoyance: Hit the remote hatch release button up front, get out, and when you shut the door, the air in the tight cabin pops the window open enough to close it; walk around back and discover you need to go back and press the release button again; do this a few times and you feel like an idiot. This can make the X5 a bit inconvenient at the airport. Armed with groceries, you'll more likely open the rear hatch with the keyless remote control, which works well. Reflectors on the top of the tailgate's door jam enhance safety when accessing gear at night.
Passive safety has been a major part of the development of the X5. It can be purchased with no less than eight airbags to protect occupants in a major crash. Each front seat occupant gets a front airbag, a side thorax airbag and a side head bag. An optional side thorax airbag is available for the two rear-seat occupants. The airbag system is essentially the same as in the 7 Series; BMW claims its own crash tests indicate the X5 will obtain a five-star rating in the government's (NHTSA) crash tests. BMW claims the X5 is safer than a 7 Series and that it will set new safety standards for this class of vehicle. In November 2000, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety rated the X5 as its "Best Pick" among SUVs for crashworthiness.
The X5 4.4i might be considered the BMW M5 of SUVs. Almost. It will do everything the specially built AMG Mercedes ML55 will do, except win a drag race or be a Mercedes. If the AMG Benz is for horsepower extremists, the X5 is still a power hitter-the Sammy Sosa to Mark McGuire of SUVs, maybe.
Mostly, the X5's handling is noticeably more stable and comfortable, with less twitching and head toss, making it more widely suitable.
The X5 wants to be driven like a sports car. The five-speed Steptronic transmission can be easily used like a stick, downshifting with a snick or two of the lever for turns, sometimes instead of braking. It's engaged by notching the lever to the left, which puts the transmission into Sport mode, and the upshifts/downshifts are accomplished by a simple quick nudge of the lever forward or backward.
Not all manual-automatic transmissions lend themselves to practical or convenient use, as the lever action may be awkward or the engine's powerband doesn't care, but the X5 is made for it, and the execution is perfect. It's wonderful to use during passing on two-lanes, making that move safer and smoother. The oomphy power is seamless, with redline coming at 5800 rpm.
On the freeway, the X5 changes lanes with the lightest of touch and with total precision. The tale of the tape might reveal some of its rock-steadiness. Compared to the Mercedes ML430, the X5's track is one inch wider and it rides 2.2 inches lower.
It's the slow speeds where the X5 requires effort. The engine hardly lacks torque, yet it feels like it's working when the going is deliberately slow. This seat-of-the-pants feeling might well be skewed by the transmission mapping or ratios. More bothersome is the power steering, as it takes too much effort to turn the steering wheel at slow speeds.
The brakes are appropriate to the price and function of the car. They're huge, they incorporate every electronic trick known to man, they're effortless to the touch, and they enable the X5 to stop as quickly and securely as the BMW 7 Series luxury cars.
There's no doubt BMW has achieved a hitherto unobtainable goal with the X5: It has managed to produce the smoothest riding and best handling SUV on the market, surpassing that of the Mercedes-Benz M-class. However, it's also true to say that other vehicles you drive will prejudice your opinion as to its handling. If you get out of a regular truck-based SUV and get into the X5 you'll be amazed at its handling. If you get out of a BMW sports sedan, however, you'll find the X5 is not as confidence inspiring. BMW says its test drivers have driven the X5 around racetracks at speeds close to that of the 328i sedan. This is probably true for experienced drivers, who know the limits of themselves and the vehicle's capability, but for ordinary drivers the X5 is a tall vehicle; it leans more going through corners than a sedan.
X5's straight line and freeway manners are great. It feels stable; the steering is even better than in the 5 Series and the ride is smooth. The V8 engine provides plenty of power, making it faster in the race away from traffic lights than most cars. The automatic transmission offers the Steptronic mode, which turns it into a clutchless manual transmission. This is a wonderful system for those who want an automatic with manual control. (I drove the 4.4i.)
The ride quality of the 3.0i felt firm and bouncy. Running errands around town wasn't much fun with wife and dog. Suspension undulations and head toss seemed excessive. Nor was the manual gearbox, our usual preference, enjoyable around town. Clutch engagement is quick and the torque characteristics of the engine, a bit abrupt at throttle tip-in, make smooth, brisk takeoffs a challenge. Lose concentration for a moment, get in a hurry, and it's easy to stall it at intersections, annoying because the power adjustable steering column starts moving while you're trying to restart it. And it wasn't easy to have good smooth driving technique when braking and downshifting for corners, then accelerating out of them. A good driver may find it challenging to drive the X5 3.0i smoothly. A poor driver, one who moves the steering wheel about unnecessarily, will make his passengers uncomfortable with head toss. (Mitch McCullough drove the 3.0i.)
Heading off the highway is fine, just don't attempt the Rubicon Trail. The X5 is not designed for serious off-road use. However, in a drive through a muddy test track, it proved capable of staying on course and not getting stuck.
The X5 comes with a permanently engaged all-wheel-drive system that is more akin to one found in sedans. It does not use a transfer case and does not offer low-range gears. But the X5 is loaded with electronically controlled systems to assist it in bad traction conditions: ASC (Automatic Stability Control), DSC-X (Dynamic Stability Control), CBC (Cornering Brake Control), DBC (Dynamic Brake Control), ADB (Automatic Differential Brake), HBA (Hydraulic Brake Assistant) and HDC (Hill Descent Control). There is not room to explain all this alphabet soup here, but it works. Although the X5's all-independent suspension is the key to the vehicle's ride and handling, an equally important part of the X5's capability is the use of electronic stability programs. Much of this technology is already found on BMW sedans, while other systems are new to the X5.
Hill Descent Control, a superb system developed by Land Rover, controls the brakes automatically as the vehicle descends steep grades; this provides an eerie experience as you can steer the X5 down a slippery slope without having to touch the brake or gas pedal. Hill Descent Control keeps the wheels from slipping and prevents the vehicle from going too fast for the conditions.
We have mixed feelings about the BMW X5. Its cargo capacity is no better than a BMW 5 Series wagon. The height of the cargo area is much higher than the 5 Series wagon and getting in and out is more difficult, so it's less practical than the 5 Series wagon. Ride, handling and overall performance are not as good as the 5 Series wagon. And off-road capability is not as good as a serious 4x4 sport-utility.
Yet it offers excellent handling on the road.
If you want a vehicle that can carry passengers and cargo in comfort, then a BMW 5 Series wagon would be better as it offers similar interior space, a better driving experience, and better fuel economy, all for a comparable price. If you want an SUV that will go rock climbing, then you'd be better off in a Land Rover Discovery. If you want to carry the contents of a small apartment, then you'd be better of with a minivan.
All that said, if a sport-utility vehicle is what you want, and your heart is set on a BMW, then you'll love the X5. It offers BMW luxury, character and panache, and it's fun to drive.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.