The BMW X5 performs impressively when equipped with the V8 engines. Power from the 4.4-liter V8 is seamless, and deep, with the redline arriving at 5800 rpm. The six-cylinder 3.0i isn't in quite the same league, but it's still smooth and torquey, and it's liveliest with the new 6-speed manual. But as we'll see, the manual has its drawbacks.
According to BMW, the 3.0i manual accelerates to 60 mph in a 7.8 seconds, which is pretty quick for a 5,000 pound SUV. The 4.4i gets there in a very quick 6.8 seconds, which is only 0.3 sec slower than last year's hot-rod 4.6is. Speaking of hot rods, the new 4.8is model, which replaces the 4.6is, is expected to offer 0-60 performance in about 6 seconds and a top speed of more than 150 mph.
We doubt, however, that many X5 owners will drag race their neighbors, at least not after the first few months of owning one. But they will notice how the 4.4-liter V8 makes terrific sounds when they step hard on the gas. And how smooth, responsive, and quiet it is when driven around town.
The 4.4-liter engine in the 4.4i is essentially new for 2004. While it has the same displacement as its predecessor, nearly everything else has changed. Power has increased 12 percent, to 315 horsepower, yet so have fuel efficiency and EPA mileage ratings. The key here is BMW's new Valvetronic system, an engine management system that eliminates a conventional throttle and changes engine breathing (and therefore power output) by varying how far the intake valves open. Bottom line: It delivers optimum response and fuel efficiency in all situations.
The new six-speed automatic further enhances the outstanding performance of the 4.4i powertrain. Shifts are smooth during casual driving. Slam the accelerator pedal down and it downshifts instantly for quick acceleration. The automatic features a Steptronic mode, which allows a choice of automatic or semi-manual control. It works just like a regular automatic in the automatic mode. Notching the lever to the left puts the transmission into Sport mode and enables manual override; then a quick nudge forward or backward ratchets the transmission up or down one gear. X5's Steptronic is executed perfectly. The manual shifting adds an element of fun when the road is clear, and a quick downshift can make passing on two-lane roads safer and smoother.
The BMW X5 is exceptionally stable for a vehicle of its height. It changes direction with surety and aplomb, and with less twitching and head tossing than a Mercedes M-Class. (Compared to the Mercedes-Benz ML, the X5's track is 1 inch wider, and the BMW rides 2.2 inches lower.) That's not to say the X5 is soft. With the sport suspension, it feels firm in the twisties and at high speeds. And with nearly perfect 50/50 front to rear weight distribution (rare in a vehicle of this type), it can almost be driven like a sports car. On the freeway, the X5 changes lanes with the lightest touch and total precision. But it can also feel choppy, particularly when trundling at low speeds over a bumpy road while holding onto a hot cup of coffee.
The X5 offers excellent handling for an SUV. But it's still an SUV, with a high ride height and 4927 pounds of heft. Whatever else you drive will likely prejudice your opinion. If you get out of a truck-based SUV and into an X5, you'll be amazed by the BMW's relative response, nimbleness and stability. If you get out of a BMW sedan, however, you'll find that the X5 does not inspire the same confidence. BMW claims that its test drivers have circled race courses in the X5 nearly as fast as they can in a 328i. This is probably true for experienced drivers who know their own limits and those of the vehicle they are driving, but for the rest of us, the X5 is a tall vehicle that leans more than a sedan going through corners. Its weight and higher center of gravity means it doesn't offer the transient response in emergency lane-change maneuvers of a sports sedan.
The huge ventilated four-wheel disc brakes incorporate every electronic trick known to man. They are easy to modulate, and they allow the X5 to stop as quickly and securely as the BMW 7 Series luxury cars. Moreover, the brakes are almost impervious to fade, even after repeated, full-on stops from high speed. This kind of staying power is required for Hill Decent Control, which can apply them almost constantly for extended periods.
The 3.0i comes standard with a manual transmission. That sounds sporty, and it can be, but it takes more practice to be smooth in the X5 manual than it does in a 3 Series sedan. 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, or hurry the process a bit, and it's easy to stall at intersections, which is particularly annoying because the power-adjustable steering column starts moving while you're trying to restart the engine. We also found the manual transmission awkward when braking and downshifting for a turn, and then accelerating away. A good driver may find it challenging to drive the 3.0i manual smoothly. A poor driver, one who moves the steering wheel about unnecessarily, will make his passengers uncomfortable with head toss. The manual is 0.5 sec quicker from 0 to 60 mph, and it wrings the most from the revvy inline-6, but every buyer should consider the trade-offs. We like manuals, but in this case we prefer the automatic.
Heading off the highway in any X5 is fine as long as you don't attempt the Rubicon Trail. The X5 is not designed for serious off-road use, but in a drive through a muddy test track, it proved capable of staying on course and not getting stuck.
Its permanently engaged all-wheel-drive system has been thoroughly revamped for 2004. Called xDrive, the new system has a default power distribution of 40 percent to the front wheels, 60 percent to the rear, which is roughly the same as the previous all-wheel-drive. Yet the new system uses an array of clutches, electric motors and sensors that would boggle the mind of a jet fighter avionics technician. In theory, it can direct all of the X5's power to the front or rear wheels (favoring the rear to maintain that sporty BMW feel), and it adjusts to changing traction under each set of wheels more quickly, to the point where it's almost instantaneous. Think of it as an elaborate anti-skid system (and a significant contribution to X5's 2004 price increase), tweaked to the tastes of driving enthusiasts. Not only does it optimize traction in slippery conditions, but it also improves handling in perfect conditions. Did we need it? Maybe not, because the old planetary gear system worked quite well. But this is BMW, and a big part of the company's stock in trade is leading-edge technology.
The X5 all-wheel-drive system still has no transfer case, and it does not offer low-range gears. But it's loaded with more than enough electronic systems to keep a military contractor happy. There's 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). We don't have room to explain this alphabet soup, but trust us, it all works, and it all contributes significantly to the X5's outstanding handling. These systems can even detect when a trailer is hooked up and take appropriate action if the tail starts wagging the dog.
Hill Descent Control, a superb system developed by Land Rover, controls the brakes and throttle automatically on steep downhill grades. This provides an eerie experience, as you must keep your feet off the pedals as you steer the X5 down a steep, slippery slope. HDC keeps the wheels from slipping and prevents the vehicle from going too fast for conditions. The driver can control the speed of the descent using the cruise-control buttons. It's a great feature for steep driveways in the winter or steep, muddy two-tracks, but practice is helpful.