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GEORGE, Western Cape – Four. That's how many turbochargers BMW has strapped to the 3,0-litre straight-six diesel unit sited over the front axle of the M50d, the derivative that plays the role of flagship in the new, fourth-generation X5 range (ahead of the inevitable launch of the as-yet-unrevealed, full-fat X5 M, that is).

Overkill? Well, considering the M50d’s predecessor was a veritable sledgehammer despite employing one fewer turbo, the logical answer would be a resounding “yes”. But logic heads swiftly out the window when we’re talking about hefty diesel-powered SUVs capable of shaming sportscars from just a few years back (particularly in a straight line).

Yes, despite being crammed full of luxury kit – some of it standard and some cherry-picked from a varied list of options – and tipping the scales at a considerable 2,3 tonnes, the 294 kW M50d will quite happily catapult itself down your favourite strip of tarmac at quite a rate of knots, feeling just as rapid as its claimed 5,2-second 0-100 km/h sprint time might suggest.

Still, it’s the in-gear acceleration that’s most impressive here, with the eight-speed automatic transmission – that familiar, slick-shifting unit from the studious, cog-tinkering folks over at ZF Friedrichshafen – neatly keeping the inline-six operating within its meaty torque band, lending the driver’s right foot access to the full spread of 760 N.m (up from 740 N.m) more often than not. In short, delivery of the all-wheel-drive M50d’s considerable grunt is hair-raisingly linear (and the synthesised grumble in the sportiest of settings strangely addictive).

Diesel only ... for now

Interestingly, while the likes of the third-generation Porsche Cayenne have seemingly shunned diesel, the local BMW X5 line-up – admittedly comprising just two derivatives at launch – is powered exclusively by the stuff (the other variant being the 195 kW/620 N.m xDrive30d, which uses the same unit but fitted with a single turbocharger). That means – initially, at least – we won’t see the 4,4-litre V8 xDrive50i nor the 3,0-litre inline-six xDrive40i on local roads (BMW SA admits it could introduce petrol power in 2019, while adding that the plug-in hybrid xDrive45e is also under review).

So, besides the M50d gaining yet another turbo and even more go-forward grunt, what else has changed with the ushering in of this new iteration? Well, the Spartanburg-built, G05-generation X5 has grown considerably compared with its forebear, with some 42 mm added between its axles. Overall, vehicle length increases 36 mm to 4 922 mm, while an additional 66 mm of width and 19 mm of height afford the new model yet more cabin space.

New-look interior

The luggage compartment, meanwhile, now holds a claimed 645 litres, with utility space pegged at a useful 1 860 litres. BMW furthermore offers an optional R25 100 third row of seats for two additional passengers (a stance Mercedes-Benz will take with the upcoming version of its GLE, too), while a neat electronically operated two-section tailgate ships standard.

The most obvious change, however, is found towards the front of the cabin, where the facia has been completely overhauled. A new, highly configurable 12,3-inch display takes pride of place in the centre – running the latest, largely intuitive BMW Operating System 7.0 that we’ll soon see in the likes of the upcoming X7, 8 Series (both coupé and convertible) and Z4 roadster – while the driver sits ahead of a fully digital instrument cluster of the same size. Perceived quality, too, has been noticeably improved.

While the local launch included plenty of gravel-road jaunts in the xDrive30d derivative – in this instance fitted with optional off-road rubber that did an outstanding job of cushioning the blow each time we braced for impact with one of myriad rain-filled ruts on the sometimes rocky Prince Alfred's Pass, while hardly adding any road-roar on tarmac – all of our time with the M50d was spent on the black stuff.

Striking a balance

Though not quite as forgiving over road scars as that xDrive30d on its General Grabber AT3 tyres (in 275/45 R20 XL size and costing close to R72 000 extra), the M50d nevertheless strikes a compelling balance between comfort and dynamic ability. Despite employing the standard adaptive M suspension set-up (rather than the optional two-axle air suspension arrangement) and running on optional 22-inch alloys wrapped in 275/35 R22 front and 315/30 R22 rear run-flats, our test unit delivered an outstanding primary ride.

The X5 has long been one of the better-to-drive large SUVs and its latest CLAR underpinnings see it take things a step further. Still, while the new model is a touch sharper to drive than its already talented (for a hulking SUV, anyway) predecessor – largely resisting body roll and serving up huge grip even in the damp conditions we experienced on the launch – the new Cayenne is still a nose ahead in terms of on-road talent. But only just.

Priced at R1 502 581, the M50d is better equipped than one might assume, boasting items such as an “M” aerodynamic body kit, adaptive LED headlamps, a panoramic glass sunroof, four-zone climate control, M Sport brakes, a head-up display, gesture control and an M Sport exhaust system as standard. One of the most interesting of the numerous options is the R59 250 off-road package, which adds features such as underbody protection, the aforementioned air suspension (which is also offered as a standalone feature) and four additional drive modes. In addition, BMW SA says various M Performance parts will be available to order from the first quarter of 2019.

Battle royale looming?

While the eminently capable xDrive30d is probably all you’ll ever need (and will likely prove the more popular of the pair), the M50d is nevertheless a tempting alternative for those who crave serious oil-burning grunt. Both derivatives, though, display a broader spread of talents than before, including the ability to tackle seriously nasty gravel stretches provided the right options boxes are ticked.

With improved refinement levels, a flashier (plus more spacious) cabin and added on-board technology, the fourth-generation X5 has stepped confidently into the ring to face a host of talented rivals, with the latest Cayenne and soon-to-arrive GLE chief among them. So, just one question remains: comparative test, anyone?

ATLANTA, GeorgiaThere’s nothing subtle about motoring in the USA. From sprawling eight-lane highways with suitably complex intersections and walls of flashing signage, driving here is already a potentially intimidating experience, even before you factor in the average size of the pick-ups, SUVs and, indeed, big rigs ever present in your peripheral vision. Depending on which of the 50 states you happen to be driving through, the drivers themselves are relativity tolerant yet it's both the sheer size of the surrounding traffic, as well the generally large-and-in-charge grille designs that place suitable emphasis on each imposing shape heading inevitably to the nearest gas station that make you feel that much more vulnerable behind the wheel.

And yet, a relatively short distance from the facility in which its built in, the all-new (G05) BMW X5 blends seamlessly into this environment. In this case returning to the city that in 1999 hosted the first drives of the original X5, Atlanta.

Posted alongside the original X5, the fourth-generation car looks positively gargantuan. It’s also palpably larger than the F15 model it replaces. In addition to an overall length that's 36 mm longer and a significant 66 mm growth in width (to 2 004 mm), the CLAR platform G05 X5 also features a 42 mm stretch in wheelbase length, offering not only increased rear passenger legroom but also the possibility of including a third row of seats in the package.

Even if the numbers don’t already suggest it, the new X5’s carved profile, flared wheel arches and one of the largest examples of its maker’s famous kidney grille ever produced certainly add a newfound sense of purpose, presence and, indeed, distinction to a BMW package competing within an ever diverse yet very lucrative segment. While a slightly generic rear end is characterised by a split tailgate (both pieces electrically operated), for good measure the Munich maker has (for the first time) included a set of 22-inch alloy wheels to the X5’s online configurator.

Also forming part of the configurator module is the choice between a suitably robust-looking xLine (with 19-inch alloys) and racy M Sport (including 20-inch alloys) exterior packages.

If the exterior design of the new car has been suitably beefed up, softer hands have sculpted an interior that is not only a streets ahead of the outgoing model in terms of build quality but also brimming with nice-to-touch surfaces and neat details. While I’m not a fan of the optional glassware upgrade (including transmission lever and start button) included on most of the cars available at the launch, there’s no escaping the grade of premium comfort BMW set out to register  with the its latest X5’s accommodation.

From a driver’s seat I would have liked to adjust just a little lower than permitted, BMW’s latest Live Cockpit Professional facia design is standard fitment throughout the new range. With it the driver-orientated centre console houses a 12,3-inch display screen complete with the brand’s newest operating system (7) including larger, more vivid touchscreen infotainment graphics configurable through up to 10 different page layouts. Also present is a fully digital instrument cluster housing a number of interchangeable displays and functions (including navigation and myriad latest driver assistance programs) flanked on either side by a squared-off speedometer and rev counter that may well have been inspired by 90s arcade racing games.

Launching in South Africa in November, the local X5 range will consist of xDrive30d and xDrive50d derivatives. While the appeal around the latter model will likely revolve around its quad-turbocharged 294 kW/760 N.m inline six-cylinder engine, there’s sill plenty to get excited about within the nicely balanced xDrive30d package. Impressively refined, particularly at start-up and cruising speeds, this B57-family 3,0-litre turbodiesel delivers 195 kW and 620 N.m of torque (between 2 000 and 2 500 r/min) to all four wheels via a suitably slick 8-speed automatic transmission. Although configurable via various preset driving modes, most will likely switch between comfort and sport, the latter turning instrumentation red and deepening the tone of the synthesised exhaust before sharpening throttle, steering and engine responsiveness accordingly - making reasonably light work of the new X5’s 2-tonne curb weight. BMW claims a combined cycle fuel consumption of 6,8 L/100 km with this drivetrain option.

Standard on both models is a dynamically controlled air suspension setup featuring a self-levelling function as well as continuously variable cushioning that adapts to road conditions. While an electronic rear differential is also standard throughout the range, the xDrive50d’s example gains an M Sport upgrade.

The xDrive30d I drove featured the optional xOffroad package, including two-axle air suspension with variable ride height (through an 80 mm range), as well as package specific transmission and diff lock tuning and the inclusion of four new driving modes; xSnow, xSand, xGravel and xRock. While owners will have the option of dealer-sourced off-road tyres, I was genuinely surprised by how capable the new X5 proved wearing road-going rubber over a tougher-than-expected, decidedly slippery off-road course set up for the car’s launch. Although posted further than any owner will likely stray off the blacktop, BMW’s newest sport activity vehicle made the most of both its raisable ride height, clever all-wheel-drive setup (including rear-wheel steering) and myriad cameras, sensors and driver aids (including hill decent control) to make light work of particularly muddy and potentially treacherous course – all while its occupants enjoyed welcome seat ventilation and, indeed, a massage function…

Having pleasantly surprised us after the off-roading course, the fact that the new X5 also proved more than capable of defying both its weight and raised centre of gravity while tackling a tight and twisty road section, including nicely weighted steering and admirable body control (my car fitted with optional Active Roll Stabilisation, 21-inch rubber and M Sport brakes) was surely just BMW showing off its wares in terms of the inherent dynamic ability granted to its products throughout the years. If the ride quality offered by 21-inch alloy wheels (admittedly on Georgia's brilliantly smooth road surfaces) is anything to go by then the standard fitment 18-inch items could well deliver a class-leading compromise between comfort and dynamics.

Bigger, bolder and, indeed, more capable (when specced accordingly) than ever before, there’s a lot to like about the new BMW X5. Pricing starts north of the R1 million mark and is easily escalated via any number of appealing options, but there’s at least a welcome amount of substance (literally and figuratively) to be found within the X5 package, including two hugely impressive powertrain options, genetically entertaining driving dynamics and an interior that can now compete with the best in class when it comes to fit and finish.

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