For the BMW X5, the compromise leans
towards on-road driving as it is, by common cause, on the tar that these vehicles
spend most of their lives.
Of course, BMW has gone one further by labelling its X5 a Sports Activity Vehicle.
Featuring a unitary body with independent suspension, high-output power-unit and
a complex full-time 4×4 drivetrain, it sounds more like a passenger car than a
sport-utility. And that’s precisely the way the designers intended it.
However, unlike passenger wagons and estates adapted to the sport-utility style
(such as the Audi allroad and Volvo Cross-Country) the X5 has the familiar chunky
SUV looks and commanding seating position. With the optional Sport pack, which
includes 19-inch alloy wheels and fat tailpipe extensions, it exudes a don’t-mess-with-me
About 15 cm shorter than the 5-Series, on which it is loosely based, the X5 is
of course a lot wider and higher. Its wheelbase is (surprise!) identical to that
of the Mercedes-Benz M-Class at 2 820 mm. But with a class-leading drag coefficient
of 0,36 the X5 doesn’t cut the usual SUV’s brick-shaped swathe through the air.
As with BMW’s other passenger cars, the X5 is offered with a wide range of individualised
trim options. The Sports package fitted to our test vehicle includes, besides
the exterior add-ons, stiffer suspension and, on the inside, top-grade leather
with titanium silver paintwork.
But contrasting with BMW’s saloon-car tradition of a cockpit-style instrument
panel and centre console oriented towards the driver, the X5’s layout is a more
symmetric T-shape. The level of trim is top-line – corresponding roughly to the
540i’s. Powered just about everything, lashings of leather and wood, climate control
and premium sound system are among the more obvious highlights. The multi-function
steering wheel has controls for the sound system and cruise control, with the
main controls available via the facia-mounted video display unit. Our test vehicle
featured the top standard-fit sound system, which incorporates a 300W amplifier
feeding the signal to 12 loudspeakers, including sub-woofers. Oh, and there’s
the usual complement of cupholders…
Sports option front seats have eight-way power adjustment (with three-position
memory on the driver’s side) and the steering wheel adjusts electrically for tilt
and reach, so achieving a good driving position is a doddle. Rear headroom and
legroom are excellent, and to add to their comfort and convenience rear passengers
have side blinds, air vents with temperature controls, an audiovisual socket,
and twin cupholders. There is plenty of stowage space, with cubbyholes (lidded
and open) in the centre console, and capacious door bins. The horizontally split
rear hatch provides a flat loading area, flush with the floor and rated at 200
kg. Luggage space is not up with the best in class, though.
Our test team’s reactions to the X5’s dynamics ranged from guarded praise to much
unrestrained enthusiasm. “All round, the best vehicle of any kind I have
driven in years,” one said. “If I won the Lotto and had a choice of
one vehicle to buy, this would be it,” said another.
There was some mild disappointment stemming from the view that, at low to moderate speed, the X5 can be less than fulfilling. An out-and-back trip over the blind hairpins of a tight, twisty mountain pass in the dark turned into an exercise in frustration. Body roll, understeer and the relative lack of steering “bite” made it hard to maintain a smoothly flowing drive without upsetting the passengers.
Head out to a slightly less constricting environment and the X5 morphs into an altogether more satisfying drive. At higher speeds it exhibits a pleasing tautness, and the ability to outrun even hard-driven cars cars with ease. It’s as if it needs to be pushed harder to put in in its comfort zone – which admittedly is pretty broad! Ideally, of course, we should have had a standard X5 to compare with our Sport-pack version.
But there was no quibbling over one aspect: the delicious snarl and creamy power delivery of that brawny 4,4-litre V8. Peak outputs are 210 kW at 5 400 r/min and 440 N.m at 3 600 r/min. This technical tour de force features variable intake camshaft control (VANOS), a computerised “mapped” variable cooling system, and a water-cooled alternator for lower noise and better efficiency and longevity.
The Sport option’s big wheels and matching tyres (285/45 at the rear and 255/50 in front) allow a higher top speed than the standard model, and our X5 clocked 219, averaged both ways. To get there, it blasted to a mighty impressive 8,49 seconds for the 0 to 100 km/h dash, and 29,12 seconds for the kilometre sprint. Acceleration when already on the move is equally impressive, although the manual-shift Steptronic option tended to be used in preference to allowing the the five-speed adaptive transmission to get on with it automatically.
Our steady-speed fuel consumption measurement of 11,48 litres/100 km at 100 km/h, when converted to our fuel index by adding 40 per cent, indicates that 16,08 litres/100 km should be achieved in overall driving. This was in fact more or less what we got between fill-ups over the two-week test period.
Although not as rugged and classically simple as most of the set-ups in pukka off-roaders, the X5’s 4wd system (see 4×4 made easy) is nonetheless extremely capable. In fact, in conditions that would defeat many conventional 4x4s, the X5 saunters through. A party trick is to come to a dead stop on a steep uphill with marginal grip, and then attempt to pull off. A normal 4×4 will churn away, probably getting nowhere fast. The BMW’s box of tricks simply means that as long as you’ve got your foot down sufficiently and there is a smidgeon of grip at any wheel you will make headway. Maximum uphill start-up gradient of more than 32°with the maximum permissible load is claimed. Much the same system is applied, of course, in similar vehicles such as the Mercedes-Benz M-Class.
On downhills, the Hill Descent system works fine, but again with the reservation that such complexity may count against it in the bundu. Still, where the X5 is likely to go it should be quite adequate.
Given the relatively mild approach and departure angles (28 and 22,5 degrees respectively), and ground clearance of around 180 mm, the X5 is not going to win many agility contests. But these angles are adequate for what the vehicle is likely to be used for.
And when it does ground, there is generous protection. The fuel tank, of high-density polyethylene, sits ahead of the rear axle and is protected for off-road use by high-strength plastic covers. An underfloor panel made of deep-drawn aluminium shields the oil and steering gear.
Clearly, underpinnings had to be specially developed for this new type of BMW.
Up front, double-joint spring strut front axles with anti-roll bar and gas-pressure
shock absorbers do duty, with axle kinematics matched to 4wd requirements. Based
on the rear suspension of the 7-Series, the integral rear multi-arm axle concept
features widespread use of aluminium in the wheel subframes, lower track control
arms and the swing arm, to reduce unsprung mass. Electronically controlled self-levelling,
featuring fully supporting pneumatic spring units, is standard.
And despite being – at least in spirit – an SUV, the X5 makes no concessions to refinement standards. In addition to the highly rigid unit body construction (which
also aids crash safety through more precise control of crush zones during impact)
there are a host of measures to filter out road impacts, such as running gear
subframes on special elastic mounts.
The brake system is said to provide the same stopping power as in a BMW 7-Series
saloon. For the record, the X5 claws in to record a belt-straining average of
only 2,85 seconds from 100 km/h to standstill. In a Porsche, we would have called
it impressive. In an SUV, it is awesome.
Said to provide the same safety as BMW’s large saloons, the X5 is among the top
scorers in crash tests on both sides of the Atlantic. Interior safety equipment
includes frontal, side and head airbags at the front, plus side and head airbags
at the rear. All of the occupants have three-point inertia-reel seat belts, and
standardised ISOFIX child seat rapid fastenings are integrated in the outer rear