BMW has long been renowned for the sporty heritage their vehicles bring to the driving enthusiast. Late 90’s saw the emergence of a new automotive trend – the sports/utility segment. It seemed both men and women alike gravitated to this unorthodox vehicle segment dominated by a truck-like driving experience with a touch of sport. These vehicles were built primarily on truck frames and underpinnings with a somewhat civilized ride and comfy interiors. Although off-road capable, most are used as daily drivers, grocery getters and the occasional weekend getaway to the cottage. The sports/utility craze survives because the vehicles are big, bulky and offer a sense of invincibility to the driver. The occupants sit high, posses an unobstructed view of the surroundings and do offer a certain degree of loading capacity for the 2.1 children and a dog.
So how does a manufacturer famous for their ‘Ultimate Driving Machines’ finds itself producing a sports/utility vehicle? The Bavarian auto maker entered the sports/utility fray in December 1999 with its “Sport Activity Vehicle” – the X5 – with the intent of demonstrating that a rugged SUV could be equally at home off-road and on the autobahn.
Engine and Transmission
Our X5 4.4 i came equipped with a potent DOHC V8 32V engine producing 290 horsepower at 5400 rpm and 324 ft/lb of torque at 3600 rpm. This is one smooth-yet-potent powertrain. Gear ratios are perfect, the engine is powerful, and the exhaust note is enthusiastic. From off-idle through redline, the X5 deftly pushes the small of your back into the seat in a very un-SUV way, the five-speed Steptronic transmission smoothly transitioning with each upshift. We all appreciated the Sport mode, which delays upshifts and changes cogs more authoritatively, without hinting at whiplash. You can also choose to ‘manually’ row the gears in Steptronic mode, although the novelty quickly fades as the ‘manual’ mode is far from manual. Although currently only available for the M3, SMG (Sequential Manual Gearbox) would be an interesting alternative. A nice touch is the inclusion of BMW’s version of Hill Descent Control (HDC) which enables the BMW X5 to take even the steepest downhill gradients safely and reliably, automatically reducing the speed of the car to approximately 8 km/h – without the driver’s interference. A feature we tested over and over again just for the entertainment value. The sucker really does work, although the first time we relinquished the controls to ‘HAL’ we felt somewhat skeptical about the computer’s ability to control the descent that precisely. In fact, the X5 performed flawlessly under varying grade and road conditions.
Braking and Handling
If we agree that braking and handling define 50% of the driving experience then we’ll agree that BMW had some serious work ahead of them to convince their buying public and critics that the new X5 indeed deserves to be included in the family of ‘Ultimate Driving Machines’. Did the engineers succeed?
The suspension tuning is a wonderful mix of off-road prowess with traditional sport-sedan handling. Throw the X5 around a road course or some twisties, and it’ll stick to the surface like a 540i. Find an off-road trail, and you won’t hear a whimper as the BMW climbs a hill of soft shale or crawls along a steep trail.
Although we would not purchase this vehicle as a primary off-road mule, we were very surprised by the X5’s capability to handle the nasties. Digging deeper into the spec sheet we found a few reasons why. First of all, the X5 is equipped with full air suspension with Active Ride Height. More clearance off-road and less for on-road performance. The rear suspension also has the ability to automatically adjust based on the load the car is carrying. Secondly, BMW chose to equip the X5 with Automatic Differential Brake (ADB – X). This feature provides optimum power transmission to all wheels in all kinds of road conditions. ADB – X is directly connected to Dynamic Stability Control (DSC III) and controlled via the DSC function. The three systems combine to provide a perfect balance of on and off-road performance.
Braking is handled by a ventilated disk up front measuring 332 mm and solid disk in the back measuring 324 mm (that’s 13.1 inches up front and 12.8 inches in the back). Keeping things under control is a four- channel ABS controller. Braking performance proved to rock solid with no evident fade under all driving conditions. Given the vehicle’s weight of 2188 kg (4824 lbs), this is indeed commendable.
Interior & Exterior
I liked the X5’s familiar interior layout, with hefty gauge hump, clean center stack, rich materials, and impeccable fit and finish. Rear occupants get similar Germanic surroundings: lots of leg and headroom for the over-six-foot set and a couch that’s perfectly supportive. You can squeeze three on the rear bench in a pinch, but they won’t be happy on a long trip. For those who need to tote a family of six, an expended version with three rows of seats is on the horizon.
For those who spend hours on the road, I must draw your attention to the driver and passenger seats. The chairs offer excellent lumbar and thigh support for the long haul. They could perhaps represent the most anatomically correct seats I’ve ever occupied. My back never complained, even after extended time behind the wheel. Oh soooo nice!
Exterior styling is pure BMW. Regardless of the angle, you view the X5, the look is aggressive, imposing and muscular. We like the 18 x 8.5 Star spoke alloy wheels wearing 255/55R – 18 all-season tires. We like the optional V Spoke alloy wheels wearing 255/50R – 19 front and 285/45R – 19 rears even better. A notable mention must also go to the plethora of must-have gizmos such as standard Xenon headlights with auto-leveling, auto dimming exterior mirrors, Park Distance Control (PDC) and a split rear lid. This handy option is split horizontally through the middle, with the lower section making a platform able to take a load of up to 200 kg when open. The upper portion may be opened separately, enabling quick access to items stored in the trunk.
So, did BMW succeed in making the X5 a full-fledged member of the ‘Ultimate Driving Machine’ club? In our humble opinion, BMW succeeded in making this an ideal vehicle for its intended use. Let’s face it, SUV vehicles are rarely exposed to off-road extremes. And why make an army tank out of a vehicle that will spend the majority of its life on groomed pavement? The X5 rips up the road, offers a spirited yet comfortable driving experience and will easily haul a trailer loaded with all the off-road toys you desire. If I need a do-it-all vehicle… and can only afford one – the BMW X5 makes my short list.
Activity Package: $1,875.00
Includes: Aluminum Running Boards, Luggage Compartment Net, Manual Side Sunshades, Ski Bag, Headlamp Washer, Rain Sensor w/Auto Headlamps, Privacy Glass
Sport Package: $3,500.00
Includes: 19” V Spoke Alloy Wheels, Sport Seats, AG Sport Package
New Car Limited Warranty: 4 years or 80,000 km
Acceleration: 0-100 km/h (0-60 mph)(sec): 7.9
Top Speed, electronically limited (km/h)/(mile/h): 206/128
City (L/100 km): 16.4
Highway (L/100 km): 11.9
|Price Base MSRP:||$69,800.00|
|Must have upgrade packages:|
|Includes:||Aluminum Running Boards, Luggage Compartment Net, Manual Side Sunshades, Ski Bag, Headlamp Washer, Rain Sensor w/Auto Headlamps, Privacy Glass|
|Includes:||19” V Spoke Alloy Wheels, Sport Seats, AG Sport Package|
|New Car Limited Warranty:||4 years or 80,000 km|
|Acceleration:||0-100 km/h (0-60 mph) (sec): 7.9|
|Top Speed, electronically limited (km/h)/(mile/h):||206/128|
City (L/100 km):
Highway (L/100 km): 11.9