Indeed, BMW shuns the SUV tag entirely, describing the X5 with it own copyrighted label: Sport Activity Vehicle, or SAV. This may be a tacit acknowledgement that the X5 can't tow or carry as much stuff as some of its competitors, or it may simply highlight the X5's strength. That strength is its ability to get down the road in the step-on-the gas, shove-through-corners fashion of a genuine sport sedan.
BMW focused on improving utility for 2007, when a redesign stretched the X5 by seven full inches and delivered a substantial increase in rear seat legroom. For 2008, X5 upgrades have re-focused on sport. Both the six-cylinder and V8 engines are new, with a revised six-speed automatic transmission.
The V8 in the BMW X5 4.8i increases in displacement, while the 3.0-liter inline six is an all-new design, with a substantial increase in power. These are BMW engines, which means plenty of usable torque and turbine-like smoothest. The 4.8i might be the chest-beater, but the BMW X5 3.0si still delivers the kind of response we expect in a sport sedan, and it shouldn't leave owners pining for the V8.
The X5 is styled in obvious BMW fashion, only taller, with traditional Bimmer cues like the twin-kidney grille and dual-beam headlight clusters. Like it or not, its look and badges are often enough to get the X5 one of the high-profile valet spots at a trendy club.
Inside, the X5 offers plenty of room for five, with a nice, rich finish and nearly all the bells and whistles one expects in a high-line luxury sedan. The back seat is more than roomy enough for two adults, three in a pinch, and there's enough cargo space in back for a two-day family outing.
The X5 can expand to seven-passenger capacity with an optional third-row seat. Of course, that third seat won't look particularly inviting to anyone asked to ride in it, and it pretty much wrecks the cargo space.
With all seats lowered for maximum cargo capacity, the X5 offers less space than virtually every competitor, from Acura to Volvo. It's not a class leader in fuel economy, either.
Sport in the X5 context does not mean off-roading. Its all-wheel-drive system was developed for slippery roads and sporty driving characteristics, rather than sand dunes or steep, rutted hillsides. Yet It can tow a substantial 6,000 pounds, and the all-wheel-drive can be a great friend in a blizzard.
The X5 gets high marks for safety. It performs well in both government and insurance industry crash tests, and it has been designated one of the Top Safety Picks by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Besides the full complement of front, side and head protection airbags, the X5 offers some of the most advanced active safety systems available. These include anti-lock brakes that periodically sweep the discs dry in rainstorms and electronic stability control that works with the all-wheel drive system and even to steering to manage skids.
Still, the X5's calling card is its driving dynamics. It's not quite as refined or holistic as BMW's best sedans, but the comparison is generally on the mark. Think of the X5 as a 5 Series sedan with more headroom and a bit more cargo space.
BMW X5 3.0si ($46,200); 4.8i ($54,800)
On the road, that means an emphasis on sporty driving dynamics, even if it comes at the expense of utility. Sitting still, it means the X5 looks like a taller, ganglier BMW sedan. It also increases the odds the X5 will get one of the high-profile valet spots near the entrance to a trendy restaurant.
BMW tried to increase the X5's utility when it redesigned its so-called Sport Activity Vehicle for 2007, stretching it seven inches to add rear legroom and cargo space. By wheelbase and overall length, the X5 now sits mid-pack among key competitors: Slightly larger than the Acura MDX, Land Rover LR2, Mercedes M-Class and Volvo XC90, and quite a bit smaller than the Audi Q7, Cadillac SRX, and Lexus LX570.
There's no mistaking the X5's classic BMW look. It starts in front, with that trademark grille and familiar dual-dual lamp clusters.
Its super-bright adaptive xenon headlights come standard. On the X5, they're ringed with LED circles that serve as the daytime running lights (and look really cool). These headlights level themselves when the X5 bounces over bumps, and turn slightly with the steering wheel. The standard fog lights also work as cornering lamps, lighting when the corresponding directional signal is selected.
In profile, the X5's big wheels and short overhangs promote an agile look, while the roof and taillights trail into a slightly flanged lip. These so-called separation edges smooth air as it rushes over the back of the vehicle. That means a slight improvement in fuel economy, and probably more significantly, less wind noise inside the X5.
Indeed, with a drag coefficient of 0.34, the X5 is an aerodynamically efficient vehicle, as tall, boxy SUVs go. Its underbody is smoothed with various fairing devices. The front spoiler directs air around the front tires, reducing resistance as the X5 punches a substantial hole in the air.
That clamshell tailgate is a mixed bag, in our view. The lower third drops down, once the upper portion has been lifted up. The split design is handy for dropping smaller packages in the back, and the lower portion provides a nice (if slightly high) bench for changing shoes or just resting a moment. The problem is that the upper portion includes not only the glass, but also half the metal that comprises the rear of the vehicle. In other words, it's the heavier, more substantial portion of the gate. It takes more effort to operate than it would if only the glass opened up and down. The optional automatic gate might help in this respect, but we haven't had a chance to test it. On the plus side, the little tailgate keeps items from falling out when you open the hatch, a problem on some SUVs.
Panels and pieces inside the X5 fit impeccably. Most surfaces have a luxurious feel, and the seats are perforated to enable the active ventilation option. Every X5 is available with one of three wood-trim packages: dark-stained bamboo (almost black), dark-stained poplar (the most traditional), and light-stained poplar (essentially blond). The vinyl dash and door panels in our test X5 were a single, dark tone, rather than the two-step dark/light treatment increasingly common in BMWs and European brands in general. We liked the overall appearance, though the monotone creates a serious, no-frills ambience.
The dashboard applies a taller variant of BMW's stepped or stacked design, and it looks tidy in the X5. It certainly isn't cluttered, as it can be in some vehicles in this class, thanks partly to BMW's point-and-click i-Drive control (which, going on a decade after its introduction, we still don't care for). From the aesthetic perspective, we like the dash layout. We also like BMW's elongated navigation screen, which sits high in the center of dash. It allows you to keep the map showing on the right third of the screen, regardless of what's displayed on the primary portion.
The front seats are excellent: comfortable and exceptionally supportive, once they're tailored to whoever is sitting on them. The optional Comfort Seats have a lot of side bolstering for this type of vehicle, and that's a double-edge sword. It's great for drivers about to take a spirited run through the canyon, but less so for passengers, and particularly the elderly, who have to climb up into the X5 and then slide over the bolsters into a front seat. Seat adjustment comes via BMW's usual extensive array of controls, including double-hinged, articulated seat backs and various bolsters that can be squeezed or pumped up. They all work well, but there are so many adjustments that fine tuning takes time and some trial and error. The memory feature, which comes standard, is handy once the driver has found a comfortable position.
Measured by its basic ergonomic packaging, the X5 is very good. Forward visibility is excellent; armrest height and window-switch placement are just as we like them. Everything, including the mirrors, can be adjusted with the driver in driving position, meaning back against the seat rather than leaned forward to reach a switch or the rearview. The switches generally have a nice, precise feel.
Our only gripe with the packaging relates to the fat rear roof pillars. They limit visibility just behind the vehicle, and demand an extra dose of caution when the X5 is backing up. The available rearview camera helps, though perspective and image quality are lacking, compared to the best rearview cameras from other manufacturers. We also found the camera is slow to turn off once you've started forward again.
One of the best things about the i-Drive-equipped X5 is that it has conventional switches for temperature adjustment, fan speed and airflow, and for some audio functions, with a genuine volume control. In other words, you can make these frequent adjustments easily without fishing through i-Drive. There are also phone and redundant audio controls on the steering wheel spokes. Cruise-control functions are located on a third stalk on the steering column, with wipers on the conventional, right stalk and a trip computer button on the left, turn-signal stalk. We find BMW's electronic turn signals among the most cumbersome in any luxury brand, to the point where you're tempted to do the wrong thing and switch lanes without using them.
Unfortunately, there are still too many things you can't adjust without delving into the i-Drive menus. Audio tone, for example. The optional premium stereo sounds fantastic, but we were discouraged from taking full advantage of its sound processing features because of the tedious, distracting i-Drive sequence required to set them. Those who frequently switch between talk radio and music will find this inconvenient.
The i-Drive is the computer interface that manages nearly every system in the X5. The master control is a big aluminum knob on the center console between the seats, easy to locate from the driver's seat without a glance. The driver (or preferably the front passenger) turns and presses the knob to wade through menus and sub-menus on the display screen, and finally set whatever needs to be adjusted. BMW has tried to simplify i-Drive over the years (primarily by adding more shortcut buttons), but we've never grown to like it. More accurately, we've become resigned to its existence.
The center console is wide, almost massive. Besides the i-Drive controls, it sprouts BMW's video-game-style, electronic gear selector and a hand brake. A sliding plastic blind exposes an ashtray and the cupholders. Those cupholders aren't terribly deep, though they do have little tension devices that snug around the bottom of a cup. The console box opens down the middle, clamshell style, and it measures about six-by-six-by-ten inches, lined with a rubber mat. Its houses a power point and headphone-type auxiliary jack, but no USB port.
Storage options inside the X5 are fair: Much better than the typical European vehicle a few years ago, but not up to the best in this class. The glovebox opens with a remote switch in the center stack, closer to the driver, and it's large enough to hold small items beyond the extra-thick portfolio for owner's documents. The door bins are molded into the door panels, and split into two compartments. They're wide and deep, so anything you put here is likely to stay when you open or slam the door, and lined with rubber so contents aren't prone to sliding and making noise.
When BMW stretched the X5 seven inches (starting with the 2007 models), it did wonders for rear passenger room. Space is now competitive with the roomiest mid-sized luxury SUVs. A five-foot, nine-inch rear passenger has inches of headroom to spare, and enough legroom to stretch feet up under the front seat (assuming the driver is six feet or less). There's a reasonable array of accoutrements for rear passengers, too, including vents, a power point and small storage bin on the back of the center console. There's also temperature control and a fan switch on models so equipped. The dropdown center rear armrest offers no cupholders or storage, but it reveals the optional, locking pass-through port for long items such as skis or fly rods.
Cargo space ranks at or near the bottom of the class, in spite of the fact that the current X5 is longer than pre-2007 models. There is nearly 22 cubic feet for stuff behind the second seat: about the same as a the trunk in a large sedan, though the space is tipped up on its end, with a much smaller load floor. Adding the optional third-row seat expands passenger capacity to seven, but it also eliminates most of that cargo space. BMW claims adults up to five-feet, four-inches tall will be comfortable in the third row, though we can't verify that from experience.
A standard cargo blind opens and retracts over the carpeted area behind the second seat, which features several tie-down points and a rail system that accommodates slide-out accessories offered by BMW dealers. The rear seat backs fold forward easily, but not completely flat, so there a slight change in the angle of the load floor created. The bottom cushion for the rear seats can be removed completely, as a single piece. That levels the load floor, but then you have to find a place for the seat bottom.
Even with cargo space maximized, the X5 offers less capacity than nearly every competitor. With 61.8 cubic feet available, it's surpassed by the Acura MDX (83.5), the Mercedes M-Class (72.4), the Volvo XC90 (93.2) and a host of others. There is some additional storage under the X5's load floor, enough for a tool kit or a six pack, in the bin with the temporary spare.
There's a downside to this emphasis on sporty driving dynamics, to be sure. The X5 features full-time all-wheel drive, but it has no low range and rides closer to the ground than many SUVs. Its AWD system usually sends most of the engine's torque to the rear wheels, promoting the sporty driving feel. It can shift engine power almost instantaneously, and it's a valuable aid in a snow storm or on sloppy pavement. But we'd keep the X5 on the road or at worst on gravel or smooth dirt roads. And more than its relative lack of back-woods capability, the X5's sporting character brings with it some qualities that may not be appreciated in everyday driving.
Strong, satisfying engines have always been a key part of the BMW formula, and those in the X5 are new for 2008. The V8 in the X5 4.8i gets a displacement increase from 4.4 to 4.8 liters, delivering 350 horsepower and 350 pound feet of torque. The inline six-cylinder in the X5 3.0si shares its 3.0-liter displacement with its predecessor, but it starts with an all-new design and adds advanced features like a magnesium-alloy engine block. Horsepower increases by 35 to 260, with peak torque at 220 pound-feet. Both engines add technology intended to improve fuel efficiency and reduce the amount of power required to operate accessories like the power-steering pump and air-conditioning compressor. And both are matched to a more efficient six-speed automatic transmission.
The X5 4.8i we tested was extremely quick to take off, in spite of its substantial 5,300-pound curb weight, with torque coming in a smooth, steady wave. (Torque is that force that you feel when accelerating from intersections.) You won't find an engine that delivers its power more evenly than BMW's V8. Acceleration builds quickly when you step on the gas, regardless of how fast you're already going, but it's never rough or intrusive. Deep dips on the gas pedal generate a distant growl that reminds a driver of the capability under the hood, but the growl doesn't intrude on conversations or create more vibration inside the X5. The 4.8i V8 makes the X5 as smooth as any luxury SUV for freeway travel, and quieter than many.
It also makes the X5 feel quicker than competitors such as the Lexus RX or LX or Audi Q7. We'd wager that it's the quickest vehicle in the class, with the exception of the Porsche Cayenne S and Turbo models. The X5's speed is emphasized by its quick-reacting gas pedal, which is tuned for pavement driving, while those in many competitors have more pedal travel for more precise modulation off road. Some drivers may find the X5's sensitive throttle annoying during a stop-and-go commute after a long, stressful day.
The X5 3.0si isn't as absolutely quick as the 4.8i, but its inline six-cylinder engine feels just as responsive. In some respects it feels lighter, perhaps more spry, than the big V8. BMW's inline-6 is almost as smooth as the V8, with even power across its rev range, and in typical driving it doesn't leave us craving more power. The 3.0si should also deliver better mileage than the V8.
The EPA rates the X5 4.8i at 14/19 mpg City/Highway, though we haven't done that well in different tests over varying circumstances. The 3.0si improves to an EPA-rated 15/21 mpg City/Highway, but you can still do much better with sedans that deliver comparable acceleration. By the official ratings, you can also find better mileage in comparably sized SUVs and crossovers.
Braking performance matches the sporty character of the engines. Yes, this big sport-utility dips forward more prominently than BMW's sedans might under hard braking, but it absolutely does not lack impressive stopping power. In typical daily rounds, we never came close to exploiting the stopping potential built into the X5. Moreover, the electronic controls allow a driver to maintain full steering control in full-panic stops. The electronics also help keep the X5 balanced when braking hard through a turn, and they now include a feature that compensates for brake fade as the brakes heat up with heavy use. Yet like the throttle, the brake pedal can feel a bit sensitive. It might require some practice to modulate for smooth, even stops.
The front suspension breaks with BMW's 45-year tradition of familiar strut design by adding an extra pivot point in the lower control arms. This change is significant to the typical buyer because it plays to the X5's stock-in-trade among luxury SUVs: its exceptional on-road driving dynamics.
How exceptional? On familiar, low-traffic stretches of curving roadway, we can get the typical SUV right up to the point where its tires will lose consistent grip and its mass is ready to slide. We couldn't safely get near the limits of the X5 on public roads because its limits come at speeds too high for public welfare. It will handle bends that leave Lexus SUVs plowing like tractors, or where the Mercedes ML and Volvo XC90 are leaning toward the outside of the curve like used-up Marathon taxis. The optional 19-inch wheels and high-performance tires grip pavement tenaciously, and the level of stick seems more impressive given the high seating position of the driver. The X5 is a sport-utility for Germany's famed Nurburgring racing circuit, and we suspect BMW engineers spent a lot of time on the Nurburgring tuning it.
In short, the X5 lives up to BMW's well-earned reputation for great handling vehicles. Its on-pavement potential exceeds whatever the vast majority of drivers are likely to exploit, and its strength might be the very reason some buyers should consider a slightly less capable competitor. The emphasis on performance is the source of its compromises as daily transportation.
Ride quality is firm. It's not obtrusively stiff, in our view, but certainly stiffer than competitors, and probably less comfortable than many buyers want for the handling payoff. The standard steering is heavy at low speeds, surprisingly so, while the optional Active Steering brings issues and cost even-well healed buyers may not need. Factor in those sensitive gas and brake gas pedals, and you might end up with more aggravation than a hockey dad or soccer mom needs.
It's almost as if BMW has gone overboard trying to turn a tall, heavy SUV into a sporting, exhilarating BMW. This BMW-building process seems to take a bigger toll than it does in a sedan, measured by how the improved dynamics detract from the X5's performance in the daily tasks most drivers undertake. Put another way, the X5 may lack the integrity of the typical BMW sedan. In this vehicle, the various bits that add up to sporting driving dynamics seem to be just that: bits, somewhat disjointed, without the holistic, organic quality that characterizes a 3 Series or 5 Series sedan.
The six-speed automatic contributes to this effect. In fairly aggressive driving, it works well, with firm, satisfying upshifts and quick kickdown shifts when you slam the accelerator at 45 mph. But with light-throttle operation, through suburbia or winding into a subdivision, the transmission can be less then smooth. At times it feels rough or balky in its gear selection, almost clunky. BMW's electronic gear selector doesn't help much, either, requiring familiarity to use efficiently.
The gearchange is a tall, oblong device that reminds us of the paddle control for a video game. There's a button on top to release or engage Park; Drive or Reverse come with a quick flick fore or aft. There's also a separate slot for sequential manual shifting. That's the only improvement in the design, and it fits into the fun/livability conflict throughout the X5.
When the driver wants to shift manually, it works great, changing gears immediately with a quick movement of the wrist, up or down. But this definitely is not a shifter you want to rest your hand on when its set in Drive and you're profiling or going with the flow around town. Even during a moderately hard stop, the momentum and weight of the hand will slide the selector into neutral, and you may not even know it. At a stoplight you might even engage Park inadvertently. When the light turns green, you'll wonder why you're not going anywhere, then scramble in embarrassment to figure it out.
If sporting, on-pavement driving dynamics are the priority in a luxury SUV, the BMW X5 is a great place to start. If family friendly utility and minimal aggravation are most important, it may not be. As a tall sport sedan with reasonable towing capability, the X5 surpasses nearly all other sport-utilities. It's by no means an off-road vehicle, however. In terms of utility, the X5 lacks the cargo-passenger flexibility and ultimate cargo capacity of many competitors. It also comes with BMW's various efforts to re-invent or at least re-define basic things like turn signals and gear selectors, not to mention the infamous i-Drive interface. That will be good or bad, depending on your tastes and proclivities.
J.P. Vettraino reports to NewCarTestDrive.com. from Detroit, with Phil Berg contributing from rural Michigan.