The BMW X5's calling card isn't off-road capability or cargo capacity. It's driving dynamics. This sport-utility isn't 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.
For 2009, BMW X5 gets some changes in nomenclature that has no bearing on the vehicles themselves. All three X5 models officially add xDrive to the name, reflecting the marketing label for BMW's fulltime all-wheel drive system, which was already standard equipment. For example, the entry model is now called the BMW X5 xDrive30i, while the V8 model is called the xDrive48i. Hey, don't blame us, we are merely the messengers here.
More significant is introduction of the X5 xDrive35d, with a slick new diesel engine that's as clean as any of its gasoline counterparts. The diesel improves mileage nearly 25 percent compared to the six-cylinder X5 xDrive30i, yet it accelerates more quickly and tows more. This is the same diesel engine offered in the 2009 BMW 3 Series sport sedan, but we like this engine more in the X5.
The X5 emphasizes the sport half of the sport-utility equation, even with the diesel engine. While it offers more utility than ever, it comes up short in cargo-passenger flexibility compared to many luxury SUVs. As opposed to hauling acres of equipment and gear, the X5 provides the equipment enthusiast drivers expect when they want to enjoy the art of driving as much as they're able. Just plan to travel light.
All three X5 engines deliver plenty of usable torque for good acceleration. The gasoline engines also feature turbine-like smoothness. The 4.8-liter V8 in the xDrive48i is the chest-beater, but the inline six-cylinder in the xDrive30i still delivers the kind of response we expect in a sports 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. Inside, it 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, but that third seat won't look particularly inviting to anyone asked to ride in it, and it wipes out the cargo space.
The X5 is not a traditional SUV. BMW shuns the SUV tag entirely, describing the X5 with it own copyrighted label: Sport Activity Vehicle, or SAV. With all seats lowered for maximum cargo capacity, it offers less space than do most competitors, from Acura to Volvo. The gas-powered models aren't class leaders in fuel economy. And Sport in the X5 context does not mean off-road capability. The xDrive all-wheel-drive system was developed for slippery roads and sporty driving characteristics rather than sand dunes and rutted hillsides. Indeed, the X5's strength is its ability to get down the road in the step-on-the gas, shove-through-corners fashion of a genuine sports sedan.
Yet the X5 can tow a substantial 6,000 pounds, and the all-wheel-drive can be a great friend in a blizzard. Those sound like the credentials of an SUV.
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.
The X5 sport-utility vehicle is BMW through and through. 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. The diesel-powered X5 xDrive35d, new for 2009, looks the same as its gasoline-powered siblings from its twin-kidney grille to the clamshell hatch in back.
There's no mistaking the X5's classic BMW look. It starts in front, with that trademark grille and familiar dual-dual lamp clusters. 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.
BMW tried to increase the X5's utility when it redesigned it 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 GX470.
The clamshell tailgate is a mixed bag, in our view. The lower third drops down, once the upper portion has been lifted up. On the plus side, the split design is handy for dropping smaller packages in the back. The little tailgate keeps items from falling out when you open the hatch, which can be a problem on some SUVs with a single liftgate, and it provides a nice (though 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 power tailgate helps in this respect, and we recommend getting it.
The X5 cabin has typical BMW ambience: a combination of sporting, character, wood-trimmed luxury and lots of things to adjust.
Nothing inside the X5 makes it feel like an SUV, beyond its relatively high seating position. Measured by overall fit and finish, the X5 compares favorably to luxury brands such as Infiniti and Mercedes.
Panels and pieces inside the X5 fit impeccably. Most surfaces have a rich 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 feeling.
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 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. It can take a while.
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 iDrive control. Now going on a decade after its introduction, we still don't care for the iDrive user interface, though we've talked to BMW owners who have mastered it and like it. 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.
Measured by its 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, and we recommend it, though we found the camera is slow to turn off once you've started forward again.
One of the best things about the iDrive-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.
The iDrive 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 iDrive 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.
Unfortunately, there are still too many things you can't adjust without delving into the iDrive 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 may find this inconvenient.
The center console is wide, almost massive. Besides the iDrive 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.
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 still ranks at or near the bottom of the class. There is nearly 22 cubic feet for stuff behind the second seat: about the same as 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 most competitors. With 75.2 cubic feet available, the X5 is surpassed by the Acura MDX (83.5), 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.
On the road, the BMW X5 comes closer in character to a well-tuned (if large) sedan than all but a few of the sport-utility or crossover vehicles currently available. The X5 is a heavy vehicle, but it can get down the road with more alacrity than the typical SUV. That even applies the diesel-powered X5 35d, which is new for 2009.
The 4.8-liter V8 in the X5 48i delivers 350 horsepower and 350 pound feet of torque. The inline six-cylinder in the X5 30i produces 260 horsepower and 220 pound-feet. Both engines are matched to an efficient six-speed automatic transmission.
The X5 48i 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. 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 48i V8 makes the X5 as smooth as any luxury SUV for freeway travel, and quieter than many.
The V8 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 30i isn't as absolutely quick as the 48i, 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 EPA rates the X5 48i at 14/19 mpg City/Highway, though we haven't done that well in different tests over varying circumstances. The 30i 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, including BMW's new diesel X5.
The 35d has an ultra-high tech, 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder diesel engine, with features such as all-aluminum construction, high-pressure direct fuel injection, and a turbocharging system that employs both a small and larger turbocharger for optimum response at low and higher speeds. It's eligible for a federal tax credit for extra efficient cars (up to $1,550, depending on the model), and it actually produces fewer exhaust emissions than many gasoline engines. It also generates less carbon dioxide.
Fuel economy ratings for the X5 35d are an EPA-estimated 19 City, 26 Highway, which is nearly 20 percent higher than the gasoline-powered, six-cylinder X5 30i. The current price of diesel fuel (15 to 20 percent higher than gasoline) limits any reduction in operating cost, however.
The 35d diesel engine provides a lot of power: 265 horsepower, with a whopping 425 pound-feet of torque. There's so much torque, even a casual jab at the gas pedal can squawk tires pulling away from a stop sign. (Torque is that force that you feel when accelerating). Once a driver gets used to the throttle, however, the 35d can really haul. It's substantially quicker to 60 mph than the gasoline X5 30i, and not much slower than the V8-powered X5 48i, despite the substantial improvement in fuel economy. In short bursts of say 100 ft, the 35d will accelerate more quickly than just about any vehicle of its size. And it has none of the smoky, oily, stinky quality that old-time diesels might condition buyers to expect. The same diesel engine has been introduced in BMW's 3 Series sport sedan, but we like it better in the X5. That's partly because it better suits the X5's bigger, heftier character, and partly because the diesel's shortcomings seem less prominent in the X5.
The diesel engine clatters a bit when idling, especially when it's cold. It's louder and rougher in general than the X5 gasoline engines, and also some of the other new-age diesels from Mercedes-Benz and Audi. It requires urea to meet 50-state emissions standards. This ammonia-like substance is stored in an onboard reservoir, much like windshield washer fluid, and the urea tank is more than large enough to be filled only at typical oil change intervals. Still, if the tank runs dry the X5 35d won't restart until it's replenished with urea.
Handling is impressive given the mass of this SUV. The X5's 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 far 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 the X5's compromises as daily transportation.
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.
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. Factor in the sensitive gas pedal, 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, and then scramble in embarrassment to figure it out.
Stopping power is superlative. Yes, this big sport-utility dips forward more prominently than BMW's sedans might under hard braking, but it pulls to a stop like a sports car. 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.
Think of the BMW X5 as a tall sports sedan with reasonable towing capability and a great view ahead. It's by no means an off-road vehicle, and in terms of utility, the X5 lacks the cargo-passenger flexibility and ultimate cargo capacity of many competitors. If sporting, on-pavement driving dynamics are the priority in a luxury SUV, the X5 is a great place to start. If family friendly utility and minimal aggravation are most important, it may not be.
J.P. Vettraino reports to NewCarTestDrive.com from Detroit, with Phil Berg contributing from rural Michigan.