The new X5 4.4i is BMW’s first SUV, or as BMW calls it, a Sports Activity Vehicle. It features a fully independent suspension, all-wheel-drive, a 282 horsepower 4.4 litre V8 engine, 5-speed ‘Steptronic’ automatic transmission, 18 inch tires and alloy wheels, and an optional Navigation system. Base price is $68,800.
The sports car of sport-utilities
Normally, I wouldn’t look forward to taking a new sport-utility vehicle out onto the nearest twisty mountain road for a test-drive. With a high centre of gravity, a hefty curb weight, and often, a sold rear axle, a typical sport utility vehicle isn’t designed for sports-car-like driving – nor is it meant to be.
But then there is the new BMW X5 4.4i – a different kind of SUV with vehicle dynamics that seem to defy the laws of physics. Despite being heavy (2175 kg/4795 lb.) and tall (1707 mm/67.2 in.), the X5 drives much like a performance sedan on pavement. It makes a few sacrifices in its off-road capability to achieve this, but overall, the X5 is an extremely versatile machine.
To Be An SUV, Or Not To Be An SUV
According to BMW’s X5 Product Manager, Joachim H. Blickhaeuser, the new X5 is not really an SUV.
‘It’s not a Sport Utility Vehicle, it’s not a truck, it’s not a mini-van, and it’s also not a sedan,’ he says. ‘We call it the SAV, sports-activity vehicle,’. Blickhaeuser claims the X5 defines an entirely new genre of automobile.
BMW’s reluctance to define the X5 along traditional lines may stem from the fact that BMW execs once said they would never build an SUV. But along with previous hold-outs Mercedes-Benz, Cadillac, Buick, and even Porsche, BMW has succumbed to the SUV craze – motivated in part by the fact that rivals Lexus and Mercedes-Benz are winning the sales race because of the popularity of their SUV’s.
Whatever the X5 is, it’s likely competitors will be other high-end SUV’s, such as the Mercedes-Benz ML430, Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited, Ford Expedition, Lincoln Navigator, Range Rover, Lexus LX470, and the new Toyota Sequoia.
The X5’s emphasis on performance starts with its styling which is aggressive without being overdone (at least in my opinion). The X5’s wide stance, wide tires, and short front and rear overhangs give it the appearance of balance, stability and capability. Unlike a lot of other SUV’s, the X5 doesn’t look heavy or unwieldy.
Add to this aggressive styling elements such as its covered gas-discharge headlamps, front bumper design with built-in projector beams, twin air inlets in the hood, extended fender flares, rear spoiler, twin dual-pipe exhausts, alloy wheels, and low-profile tires – and you have what is probably the sportiest looking SUV, er SAV, on the planet.
Though it’s tall and wide, the X5 has an amazingly slippery drag coefficient of 0.36, as good as some cars.
Chassis and Powertrain
Looks aside, it’s the X5’s chassis and powertrain that separate it from other SUV’s. Like most European performance sedans, and unlike most big SUV’s, the X5 has car-like unit-body construction which provides greater body rigidity, and a fully independent suspension (front MacPherson stuts/rear 4-link). The X5 also offers a full-time four-wheel-drive system which never has to be engaged or disengaged, and instead of a Low Range gear, Hill Descent Control (borrowed from Land Rover) which uses engine braking and ABS to slow the vehicle when going down steep hills.
X5’s also offer standard four-wheel-disc brakes with a four-channel ABS system and Dynamic Braking Control, a system which automatically applies more braking pressure in panic braking situations. X5’s include standard All-Season Traction Control to reduce wheel slip, and Dynamic Stability Control, an anti-skid system designed to prevent sliding and skidding when cornering on slippery surfaces.
Under the hood is a longitudinally-mounted 282 horsepower 4.4 litre V8 engine with dual overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder. The X5’s standard 5-speed automatic ‘Steptronic’ transmission can be shifted manually with the shift lever if so desired. This is the same engine and transmission combination available in the 540i and 740i. In the X5, the engine and transmission are deliberately mounted low to lower its center of gravity.
Outstanding Performance on Pavement
I have a rather unscientific way of measuring a car’s performance : if it makes my mouth drop and elicits feelings of disbelief, it gets four stars.
The X5 is that kind of vehicle. Its 4.4 litre V8 has loads of torque, much like American small block V8 engines, and it just shoots off the line and accelerates to 100 km/h in 7.9 seconds – very good for a 2175 kg (4795 lb.) vehicle – although not as good as a 540i sedan which gets the job done in about 6.4 seconds. Mid-range acceleration is also excellent with plenty of power available for passing and accelerating around slower traffic.
Cruising at a steady 100 km/h, the X5 does a relaxed 2300 rpm in fifth gear. With this much curb weight to pull and eight thirsty cylinders, fuel consumption is heavy : 15.8 l/100 km (18 mpg) in the city, and 10.5 l/100 km (27 mpg) on the highway.
With its powerful V8 engine, the X5 is capable of towing a fairly heavy trailer : maximum towing capacity is 1700 kg (3748 lb.) and maximum payload is 474 kg (1047 lb.).
The X5’s best attribute is its fantastic handling. For a tall vehicle, there’s very little lean in the corners, and minimal dive and pitch when braking and accelerating. The X5’s all-wheel-drive system increases stability and grip in the wet and snow, while its standard Pirelli Scorpion 255/55R-18 all-season tires have excellent grip. Surprisingly, their aggressive tread pattern is not noisy at freeway speeds.
The X5’s speed-sensitive steering is precise and well-weighted at higher speeds, although at slow speeds, it feels a bit heavy during urban parking chores. The standard disc brakes are extremely powerful, a notable achievement in a vehicle that weighs almost 5000 lb. The X5’s ride is excellent on smooth roads, although a bit choppy on rougher roads.
Off the pavement, the X5 offers the traction of all-wheel-drive which can supply power to individual wheels when needed, a high ground clearance, short front and rear overhangs, and excellent outward visibility. Its four-wheel independent suspension helps the X5 step over individual rocks and protrusions, however the stiff suspension and relatively short suspension travel can cause the rear wheel to hang in the air when traversing difficult terrain. In addition, the X5’s wide tires are not ideal for off-road excursions where a narrower tire has more grip.
Also, Hill Descent Control, which is engaged with a button on the dashboard, has a slight delay before it activates, which can be unsettling when heading down a 10% grade.
However, my guess is that very few of X5 owners will be heading into the wilderness, so the X5’s off-road limitations may be academic.
The X5’s tall bodystyle provides a very roomy passenger compartment for five adults – there’s more legroom and headroom here than in the 740i sedan.
The quality of interior materials is first-rate, and the overall layout and ease of use is an improvement over BMW sedans. An attractive combination of leather upholstery, two-tone dash, and wood trim confirms this is a luxury vehicle.
The X5’s sturdy-looking, leather-covered front seats offer excellent thigh and side support, 8-way power operation, 3-position memory, and heaters with three heat settings. A three-person rear seat consists of three separate contoured seats for comfort and support. All five seats have height-adjustable head restraints and three-point seatbelts.
Even though the driver’s seat is height-adjustable and there is a power tilt/telescopic steering wheel, I had difficulty finding the right steering wheel height so that I could see all of the instruments.
X5’s come with standard driver/passenger climate control, and a premium sound system with ten speakers. However, you must choose between a standard dash-mounted CD or cassette player. If you want both, you’ll have to settle for a trunk-mounted CD stacker.
Standard luxury features include power windows with front and rear anti-trapping feature, central door locking, power moonroof, front and rear centre armrests, folding rear seatbacks, and front and and rear map lights.
At the rear is a lift-up hatch, and a small, drop-down tailgate. The hatch can be unlocked from the driver’s seat, or with the remote key fob, and both hatch and tailgate have their own electronic door handles so you can open them without a key when unlocked.
The X5’s cargo area is square is shape with a flat carpeted floor and walls, and includes a couple of rubber tie-downs for securing parcels, and two 12 volt outlets for coolers and camping appliances. To hide the contents of the cargo area, an accordion-like privacy cover can be extended over it, but I found that the cover would not slide easily and often detached from its mounting points.
The cargo area is not as big as you might think because the floor height is very high. With the folding rear seats in the ‘up’ position, there’s 16.0 cubic feet of space, or about the same as in the trunk of a 540i sedan. With split folding rear seats folded, cargo area doubles.
The outside door handles are large, pull-type handles which are easy to grip, but require a strong tug to release the door. Children will find them difficult to open. In addition, the doors are heavy, and feel stiff when opening and closing.
Navigation System Useful, But Not Perfect
My test vehicle was equipped with BMW’s optional navigation system, the first working navigational system in Canada. It consists of a small colour flat screen in the centre of the dashboard, a GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) transmitter, and a CD Rom map which contains a detailed map of the cities of Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, and all the major routes in between them.
To operate the navigation system, the driver or passenger presses a Menu button, and then selects the destination they want to go to by using a round dial – rotating the dial moves the cursor to different options, such as the stereo or the navigation system, while pressing the dial selects the option.
The user can input their destination as a street address or the cross-streets at that particular location. The user then selects to view a map of the area with a cursor showing exactly where their vehicle is, and a highlighted suggested route to the destination – or they can opt for a simple directional arrow with distances to each turning point.
Once the navigation system is programmed with your destination, it will offer audible commands each time you approach a turning point – the driver does not have to take their eyes off the road. For example, about a kilometre from the next turn, a woman’s voice says, � Left turn ahead �. As you approach the turn, she says, � In 200 metres, turn left. � Sometimes she will say, � left turn at the second intersection � If you miss the turn, she will instruct � If possible, make a U-turn �. If you continue to drive, the navigation system will re-program another route to your destination. When you get there, the voice says, � You have arrived. �
Unlike human navigators, BMW’s navigation system never gets upset or raises its voice when you go the wrong way.
I found some problems with the system however. It tends to select major routes and ignore secondary routes which may offer a faster and more direct route to your destination. On occasion, I found that it ignored the most obvious route, and selected a longer, more time-consuming route. If you use the system in your own neighbourhood, you probably won’t find it very useful because you’ll know the area better than the computer. But if you don’t know exactly where you’re going, or if you’re in a strange area, you can rely on it to get you there, eventually.
The price of the optional navigation system, $3,575, could buy a lot of Map Books though.
Strong Emphasis on Safety
Like all BMW’s, the X5 is equipped with an extensive array of safety features. The cabin features dual front and side airbags, and inflatable tubular ‘head’ airbags for front and rear passengers. As mentioned, there are adjustable head restraints for all passengers, five three-point seatbelts, and the front seatbelts have a pyrotechnic tensioning system.
X5’s also include an anti-theft system with remote control, an impact sensor that unlocks the doors and turns on the lights in the event of a crash, front and rear crumple zones, and side impact beams.
Base price : $68,800
The X5 4.4I’s base price of $68,800 includes the 4.4 litre V8 engine, 5-speed Steptronic transmission, Traction control, Dynamic Stability Control, Hill Descent Control, 18 inch tires, alloy wheels, four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, roof rack, xenon gas discharge headlamps, heated mirrors and washer jets, and speed sensitive wipers. Standard interior features include leather upholstery and Poplar wood trim, heated 8-way power front seats with 3-position memory, automatic dual-zone climate control, premium AM/FM/CD stereo system with ten speakers, power tilt/telescopic steering wheel, central door locking, cruise control with steering wheel controls, power moonroof, power windows with anti-trapping feature, and front armrest/storage and rear armrest.
Available options include Navigation System ($3,575), Park Distance Control ($795), Rear Side Airbags ($725), extendible load floor ($625), ski bag ($390), Hi-Fi Sound System ($1,750), Privacy Glass ($400), and power rear seats ($495).
With some of these options, my test car came to $77,020.
A less-expensive version of the X5 with a 3.0 litre inline six cylinder engine is in the works, but there’s no word yet on whether it’s coming to Canada.
X5’s are built in Spartanburg, South Carolina.