2003 BMW X5 4.6is
Click image to enlarge

by Greg Wilson
Photos by Laurance Yap

Prepare to be blown away

When BMW introduced the X5 4.4i in 2000, I called it the ‘sports car of sport utility vehicles’, mostly because it handled so well for a, well, utility vehicle. Not content with this level of performance, BMW recently introduced the 340 horsepower X5 4.6is, most likely in response to Mercedes-Benz’ outrageous 342 horsepower ML55 AMG SUV.

The term ‘high-performance SUV’ may seem like an oxymoron to many, but with the new 4.6is, BMW has managed to merge outstanding acceleration, phenomenal handling, reasonable ride comfort, decent off-road ability, unrivalled passenger safety, and decent cargo space into one very handsome vehicle.

As a sports car enthusiast, I have never wanted to believe this. You just can’t be a sports car and an off-road vehicle without some inevitible compromises. But as far as compromises go, the X5 4.6is is the most sophisticated compromise in the marketplace – at least right now.

X5 model range

BMW currently offers three X5 models, the X5 3.0 with a 225 horsepower inline six cylinder engine, the X5 4.4i with a 290 horsepower 4.4 litre V8, and the X5 4.6is with the 340 horsepower 4.6 litre V8.

2003 BMW X5 3.0
2003 BMW X5 3.0. Click image to enlarge

Both the V8 engines have four valves per cylinder, twin cams per cylinder bank, and variable camshaft control. With an extra 50 horsepower and 25 lb-ft of torque, the 4.6 litre engine propels the 4.6is from 0 to 100 km/h in just 6.7 seconds, compared to 7.9 seconds for the 4.4i. That’s pretty impressive when you consider the X5 4.6is weighs 2188 kilograms (4823 lb.).

While the X5 3.0 is available with a manual transmission, both the V8 models have a standard 5-speed automatic Steptronic with clutchless sequential manual shifting capabilities. It’s not really a replacement for a traditional manual transmission though, and I would have expected BMW to at least make a manual transmission optional.

The X5 4.6is can be distinguished from other X5’s by its distinctive black and body-coloured front bumper, rear quad exhaust pipes with single rectangular chrome tips on each side, rear skirt, and extra-wide 20 inch Michelin Diamaris 4X4 tires, 315/35R-20 at the rear, and 275/40R-20 in front. Inside, 4.6is models have unique Nappa leather or Alacantara leather upholstery and special grey gauges.

Roomy passenger compartment but cargo area small

The X5 has a roomy passenger compartment – there’s plenty of headroom and legroom in the front and rear seats, and the rear seat will fit three adults across. The doors are big too, and the step up height is not unduly high. Don’t order the optional aluminum running boards though – they’ll just scuff your pants or your pantyhose.

The driver’s seat has big side and thigh bolsters, and besides being power adjustable in eight different directions, it features an adjustable fore-aft thigh support. Both front seats have warmers with three heat settings, and even the rear seats are power adjustable and have outboard seat warmers. There’s real aluminum trim on the dash, doors, console and gearshift lever (at least it looks real) and the plastic dash materials have a durable, high quality look.

2003 BMW X5 4.6is
Click image to enlarge

The driver faces a raised instrument pod with with unique grey-faced round instruments – a 280 km/h speedometer (in your dreams), and a tachometer with a 7000 rpm redline and BMW’s unique variable ‘orangeline’ which starts at 4000 rpm when the engine is cold and progressively moves up to the redline as the engine warms up – good idea.

A grippy, three-spoke leather-wrapped steering wheel with electric tilt and telescopic functions and integral radio, phone, and cruise controls puts the driver in command.

The shift lever for the five-speed Steptronic transmission is on the centre console – leave it in ‘D’ for automatic shifting, or shift to manual mode to do it yourself. You pull back to change up, and push forwards to change down a gear – the opposite of earlier BMW systems.

In the centre of the dash is a video display for the radio controls, navigation system, and function settings. Each time the car is started, the navigation screen asks you to accept an agreement that you won’t operate the navigation system while driving – very irritating for anyone with an IQ over 80.

The navigation system asks you to input your destination before it will give you visual and audible instructions on how to get there – but the input process is slow – you have to use a toggle switch to input each letter and number of the address or location. As well, the system doesn’t alway recommend the fastest route, although it will always get you there.

The X5 4.6is includes dual zone automatic climate control, on-board trip computer, a moonroof that can be opened remotely, one-touch down/up power windows, and a premium Audiophile sound system with Digital Sound Processing, a six-disc CD changer, and fourteen speakers. The stereo system surrounds you with sound and it’s difficult to tell where the sounds are coming from. The sound is rich and clear and vibrant, but there was a bit too much echo for my tastes.

Airbags include two in the front, two side airbags in the front doors, and two head airbags in the roof which protect both front and rear passenger’s heads. There are five three-point seatbelts and five height-adjustable head restraints.

One curious item: the 4.6is doesn’t come with a heated steering wheel, but the 4.4i does.
Another quibble: the power door lock button is located in an unusual spot behind the shift lever.

As I mentioned, rear passengers are well taken care of: they get power seats and seat heaters, and separate heater/air conditioning controls, a folding rear centre armrest, cupholders, map pockets, door pockets and sunshades on the rear side windows.

Because the passenger area is so roomy and the floor of the cargo area is relatively high, the cargo area is comparatively small (465 litres). The Mercedes-Benz ML55 AMG for example, has 904 litres. However, by folding down both split rear seatbacks, the X5’s cargo area quadruples to 1955 litres.

The rear hatch door consists of an upper hatch and a lower fold-down tailgate. The small tailgate lowers gently when you let it go and includes a sliding cover between the body and the tailgate to prevent items sliding through the crack. The 4.6is also includes a remote opening hatch on the key fob.

Driving Impressions

The X5 is not so tall that you have to ‘climb in’ to the passenger compartment, but the optional aluminum running board is more of a hindrance than a help. The driver sits high with panoramic visibility despite the three rear head restraints – all three are designed to sit low when not in use, and the centre one sits even lower. The power tilt/telescopic steering wheel and power driver’s seat makes seating position adjustments easy.

Fire up its 4.6 litre V8 engine, and you’re reminded of a Camaro Z28 – vroom, vroom, braaat, rumble, rumble, rumble…..you know there’s power there just waiting to be unleashed. Pulling out of a parking space, the (engine-speed-sensitive) steering effort is surprisingly light at low speeds, a big improvement over earlier versions of the X5.

2003 BMW X5 4.6is
Click image to enlarge

Around town, the 4.6is is easy to drive – steering is light and quick, off-the-line acceleration is responsive, the ride is surprisingly comfortable, brakes are excellent, the transmission is smooth, and visibility is good. On the highway, the X5 4.6is cruises along quietly and comfortably with surprisingly little wind noise and tire noise for a tall SUV. The engine does just 2300 rpm at 100 km/h and 2700 rpm at 120 km/h, so you can barely hear it. It could even pass for a family vehicle..

Performance is hiding just under the skin though. Punching the (drive-by-wire) accelerator pedal produces instant and breathtaking acceleration at just about any speed. The X5’s generous 350 lb-ft. of torque at 3700 rpm combined with its adaptive, quick thinking 5-speed automatic transmission produces immediate throttle responsiveness when and where you want it. 0 to 100 km/h in under seven seconds is impressive for a vehicle like this.

If you decide to shift the 5-speed Steptronic transmission yourself, remember to pull back to change up gears and push forwards to change down – otherwise you’ll be pulling some pretty high revs. The manual shifts are very quick, and they add to the enjoyment of driving on winding, secondary highways. But around town, the automatic mode is just more convenient.

As you might expect, fuel consumption is thirsty: Transport Canada figures are 17.9 l/100 km (16 mpg) in the city and 12.4 l/100 km (23 mpg) on the highway. And it uses Premium gas. But anyone who can afford the X5 4.6is’ $95,000 price-tag probably won’t be worrying about price of gas.

Unlike some SUV’s, the X5 doesn’t feel ‘tippy’ laterally and longitudinally. Handling balance is way above average – there is some fore-aft chop, but not much. The X5 4.6is’ ‘sport-tuned’ fully independent suspension includes a rear air suspension and separate rear subframe and twin tube shocks. With those wide 20 inch Michelins, the X5 sticks to the pavement like no other SUV, and is considerably more nimble and agile than other SUV’s, even the ML55. As well, its standard all-wheel-drive system, which sends 62% of the power to the rear wheels and 38% to the front, provides excellent grip and stability in wet or slippery conditions.

Combine that with all of BMW’s electronic safety features, and it’s almost impossible to lose control in this machine. The X5 4.6is includes Automatic Stability Control + Traction, a traction control system to prevent the wheels from spinning; Dynamic Stability Control which brakes individual wheels to prevent understeer and oversteer; anti-lock brakes and Cornering Brake Control which applies even braking forces during cornering; Dynamic Brake Control for more braking force during panic braking; and Hill Descent Control which prevents the vehicle from going over 8 km/h when descending steep hills.

BMW X5 4.6is
Click image to enlarge

Still, the X5 4.6is feels heavy – probably because it is heavy – and you’re always aware of being in control of this great mass of steel and aluminum. And although the X5 has generous ground clearance, its wide tires and limited wheel travel limit its ability to do serious off-pavement driving – such as traversing boulders and tree trunks, or extremely uneven surfaces. Leave that up the Jeeps and Range Rovers.

You can certainly feel safe in the X5. In addition to having six airbags (front, side and head) five head restraints, five 3 point seatbelts, battery fire protection, automatically unlocking doors in a crash, and all of the aforementioned active safety features, the X5 was rated the best vehicle ever tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in its 40 mph offset frontal crash test.

X5’s are built in Spartanburg, South Carolina.


Probably the best-handling, best-performing SUV on the road today, the X5 4.6is is a clever compromise between performance car and off-road vehicle – but its high price will deter many.

Technical Data: 2003 BMW X5 4.6is

Base price $94,500
Price as tested $95,295
Type 4-door, 5-passenger mid-size SUV
Layout longitudinal front engine/all-wheel-drive
Engine 4.6 litre V8, DOHC, 32 valves
Horsepower 340 @ 5700 rpm
Torque 350 @ 3700 rpm
Transmission 5-speed automatic ‘Steptronic’ manual mode
Curb weight 2188 kg (4823 lb.)
Towing capacity 2268 kg (5000 lb.)
Tires 275/40R-20 in. (front)
  315/35R-20 in. (rear)
Wheelbase 2820 mm (111.0 in.)
Length 4667 mm (183.7 in.)
Width 1872 mm (73.7 in.)
Height 1745 mm (68.7 in.)
Cargo capacity 465 litres (seats up) (16.4 cu. ft.)
  1955 litres (seats down) (68.7 cu. ft.)
Fuel consumption City: 17.9 l/100 km (16 mpg)
  Hwy: 12.4 l/100 km (23 mpg)
Fuel Premium unleaded
Warranty 4 yrs/80,000 km

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