2011 BMW X5 xDrive50i
2011 BMW X5 xDrive50i. Click image to enlarge

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Review and photos by Chris Chase

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2011 BMW X5

Before the BMW X5 came along, sport utility vehicles – despite the very word being in the designation – were not sporty. They were utilitarian, like the Jeep Cherokee, the granddaddy of all SUVs, or the Ford Explorer, which you can credit (or blame) for making this kind of vehicle so popular in the first place.

And then along came the X5, which proved that an SUV – or crossover, as these not-designed-for-off-roading SUVs came to be called – could be entertaining to drive, paving the way for other vehicles that so many enthusiasts love to hate, such as the Porsche Cayenne.

For 2011, this second-generation X5 (it was redesigned in 2007) gets a mid-cycle refresh that includes small styling changes to the front and rear fascias, and new colour choices inside and out. More significant, though, are a couple of new engines, and an eight-speed automatic transmission to go with them.

The engines aren’t brand new, but rather motors that, to this point, haven’t been available in an X5. First is the new base engine, the turbocharged six-cylinder used in the 1, 3 and 5 Series; it makes 300 horsepower in the newly-designated xDrive35i model, compared to the old non-turbo six’s 260 horses. Next up is the also-newly-named xDrive50i, which gets a 4.4-litre twin-turbo V8 good for 400 horsepower, replacing a 350-horsepower, 4.8-litre engine. The new eight is the same motor used in the X5 M, but detuned from that version’s stonking 555 horsepower. The eight-speed transmission is the only one offered with the two new powerplants. Carried over from 2010 are the diesel-powered 35d variant and the aforementioned M version.

2011 BMW X5 xDrive50i
2011 BMW X5 xDrive50i. Click image to enlarge

BMW says an X5 like my 50i tester will do the zero-to-100 km/h boogie in 5.6 seconds. The X5 M will do the same in just 4.7, but what the lesser model’s numbers don’t tell you is that its 450 lb-ft of torque peaks at 1,750 rpm and stays pegged there until 4,500 revs. The result is both great driveability – acceleration, no matter how much of it you need, happens right now – and great full-bore thrust. This engine pulls hard from just off idle, and the percussive-but-never-intrusive exhaust note at high revs is a great soundtrack.

The eight-speed is built by German gearbox maker ZF; BMW says it weighs no more than the six-speed it replaces. The benefits of the extra two gears are closer ratios in the lower ranges for quicker acceleration, and “taller” seventh and eighth gear ratios for more relaxed highway cruising. Like all BMW automatics, this one has a sport mode, accessed by moving the shifter to the left from the Drive position. Here, the transmission holds onto lower gears, shifting later in acceleration and keeping the revs higher for more responsiveness. At this point, drivers can also use a manual shift mode to choose the gears for themselves.

2011 BMW X5 xDrive50i
2011 BMW X5 xDrive50i. Click image to enlarge

Tall gearing indeed: at highway speeds, the engine makes fewer than 2,000 rpm even at 120 km/h. Smooth as it is, things get a little busy in city driving. The car will move through the first five forward speeds by the time you hit 60 clicks, and will happily settle into eighth by 80. Downshifts don’t come easily, but they don’t need to; that broad torque curve I mentioned means it can provide significant acceleration at cruising speeds even when spinning under 2,000 revs. Mat the throttle, though, and depending on how quickly the car is moving, the transmission will pop down two or even three gears – remember, there are a lot of them here – to help the engine thrust you forward.

The X5’s fuel consumption estimates are 15.3/9.9 L/100 km (city/highway). I averaged 15 in city driving; a diesel X5 I drove in 2009 averaged 10.7 L/100 km in cooler April weather.

2011 BMW X5 xDrive50i
2011 BMW X5 xDrive50i. Click image to enlarge

The X5 V8’s awkward full name – X5 xDrive50i – gives away the fact that there is no two-wheel drive version of this truck (there never has been). The xDrive is the company’s name for its all-wheel system, and its addition in its badges is the company’s attempt to gain some publicity as a maker of all-wheel drive vehicles, much as Audi has done for years with its Quattro setup. Unlike many all-wheel drive systems, xDrive always supplies power to all four wheels, split in a 40/60 front/rear ratio, but it can divert more power to one axle or the other when wheelspin occurs. Dry summertime conditions meant the all-wheel drive system had it easy during my week with this truck, but experience has shown it to be a very effective setup in wintry weather.

This SUV isn’t what I’d call an easy commuter. The throttle and brake pedals are touchy, so smooth city driving actually requires effort, and the heavy steering makes for a great upper-body workout in tight downtown streets and parking lots. The suspension is firm and offers a hard ride; my tester’s 20-inch M-package wheels, shod with 275/40 tires up front and 315/35s in the back (run-flats, too) didn’t help.

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