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by Laurance Yap
There are no M badges on the BMW X5 4.8iS, but we’re not fooled.
BMW will give you many reasons why the fastest, sportiest X5 is not an M model. It’s not an M because it only comes with a six-speed automatic transmission. It’s too big and heavy, really, to be an M, and it towers over all of the other vehicles in the BMW line-up.
Despite the 4.8 being obviously more sporty than even the sport-packaged 4.4i, the company has gone to great pains not to give it M styling cues. The four exhaust pipes at the back of the 4.4 have been combined into two elongated chrome rectangles, so you won’t mistake them for the pipes on an M3 or M5. The 20-inch alloys are huge and carry appropriately low-profile tires, but lack the smoked chrome that has become the M signature. Inside, the steering wheel may have an extra-chunky rim, but it doesn’t have the tri-colour M stitching, and the seats have textured alcantara inserts instead of the leather you’d find on an M5.
No matter what the badging, when you fire up the 4.8, you know it is a real hot rod. The exhaust rumbles and pops, the body vibrates (albeit in a refined manner) and the engine note is surprisingly, and delightfully, vocal. With the ensuing acoustic antics shaking windows and waking up the neighbours, blip the throttle and the variable-redline rev counter – which IS a common feature on M cars – rips up and down like a race car’s. The engine, a 4.8-litre version of the 4.4’s 320-hp Valvetronic unit, has not only been enlarged, but also has revised electronics, a new exhaust, and more aggressive plumbing to produce 355 hp and 369 lb-ft of torque, which is more than the current M5 makes.
Thanks to the six-speed’s aggressively low first gear and a sensitive throttle – there is no “sport” switch – it’s initially tough to drive the hot X5 smoothly; you’re always roaring away from stoplights at full blast, all four Michelin Diamaris tires squealing as the transmission slams the next gear home. For even more action, slide the automatic’s lever over to the left. If you leave it in that position, it simply engages a sportier shift map, which changes down earlier as you brake and which holds upshifts for better acceleration – and noise – at part-throttle. Slap it forward for a downshift (which is the correct direction as your own weight shifts forward under braking) or backwards for an upshift, and you engage a manual mode that’s as quick as any other on the market.
With those huge tires and BMW’s intelligent xDrive all-wheel-drive system apportioning power quickly and seamlessly to the wheels that can best use it, you’d expect the X5 4.8 to be a great-handling SUV. I can’t honestly say that I can verify that one way or the other, because my early-December test period was cold and rainy, which weren’t ideal conditions for the performance-rated 20-inch radials. What I can say is that the steering is as responsive as you would expect for a BMW, that it dealt with poor conditions predictably, and that the brakes, though a bit sensitive to a light touch, were superb. One thing I can tell you is that my 4.8 rode worse than just about any vehicle I’ve ever driven, which no doubt was partly caused by the stiff suspension settings required to keep such a large, heavy vehicle’s body under tight control at high speeds, and the fact that summer tires become almost rock-hard when the temperature drops below zero.
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That I didn’t manage to smack, spin, or even really slide the 4.8 comes down to caution and a veritable arsenal of active safety equipment. Along with xDrive’s constant monitoring of road conditions and torque distribution, the 4.8 comes equipped with ABS braking, brake assist, cornering brake control, traction control, and stability control as well. Hill descent control, while really a feature for off-roading, makes descending steep, slippery driveways a cinch as it modulates your speed to about 5 km/h. Passive safety gear includes the usual front, side, and head airbags as well as seatbelt pretensioners and load limiters.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost five years since the X5 has been on sale, because its design – lightly freshened for 2004 – looks as good as ever. Outside, its aggressive stance and clean detailing strike the right balance between SUV ruggedness and BMW style, and its interior is beautifully constructed and cleanly laid out, with easy-to-read white-on-grey gauges, an intuitive navigation system, and a multifunction steering wheel with audio and cruise controls. There are some indications of the X5’s age, though. There is no iDrive controller, and thus the range of options for navigation, climate, and entertainment aren’t quite as numerous or customizable as in, say, a new 5-series. The standard 6-disc CD changer is located in the rear compartment instead of the dashboard. And though the front seats are superbly comfortable, they lack the range of adjustment available in BMW’s latest generation of chairs (the back seats, however, do recline, though the switch for them is inconveniently located).
On purely logical terms, the X5 4.8, priced at $96,500, is a pretty stupid vehicle. By crossing a sports car with an SUV, it kind of ended up being not as good as either: it has the height, weight, and voracious fuel consumption of a truck, with none of the off-road ability, and though it may be faster and more powerful than most sports sedans, its height and weight mean it will never go down a winding road as quickly or with as much confidence. Plus, there’s the small matter of the X5 actually having less interior and cargo space than an X3, and its seats being less commodious than a 5-series sedan’s.
But the 4.8 is not a vehicle you’re ever going to buy for rational purposes. You’re going to buy it because you love the exclusive Imola Red colour that it comes in, or because you love the look of it hunkered down over wheels so big they had to add extra lips to the rear fenders to cover them. You’ll buy it because it’s a big, luxurious German car that makes raunchier noises than a NASCAR stocker, because you love the way it reminds you, with every heave over a speed bump, of how much sheer engineering might must have gone into making something so big handle like a BMW. Most of all, you will buy one because, with all of its contradictions, it’s a product created by people that are as crazy about cars as you are, that will hot-rod anything simply because it’s there.
And because despite not being allowed to put an M badge on it, they have managed to make an M SUV.