– Excellent road handling
– Supreme highway comfort
– Great refined engine
– Could be better off-road
– Some gadgetry complications
– High price and running costs
The BMW X5 was the first vehicle ever to introduce sports-car handling to the soft-roader 4WD genre. The fact that it is a large, tall and heavy truck-like roller made it all the more impressive. It inspired many other companies to come up with sporty 4WD models. And now BMW has improved on it further. The second-generation American-built “Sport Activity Vehicle” has taken the game to a whole new level, and we were given a 4.8i to take for a four-day spin.
The new model looks a lot like the old one from far away, so we weren’t expecting much. But up close, its beefy curves and perfect profile grabbed our attention easily. Also unexpectedly, it turned a lot of heads, so even common people somehow knew this machine was something recognizable and yet special. Forgive us for singing unnecessary praises already, but this is just the beginning.
Climbing into the cabin turned out to be a bit of a balancing act, with thin slippery side-steps that slope away in the name of style. But once in, we were greeted by a familiar BMW interior, but with very unique touches. The design goes for restrained elegance, with soft-touch materials on almost every conceivable surface, door panels stitched in leather that matches the seats, and strips of real wood and metal trim spread about. In short, the cabin materials are better than anything VW or Land Rover has ever offered. Our tester had the optional panoramic glass roof, with built-in sunroof, enhancing the airy ambience when weather permitted. The iDrive computer system is standard, as are all the usual power features. A futuristic gear lever, which works likes a joystick, sits in the centre console next to the iDrive controller dial.
Cabin space is optimum, with good legroom and legroom both front and back. The powered front seats are heavily bolstered, which we found to be useful in fast driving, although large people looking for couch-style seating might complain. A lot has been said about the new X5 having a third row seat, but our tester did not have that option. Instead, we got a large luggage area, accessible through the split-opening rear hatch. At this price, the hatch should’ve been powered, but it is still light enough to close with one hand. The rear seats can fold down flat to increase “bed” space. Four cup-holders are spread about the vehicle, all cleverly hidden when not needed, and additional storage spaces include a cubby under the central front armrest as well as a cool glovebox hidden in the dash with a two-piece cover. And of course, all passengers are cocooned in the promise of front, side and curtain airbags.
Gadgetry is unrivalled, with an electronic key fob without an actual metal key, an iDrive system that doubles as a TV and navigation unit, the aforementioned electronic gear shifter, a digital climate control system with vents and controls for rear passengers, parking sensors with a reverse camera, xenon headlights that swivel in the direction of travel, and an excellent booming stereo with buttons on the dash as well as the steering wheel.
But not all the toys worked as planned. The keyless entry system is similar to any other BMW, but we couldn’t unlock and start the X5 without physically using the key, like we could in the 335i. We also could not successfully link our phone to the car’s hands-free Bluetooth system even though our phone was detected. One of the front-mounted parking sensors came loose and caused random beeping, while the reverse camera is useless in the dark. The a/c system is merely average, as it struggled to cool us down in all hours of daylight. And the CD changer takes up half the space in the glove box.
Truth be told, this being our third BMW tester with iDrive, we found it easier to use it this time around. Our tester did not have the navigation DVD so we couldn’t play with that, but everything else was manageable, if a bit awkward to use while moving. There are even more options available, such as 18-inch to 21-inch rims, a rear DVD screen, a body kit, adaptive steering and what not.
But as with any BMW, the actual drive is the intoxicating characteristic of the X5. Our X5 4.8i was powered by–what else–a smooth 4.8-litre V8 capable of 355 hp at 6300 rpm and 475 Nm of torque at 3400 rpm. Jumping on the throttle is a visceral experience, with instant response that is uncanny for a 4WD as heavy as two-and-a-half tons. Gear shifts are hardly ever felt and the six-speed automatic gearbox is hardly ever confused. We quickly got used to the joystick-like shifter, and realised how quick it was at accepting manual inputs. BMW claims a 0-100 kph time of anywhere from 6.5 to 6.8 seconds, but during our summer-morning drag runs, we only got 7.7 seconds at best. We later realised that the engine felt stronger while driving at night than in the morning. Cooler weather would probably yield times closer to official figures. But fuel consumption was well above official figures, at 20.2 litres per 100 km. Also, throttle pedal modulation at speeds as low as 10 kph require practice to avoid jerky start-stop driving.
The ride quality is as good as it gets for a sporting 4WD, with top-class quietness from wind, road and engine noise. Large windows and mirrors make sure all-round visibility is decent. Our tester had the optional sports package that added 19-inch alloys, electronically adjustable dampers and active stabilizer bars, all forming a computerised system known as “adaptive drive.” And boy does it work! While soaking up bumps is done easily enough, with a mild hint of firmness and zero floatiness, the cornering abilities of this heavyweight are–and we hardly use these words for 4WDs–simply amazing. In most corners, there is almost no body roll, and grip is so limitless that you’d have to do something totally inconceivable to make the tyres squeal. With 255/50 rubber in the front and 285/45 in the back, it is easy to see why the X5 grips like glue, with the xDrive all-wheel-drive system providing uncanny traction and the adjustable shocks keeping the body as level as possible, even as we changed directions rapidly. The sharp power steering has a fair amount of feedback, although it does feel heavy in slow city driving. The disc brakes, assisted by a myriad of electronics, are large and do well enough, but they felt somewhat overwhelmed by the X5’s excessive weight, occasionally stinking of burnt pads if applied with vigour.
The downfall of the X5 remains its off-road ability. The big tyres and powerful engine make short work of firm sand, but we got it stuck in soft sand, even though the ground was flat and the traction control was off. We did not bother trying any real dunes. The lack of low-range gearing really stayed on our minds after that. The adaptive shocks do not allow manual changes in height either.
We admire the BMW X5 for the physics-defying things it can do on the road, staying true to its roots. For the price, we’d like more off-road toys built into it to turn the X5 into a proper world-beating 4WD. But what the Germans have done till date is already pretty impressive any way you look at it.
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