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Car reviews - BMW - X5 - 4.4i

Our Opinion

We like
Outstanding performance on bitumen and gravel, easy to drive, spacious
Room for improvement
Massive thirst, maybe a little too genteel even for semi-heavy duty adventures in the bush

2 May 2001

BMW makes no secret about the emphasis of its new "light-duty" off-roader, the X5.

Described by the company as a Sports Activity Vehicle rather than a Sports Utility Vehicle, this is clearly a 4WD aimed primarily at the driver. Carrying loads or towing them are both on the agenda, but the way BMW sees it, most X5 owners will be more inclined to blast their new 4WDs along the blacktop.

Whether that blacktop is dry, or rain-slicked, will be of less concern to X5 drivers than those in most other vehicles.

The X5 is deceptive in that it's a large vehicle without looking like one, and a heavy vehicle without feeling like one. It might be shorter than a 5 Series, but it's the widest and tallest BMW built and the interior is capacious, for both passengers and luggage.

The styling, with its dropped-down nose (contributing to a low aerodynamic drag of 0.36), short overhangs and sleek, flowing profile makes the vehicle look small until parked next to a regular sedan. Climb aboard - an easy task via the stylish alloy running boards - and a wide, tall interior presents itself.

Legroom might not be quite up to long-wheelbase 7 Series standards - although well beyond 5 Series - but it's head and shoulders above the big saloon in other areas.

And to drive the X5 is to marvel at the fact that this responsive, nimble vehicle, at a massive 2.2 tonnes, weighs almost as much as a Nissan Patrol and significantly more than a Mitsubishi Pajero.

The Bavarian company set out to establish a new benchmark for the "soft-roader" wagon class. It has successfully imbued BMW driving dynamics in a vehicle you?d imagine could never really be made to handle like a regular sedan car - let alone a sporty one.

SAV an important distinction that could signal a shift in emphasis for light-duty 4WDs as we know them today.

BMW has always inclined towards a slightly arrogant verbosity in its new-model press material but in the case of the X5 it could almost be forgiven.

The new vehicle does set standards, and it is does raise the aspirational level for 4WD buyers searching around in a crowded market where the possibilities are becoming ever more varied. This segment is smack in the middle of an evolutionary cycle that is changing the way most people look at the car market.

So the X5 arrives with a price tag approaching $110,000, sporting that 4.4-litre V8 powerhouse, bristling with acronyms and laden with a heap of standard equipment. Electronic control systems to bewilder the most enthusiastic BMW buyer are there in abundance.

Stability control, cornering brake control, dynamic brake control, automatic differential brake and hill descent control are all there to step in and save the errant driver. And if the seemingly impossible happens, then a host pf passive safety features step in to minimise the chances of injury. The X5 has no less than 10 airbags, as well as a body structure that passes with flying colours all known sedan car safety standards.

The car's leather and fine-weave carpet-clad interior means most owners will be loath to venture onto boggy off-road tracks. And if they did, they'd quickly find the road-oriented rubber rapidly filling with mud and negating many of the traction and stability control systems anyway.

The vehicle is set up, mechanically, similarly to the "serious" 4WDs in that it takes the drive for the front wheels off a gearbox sitting behind the north-south engine. A centre differential does the job of apportioning power between axles, 62 per cent of which goes to the back. The front differential sits to the left of the engine, sending a shaft clean through the sump to the right front wheel, and then to an equal length driveshaft.

The big difference - or one of them - is that there's no dual range gearbox.

The BMW is intended to go only where the normal power and torque of the engine is capable of taking it without assistance from ultra-low gearing.

From behind the wheel, the X5 starts to feel like the big vehicle it is. It sits passengers high, in the normal commanding position, and gives a particularly good view of the road immediately ahead because of the unusual slope of the bonnet.

The BMW is easier to judge from the driver's seat than most large 4WDs although vision in the rear three-quarter view isn't quite as good. A lot of care, neck craning, and an awareness of the park distance system's audible beepings is required when reversing.

The driving position is a cross between standard BMW sedan-car ergonomics and regular 4WD: the steering wheel adjusts electrically for reach and height, as do the seats, but the driver always ends up with a feeling of being perched in a relatively high position.

Passengers, all five, will find as much space as they want, as well as three-point belts in all positions. Seats are large and well shaped, particularly comfortable because they are set higher off the floor than a regular sedan's.

The standard air-conditioning system vents effectively to front and rear, although it gets rather noisy when running on full recirculate mode in hot, muggy weather.

The instrument panel array, and the general ambience, cast aside any thoughts that this might be a more utilitarian vehicle than a regular BMW sedan.

Leather-clad seats, steering wheel, and liberal use of quality wood grain on dash, centre console and doors provide a feeling of 7 Series luxury. The only aberrations here were the quality of the door-closing sound - it lacked the sumptuous "thud" we've come to expect in any upmarket car - and a few insistent rattles from the rear luggage area.

Up back there's a decent luggage area, accessed by twin rear hatches and enhanced by a quick double-fold 60-40 rear seat system that makes for useful luggage carrying abilities. Yes, a mountain bike or two will go in here although the front wheels may need to be removed. BMW's own folding mountain bike would be the obvious answer.

The engine is not whisper-quiet but, for a BMW, this is a good thing because it ruffles along with a delicious V8 beat that gets harder-edged and more endearing as the revs rise. It's not the eager growl of a BMW six, but an inviting sound that lets you know this engine is designed to pump iron. It delights in being used with enthusiasm.

A bootful of accelerator will see the X5 leaping away from a standing start fast enough to reach 100km/h in 8.2 seconds, while sending the BMW fuel economy gauge slapping forcefully out of sight past the 30 litres per 100km position.

The fact it accelerates with such gusto makes you forget it's such a heavy car - until you consider the amount of high-octane unleaded being sucked into the engine. Cruising with feather-footed care on the freeway rarely sess the instant readout indicating better than 11 litres per 100km.

Next thing is to throw the X5 at a few familiar curves and switchbacks and here again the big 4WD feels amazingly light and nimble, sitting flat and simply going where it's pointed. Only when the car is being provoked on a rutted dirt road does the dashboard light for the stability control system become activated.

There is a lovely, secure feel about this BMW that makes you realise that, yes, a new dimension is to be experienced here, something that's not been available in a 4WD wagon before and something over and above what could be expected of even a fast all-wheel drive sedan.

The 4WD system may not be designed to take on deep creek crossings, or boulder-strewn fire roads, but a degree of rugged functionality is there nevertheless. The hill descent control alone will allow the X5 to go where most other soft-roaders could not.

In the end it's all a matter of what the buyer is looking for and it appears the SUV class is rapidly moving away from its origins as a pseudo off-road category to new, more self-assured understandings of what it is trying to achieve.

The BMW X5 - an SAV by definition - is perhaps the clearest interpretation yet of what the upper levels of this category are aspiring to.

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