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First drive: BMW X5 marks the driver's spot

Front-end changes: Look carefully and you’ll notice the more aggressive style of the new X5.

Significant technical changes to BMW’s off-roader are hidden under a familiar skin

28 Jan 2004

BMW Australia has kicked off a huge year of new model launches with a refreshed favourite, the X5 all-wheel drive wagon.

The country’s dominant luxury off-roader in terms of sales, the X5 will be in dealers by February, and sure to find a strong reception.

BMW is predicting sales will hold at around 2500, the same level as 2003, despite marginal price rises and the high level of competition in the category from the likes of the Mercedes-Benz M-class, Lexus RX330 and LX470 and the Jeep Grand Cherokee.

The X5 line-up continues at four models, with the 3.0-litre petrol (3.0i) and turbo-diesel (3.0d) inline six-cylinder versions starting under $82,000, while the 4.4i V8 has now topped $111,000.

The high performance 4.8is replaces the 4.6is and should have its pricing revealed at the Melbourne motor show in late February.

The X5 is just the warm-up act for the May arrival of the 6 Series coupe and convertible, the July introduction of the X3 compact off-roader (both of which will be previewed in Melbourne) and then – for something completely different – the 1 Series small car late in the year.

The changes to X5 externally are modest but noticeable, with a more aggressive treatment around the grille and headlights than the old car, somewhat reminiscent of the X3. But the big deal is under the metal.

Introduced across the range is a new four-wheel drive system called “xDrive”, which is lifted from the X3 and replaces the old car’s system.

The essential difference is that X5 previously kept the torque split front (38 per cent) and rear (62 per cent) fixed in all conditions with distribution via three open differentials. But by monitoring wheel sensors and Dynamic Stability Control, xDrive varies drive to either end via an electronic multi-plate clutch.

The good news is that in normal bitumen conditions power will be distributed almost solely to the rear wheels. That’s important when you remember the X5’s reputation as the best drive in the category, and also the BMW marque’s dynamic heritage.

But as with the old X5, there is no low range gearing or even pretence of being a serious off-roader, hence the name coined by the first X5 and continued with this version – Sports Activity Vehicle or SAV, rather than the traditional SUV.

Also new for this iteration of X5 is a 3.0-litre turbo-diesel engine with a second generation common rail fuel-injection system, which replaces the unit launched in Australia only last March.

Power goes up from 135kW to 150kW and torque from 390Nm to 480Nm. It’s worth noting that our still inferior diesel fuel means we miss out on another 12kW and 20Nm that the Euro version boasts.

BMW claims the 3.0d is 1.3 seconds faster to 100km/h (now 8.8 seconds) than its predecessor, and as fast as the 3.0i. Fuel consumption is claimed to be lower as well, now clocking in at 8.6l/100km on the European combined cycle.

Meanwhile, the 4.4-litre V8 X5 also gets a boost with the addition of Valvetronic inlet valve control and Bi-Vanos valve timing, with power going up from 210kW to 235kW and torque from 410Nm to 440Nm.The 4.4i now gets from 0 to 100 km/h in just 7.0 seconds (0.5 seconds faster), while ECE fuel consumption tests reveal an impressive reduction in fuel consumption of almost one litre per 100 km to 13.1L/100km.

The V6 petrol 3.0-litre version remains unchanged, producing 170kW and 300Nm.

Both 3.0-litre engines are offered with six-speed manual gearboxes, while the petrol engine makes do with a five-speed auto. The diesel joins the two V8s in having the excellent ZF six speed as the auto choice.

The 4.8is will not go on-sale until mid-year, but BMW believes there will be as many as 220 customers per year for the 265kW beast that accelerates to 100km/h in about six seconds.

To complement the technical and styling changes, there have been some relatively minor equipment additions like a soft-close upper tailgate, a new rain sensor, a new standard colour option and plenty of new-look alloy wheels to choose from.

There’s the usual long list of options with adaptive headlights, a front view camera and a panoramic glass sunroof joining an already pricey list.

Not that standard equipment is at pauper level, with climate control, power everything, leather upholstery, cruise control, CD audio and a slew of active safety related acronyms to keep you happy - Automatic Stability Control and Traction (ASC-X), Dynamic Stability Control (DSC-X), Anti-Lock Brakes (ABS), Dynamic Brake Control (DBC), Automatic Differential Brake (ADB-X), Hill Descent Control (HDC) and Corner Brake Control (CBC).

Standard passive safety features include 10 airbags, while BMW is also boasting about a five-star Euro NCAP rating for the X5. That places it in elite company as the only other large off-roader to claim that honour is the Volvo XC90.

PRICING
BMW X5 3.0i $81,400
BMW X5 3.0i (a) $84,000
BMW X5 3.0d $81,900
BMW X5 3.0d (a) $84,500
BMW X5 4.4i $111,800
BMW X5 4.8is TBA

DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:

CAN’T help but admire the X5, an all-paw wagon that drives much more like a car than its boxy shape suggests it deserves to.

And when you get the chance to sample the new turbo-diesel back-to-back against the two petrol engine variants (leaving the 4.8is out of the equation for the moment), we reckon you’ll pick that as the best version in the range.

Yes, we know the old (can that be a fair description of an engine that was only on sale for 11 months here?) engine was terrific, but this one is simply a jewel.

14 center image It’s quiet, it’s flexible, it’s responsive from all areas of the torque curve. In our view it’s the only sensible choice if you’re in the market for an X5.

Now that’s being pretty harsh on the petrol six, which is rightly regarded as one of the best powerplants going around.

But in this application where low-end grunt is a boon in off-road conditions and necessary to get that two tonne kerb weight motivated, the turbo-diesel (torque peak at 2000rpm) is the way to go.

If you think we’re barking up the wrong tree then so are 40 per cent of those who have ordered the updated X5. That’s right, the turbo-diesel is now the biggest seller, pushing up from 28 per cent of the old car’s mix.

Of course, if outright grunt outguns commonsense in your vocabulary and the extra dollars are no deterrent, the 4.4i is a blast, from its raspy V8 snarl to the way it combines seamlessly with its new six-speed auto gearbox.

And if you really must rationalise that choice, remember the 4.4i is the only BMW V8 wagon that you can buy in Australia these days. And even when the new 5 Series load-hauler does turn up, it will be significantly more expensive.

On-road the rest of the X5 package works as well and familiarly as ever – no surprise considering the suspension and steering are untouched. X5 rides noticeably firmer than the likes of the ML or Grand Cherokee, and steers with a directness and level of feel that leaves the rest eons behind.

The change of drive distribution systems doesn’t seem to have diluted the experience, although bitumen time was limited.

It’s off-road where the X5 is less convincing and interestingly enough that’s where the drive loop devised by BMW Australia spent most of its time during this launch.

It certainly conquered everything chucked at it, but that was not especially severe, bar one steep, rocky and shaley hill that required a run-up thanks to the X5’s lack of low range.

XDrive certainly distributed the drive around the wheels as appropriate and you could see it doing it as one wheel after another alternately bit or spun. Competent without being particularly impressive, but certainly more than capable of the weekend trip to the snow or beach house.

Inside the X5 is familiar territory, a comfortable five-seater that offers a low step-in height but manages to elevate passengers above most traffic, without getting too carried away.

If you can’t tell already, we rather like X5 - a truly convincing and flexible combination that actually deserves the much abused term “cross-over”. Compromise in the X5’s case is not a dirty word.

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