BMW rolls out its X5 SUV that looks European but is distinctly American
Since its debut at the 1999 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, the BMW X5 has seen itself cloned more than 850,000 times. Given the high five-figure price tags that come with many X5s, that’s a lot of vehicles even for the 10th anniversary of the South Carolina-built "sports activity vehicle." There’s good reason why.
When the X5 rolled out, it was difficult to reconcile the idea of a performance SUV that could carve it up with sport sedans while hauling up to seven passengers and a camper trailer. It was even harder to imagine the large wagon being built in the same Spartanburg, S.C. factory that builds the Z4 roadster.
It does make sense though. There is no more American BMW than the X5. Call it what you want, but the X5 is a big, hulking, off-roading, ‘bahn-storming machine.
Despite its size, twin kidney grilles, quad headlamps, kinked rear window and chiseled taillamps give the SUV an unmistakable BMW profile. Clever sculpting of the sides and wheelwells draw your eyes away from its massive size and height. Large alloy wheels with performance tires are designed more for Interstates than dirt trails.
The starting line-up includes the X5 iDrive 3.0i that comes with an inline six-cylinder engine, purring with 260 horsepower. Step up to the 350 horsepower V8 in the iDrive 4.8i to run from 0-60 mph in a scant 6.4 seconds — impressive for a hulking lorry. (To save a few pennies on fuel, while sacrificing almost nothing in performance, option out your X5 as an iDrive 3.5d diesel option.) The oil burner generates 265 horsepower, 425 lb.-ft. of torque, and can jump from 0-60 mph in 6.9 seconds. Fuel economy is rated 14/19-MPG city/hwy for the V8, 15/21-MPG for the six-cylinder, and an impressive 19/26-MPG with a diesel.
Designers went all 7-Series on the second-generation’s interior. They started with a "detuned" version of iDrive that lets drivers control the audio, climate and navigation systems with a console control wheel and in-dash LCD screen. It’s a bit much for basic tuning, which thankfully can be done with auxiliary buttons and knobs.
Slabs of real wood and sweet-smelling leather clothe the dash, doors and power heated seats. One button props the clamshell glove compartment doors and reveals enough space for baby diapers, an ice scraper, owners manual and actual gloves. Passengers sit high in regal comfort. Rear ones can watch the optional DVD player while drivers monitor speed with a heads-up display. Unlike in the 7-Series, gears are selected with a console shifter, although it too is electronic and not actually attached to the powertrain directly.
After an initial indoctrination period, iDrive becomes second nature and the X5’s chassis keeps you engaged. During the model’s launch in 2006 at the factory, journalists had a chance to run it through the Appalachian foothills. The way it sashayed through the curves defied its size while ample power made you wish for a full-out speed drill on the Autobahn.
It is a BMW designed for Americans, but a BMW nonetheless. I’ve driven it several times since and enjoyed it more each time. Variable-ration steering is a little creepy, but provides the right control for every speed.
If you dare attempt off-roading, the X5 can make a convincing go of it. A rigid body structure, high ground clearance, four-wheel independent suspension, Hill Descent Control (HDC), Automatic Differential Brake (ADB), Dynamic Stability Control (DSC), and four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes work as well in the rough as on the tarmac. Despite all of the off-street cred, the X5 will never rival a Jeep for dominance of the jungle, but it can get you to a mountain cabin with aplomb. And, it will beat the snot out of any other SUV on the return trip.
Ten years is an eternity in the auto industry, and the fact that the X5 has survived tells you much about its inherent capabilities — both on- and off-road. The most American of BMWs has found a happy home where SUVs roam.
With a base price of $56,200, competitors include the Mercedes ML, Cadillac Escalade, Volkswagen Touareg, Audi Q7 and Porsche Cayenne.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 4, 2009.