The BMW X5 is built to excel at driving dynamics, not cargo capacity or off-road capability. Though not as refined as BMW's sedans, the X5 is the BMW of sport utilities. Think of the X5 as a 5 Series wagon with more headroom and a bit more cargo space.
For 2011, BMW updates the X5's six-cylinder and V8 engines, and mates them to a new 8-speed automatic transmission. The lineup is expanded with six trim levels where there had been four, and all but the X5 M get slightly revised front and rear ends.
All four BMW X5 engines deliver plenty of usable torque for good acceleration, and no matter which you choose, you won't be disappointed. The new 2011 BMW X5 gasoline engines are far more powerful than the engines they replace. The turbocharged inline six-cylinder in the 2011 BMW X5 xDrive35i delivers as much power as anyone could realistically need, delivering far more power than the 2010 model's normally aspirated 3.0-liter. The twin-turbocharged 4.4-liter V8 in the 2011 BMW X5 xDrive50i adds more pepper to the gumbo. If the stunningly fast X5 M didn't exist, you'd swear the 50i engine was the high-performance option.
In addition to the gasoline-powered models, BMW offers a diesel-powered model, the X5 xDrive35d, which is as clean as any of its gasoline counterparts. The diesel model improves mileage 10 percent compared to the X5 xDrive35i with its gasoline-powered turbocharged six-cylinder.
The high end of the 2011 BMW X5 lineup is the X5 M that was added for 2010. This high-performance model uses a twin-turbocharged 4.4-liter V8 that makes a whopping 555 horsepower. The X5 M comes standard with BMW's xDrive all-wheel-drive system, a stiffer suspension, and sport seats. Exterior cues indicate its performance potential.
The BMW X5 emphasizes the sport half of the sport-utility equation, even with the diesel engine. The X5 comes up short in cargo-passenger flexibility compared to many luxury SUVs. As opposed to hauling acres of equipment and gear, the X5 provides the equipment enthusiast drivers expect when they want to enjoy the art of driving as much as they're able. Just plan to travel light.
The X5 is styled in BMW fashion, only taller, with traditional BMW cues such as the twin-kidney grille and dual-beam headlight clusters. Inside, it offers plenty of room for five, with a nice, rich finish and nearly all the bells and whistles expected in a high-line luxury sedan. The second-row seat is more than roomy enough for two adults, three in a pinch, and there's enough cargo space in back for a two-day family outing. The X5 can expand to seven-passenger capacity with an optional third-row seat, but that seat won't look particularly inviting to anyone asked to ride in it, and it wipes out the cargo space. The X5 is better viewed as a two-row, five-seat SUV.
The X5 is not a traditional SUV. BMW shuns the SUV tag entirely, describing the X5 with its own copyrighted label: Sport Activity Vehicle, or SAV. With all seats lowered for maximum cargo capacity, the X5 offers less space than do most competitors, from Acura to Volvo. Sport in the X5 context does not mean off-road capability. While the X5 has some mild off-highway prowess, the xDrive all-wheel-drive system was developed for slippery roads and sporty driving rather than sand dunes and rutted hillsides. Indeed, the X5's strength is its ability to get down the road in the step-on-the gas, shove-it-through-corners fashion of a genuine sports sedan.
The X5 can tow a substantial 6,000 pounds, however, and the all-wheel-drive can be a great friend in a blizzard. Those sound like the credentials of an SUV.
The X5 gets high marks for safety. It performs well in both government and insurance industry crash tests.
The 2011 BMW X5 comes in six models, all with xDrive all-wheel-drive.
The BMW X5 xDrive35i Base ($45,800) is powered by a 3.0-liter turbocharged inline six-cylinder engine delivering 300 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque. It is mated to a new 8-speed automatic transmission with manual shift capability. Standard equipment includes vinyl upholstery, 10-way power-adjustable front seats, dual-zone automatic climate control, interior air filter, memory for the driver's seat and mirrors, cruise control, tilt/telescoping leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, split-folding second-row seat, power windows, power locks, power heated exterior mirrors with tilt-down back-up aid, remote keyless entry, sunroof, 12-speaker AM/FM/CD stereo with high-definition radio, auxiliary input jack, rain-sensing wipers with heated washers, trip computer, automatic headlights, rear cargo cover, fog lights, adaptive xenon headlights, theft-deterrent system, and P255/55R18 run-flat tires on alloy wheels.
The BMW X5 xDrive35i Premium ($51,600) adds power tilt/telescoping steering wheel with memory, leather upholstery, wood interior trim, sunroof, iPod adapter, rear privacy glass, roof rails, and 19-inch alloy wheels. The xDrive35i Sport Activity ($54,100) gets and increased top-speed limiter, shadowline exterior trim, anthracite headliner, a rear spoiler, and 20-inch alloy wheels.
The BMW X5 xDrive35d ($51,200) has a twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter diesel engine that makes 265 horsepower and an impressive 425 pound-feet of torque. The diesel also qualifies for a federal tax credit of roughly $1,500. To the base model it adds wood interior trim. It comes with a six-speed automatic transmission with manual shift capability.
The BMW X5 xDrive50i ($58,400) is powered by a twin-turbocharged 4.4-liter V8 that makes 400 horsepower and 450 pound-feet of torque. It also gets the new 8-speed automatic. To the base model it adds leather upholstery, wood interior trim, and a load-leveling air suspension.
The BMW X5 M ($85,500) has a high-performance version of the twin-turbocharged 4.4-liter V8 that makes 555 horsepower and 500 pound-feet of torque. It continues with a six-speed automatic transmission. To the xDrive50i, the X5 M adds heated M front sport bucket seats; an M steering wheel; the M Drive control system; heated front seats with lumbar adjustment; Bluetooth wireless cell phone link; compass; auto-dimming outside and rearview mirrors; universal garage door opener; BMW Assist concierge service with four-year subscription; a navigation system with voice recognition, real-time traffic information and 80-gigabyte hard drive; hill ascent control; front and rear park assist; an upgraded sound system with 16 speakers and 600 watts of power; headlight washers; larger brakes; load-leveling sport suspension; Active Roll Stabilization; and P275/40R20 front and 315/35R20 rear tires. It also has aluminum interior trim in place of wood.
Options are clustered in packages. The Technology Package ($2,800) includes front and rear park assist, a rearview camera and a navigation system with voice command, real-time traffic information and an 80-gigabyte hard drive. The Cold Weather Package ($750) adds retractable headlight washers, heated steering wheel and heated front seats, while the Rear Climate Package ($900) adds four-zone climate control, manual rear sunshades and privacy glass.
The M Sport Package for 35i Sport Activity ($4,800) and 50i ($6,500) includes M sport seats, M sport steering wheel, a black headliner, adaptive suspension with Active Roll Stabilization, heavily bolstered sport seats, shadowline interior trim, and Anthracite exterior trim. The 50i also gets 20-inch alloy wheels and an increased top-speed limiter, while the 35i Sport Activity gets front and rear park assist. A Premium Package ($2,200) for the 50i adds front-seat power lumbar support, power tailgate, auto-dimming interior and exterior mirrors, digital compass, universal garage door opener, ambient interior lighting, side sunshades, Bluetooth phone interface, and BMW Assist with a four-year subscription. The Premium Package for the 35d ($3,400) also gets leather upholstery and a power tilt/telescoping steering wheel. A Sport Activity Package ($2,200) adds sport seats, sport steering wheel, black headliner, shadowline trim and 19-inch wheels.
Options available as standalones include a premium sound system with 16 speakers, a six-CD changer and an iPod adapter ($1,400-$2,000), Active Ventilated 20-way front seats with a massage feature for the driver ($2,100), rear-seat DVD entertainment system ($1,700), leather upholstery ($1,450), ultra-soft Nappa leather ($2,400-$3,850), navigation system with voice recognition, real-time traffic information and 80-gigabyte hard drive ($1,900), heated front seats ($500), heated rear seats ($350), adaptive cruise control ($2,400), sideview and topview camera ($300), Comfort Access keyless starting ($1,000), satellite radio ($350), iPod and USB adaptor ($400), smartphone integration ($135), leather dashboard and console trim ($1,900), BMW Assist with four years of service ($750) and a Bluetooth cell phone link, 20-inch wheels ($950), roof rails ($100), split-folding third-row seat with rear air conditioning and self-leveling rear suspension ($1,700), Active Roll Stabilization suspension ($3,500), head-up display ($1,300), self-dimming headlights ($250), XM satellite radio ($350), Active Steering ($1,550), and running boards ($300).
Safety features include front airbags with two-stage activation, side-impact airbags built into the front seats, first- and second-row curtain-style airbags with rollover deployment, and a tire-pressure monitor. Active safety features include all-wheel drive, hill-descent control, electronic stability control with rollover mitigation, traction control, and advanced anti-lock brakes with brake assist, brake pre-loading and a water-sweeping feature. Safety options include lane departure warning ($950) and front and rear park assist ($750). All X5 models come standard with run-flat tires, which allow operation at 50 mph for up to 90 miles when completely flat.
The X5 is a BMW through and through. On the road, that means an emphasis on sporty driving dynamics, even if it comes at the expense of utility. Sitting still, it means the X5 looks like a BMW sedan, only taller, ganglier.
The X5 gets a facelift for 2011, but it takes a sharp eye to tell the difference. Up front, there is a revised lower fascia with fog lights moved inboard and larger air intakes. More of the lower fascia is also painted body color, which visually lowers the front end. At the rear, the lower fascia has been reworked to complement the new front end. The lower apron is now body color instead of matte black, and its shape echoes the front fascia. The new taillights for 2011 add L-shaped LED light banks.
There's no mistaking the X5's classic BMW look. It starts in front, with that trademark grille and familiar dual-dual lamp clusters. Super-bright adaptive xenon headlights come standard. On the X5, they're ringed with LED circles that serve as the daytime running lights (plus, they look cool). These headlights level themselves when the X5 bounces over bumps, and turn slightly with the steering wheel. The standard fog lights also work as cornering lamps, lighting when the corresponding directional signal is selected.
In profile, the X5's big wheels and short overhangs promote an agile look, while the roof and taillights trail into a slightly flanged lip. These so-called separation edges smooth air as it rushes over the back of the vehicle. That means a slight improvement in fuel economy, and probably more significantly, less wind noise inside the X5.
Indeed, with a drag coefficient of 0.34, the X5 is an aerodynamically efficient vehicle, as tall, boxy SUVs go. Its underbody is smoothed with various fairing devices. The front spoiler directs air around the front tires, reducing resistance as the X5 punches a substantial hole in the air.
BMW tried to increase the X5's utility when it redesigned it for 2007, stretching it seven inches to add rear legroom and cargo space. By wheelbase and overall length, the X5 sits mid-pack among key competitors: Slightly larger than the Acura MDX, Land Rover LR4, Mercedes M-Class and Volvo XC90, but quite a bit smaller than the Audi Q7 and Lexus GX.
The X5 has a clamshell tailgate that is a mixed bag, in our view. The lower third drops down, once the upper portion has been lifted up. On the plus side, the split design is handy for dropping smaller packages in the back. The little tailgate keeps items from falling out when you open the hatch, which can be a problem on some SUVs with a single liftgate, and it provides a nice (though high) bench for changing shoes or just resting a moment. The problem is that the upper portion includes not only the glass, but also half the metal that comprises the rear of the vehicle. In other words, it's the heavier, more substantial portion of the gate. It takes more effort to operate than it would if only the glass opened up and down. The optional power tailgate helps in this respect, and we recommend getting it.
The M model is distinguished by unique fascia front and rear. In front is a more angular lower fascia than the other X5 models. The M model deletes the fog lights in favor of larger lower air intakes and more prominent grille openings. Side gills are located behind the front wheels. With its sportier suspension, the X5 M sits 0.4-inch lower than the other models and rides on unique 20-inch wheels. From the rear, the X5 M has a slightly altered appearance. It features a different lower fascia with an integral rear diffuser that surrounds quad exhaust outlets.
The diesel-powered X5 xDrive35d looks the same as the gasoline-powered models.
The X5 cabin has typical BMW ambience: a combination of sporting, character, wood- or aluminum-trimmed luxury and lots of things to adjust.
Nothing inside the X5 makes it feel like an SUV, beyond its relatively high seating position. Measured by overall fit and finish, the X5 compares favorably to luxury brands such as INFINITI and Mercedes.
Panels and pieces inside the X5 fit impeccably. Most surfaces have a rich feel, and the seats are perforated to enable the active ventilation option. Standard line models are available with aluminum or one of three wood-trim packages: dark-stained bamboo (almost black), dark-stained poplar (the most traditional), and light-stained poplar (essentially blonde). The vinyl dash and door panels in our test X5 were a single, dark tone, rather than the two-step dark/light treatment increasingly common in BMWs and European brands in general. We liked the overall appearance, though the monotone creates a serious, no-frills feeling.
The front seats are excellent: comfortable and exceptionally supportive, once they're tailored to whoever is sitting on them. The optional Comfort Seats and the M's sport seat have a lot of side bolstering for this type of vehicle, and that's a double-edge sword. It's great for drivers about to take a spirited run through the canyon, but less so for passengers, and particularly the elderly, who have to climb up into the X5 and then slide over the bolsters into a front seat. Seat adjustment comes via BMW's usual extensive array of controls, including double-hinged, articulated seat backs and various bolsters that can be squeezed or pumped up. They all work well, but there are so many that fine tuning takes time and some trial and error. The memory feature, which comes standard, is handy once the driver has found a comfortable position. It can take a while.
The dashboard applies a taller variant of BMW's stepped or stacked design, and it looks tidy in the X5. It certainly isn't cluttered, as it can be in some vehicles in this class, thanks partly to BMW's point-and-click iDrive control. Now in its fourth generation, iDrive features Menu, CD, Radio, Tel, Nav, Back, and Option buttons around the central aluminum knob. The previous generation had only a Menu button. This system controls navigation, communication, climate, and entertainment functions, and the new buttons make accessing many controls easier and quicker. It can still require several steps to perform various functions, making tasks like finding a new radio station overly complicated, but we find the latest generation easier to use than its predecessor. We also found that it becomes easier once you get used to it.
Unfortunately, there are still too many things you can't adjust without delving into the iDrive menus. Audio tone, for example. The optional premium stereo sounds fantastic, but we were discouraged from taking full advantage of its sound processing features because of the tedious, distracting iDrive sequence required to set them. Those who frequently switch between talk radio and music may find this inconvenient.
One of the best things about the iDrive-equipped X5 is that it has conventional switches for temperature adjustment, fan speed and airflow, and for some audio functions, including a genuine volume control knob. In other words, you can make these frequent adjustments easily without fishing through iDrive. There are also phone and redundant audio controls on the steering wheel spokes. Cruise-control functions are located on a third stalk on the steering column, with wipers on the conventional, right stalk and a trip computer button on the left, turn-signal stalk. We find BMW's electronic turn signals among the most cumbersome in any luxury brand, to the point where you're tempted to do the wrong thing and switch lanes without using them.
The center screen is large, and we like the fact that it allows you to keep the map displayed on the right third of the screen, regardless of what's shown in the primary portion. The navigation system also comes with an 80-gigabyte hard drive, 15 gigs of which can be used to store music files.
In the M model, drivers can also control the M Drive settings through the iDrive system. Choose the settings for the Electronic Damper Control, Dynamic Stability Control, Power (throttle mapping and transmission shift points), and Head-up Display in various iDrive screens and they will all be used when you press the M button on the steering wheel. These controls allow you to firm up the suspension, leave more room for play in the stability control system, increase throttle response, adjust shift points and add a rev counter warning in the optional Head-up display to inform you when to shift manually if you're using the automatic transmission's M (manual) mode.
Measured by its ergonomic packaging, the X5 is very good. Forward visibility is excellent; armrest height and window-switch placement are just as we like them. Everything, including the mirrors, can be adjusted with the driver in the driving position, meaning back against the seat rather than leaned forward to reach a switch or the rearview. The switches generally have a nice, precise feel.
The fat rear roof pillars limit visibility just behind the vehicle, and demand an extra dose of caution when backing up. The available rearview camera helps, and we recommend it. The rearview camera is also available with a Top View and Side View display. The top and side views allow you to see the sides of the vehicle when backing up, making it easier to parallel park.
New for 2011 is a lane departure warning system. When the vehicle crosses a lane line without a turn indicator it sends a signal to the driver by vibrating the steering wheel. The system works as advertised, but many drivers may find it annoying, especially those who don't use blinkers.
The center console is wide, almost massive. Besides the iDrive controls, it sprouts BMW's video-game-style, electronic gear selector and a hand brake. A sliding plastic blind exposes an ashtray and the cupholders. Those cupholders aren't terribly deep, though they do have little tension devices that snug around the bottom of a cup. The console box opens down the middle, clamshell style, and it measures about six-by-six-by-ten inches, lined with a rubber mat. It houses a power point, headphone-type auxiliary jack and, when ordered, the new USB port.
Storage options inside the X5 are fair: Much better than the typical European vehicle a few years ago, but not up to the best in this class. The glovebox opens with a remote switch in the center stack, close to the driver, and it's large enough to hold small items beyond the extra-thick portfolio for owner's documents. The door bins are molded into the door panels, and split into two compartments. They're wide and deep, so anything you put here is likely to stay when you open or slam the door, and lined with rubber so contents aren't prone to sliding and making noise.
When BMW stretched the X5 seven inches (starting with the 2007 models), it did wonders for rear passenger room. Space is now competitive with the roomiest mid-sized luxury SUVs. A five-foot, nine-inch rear passenger has inches of headroom to spare, and enough legroom to stretch his/her feet up under the front seat. There's a reasonable array of accoutrements for rear passengers, too, including vents, a power point and small storage bin on the back of the center console. There's also temperature control and a fan switch on models so equipped. The dropdown center rear armrest offers no cupholders or storage, but it reveals the optional locking pass-through port for long items such as skis or fly rods.
Cargo space still ranks at or near the bottom of the class. There is 23.2 cubic feet for stuff behind the second seat: about half again as much as the trunk in a large sedan, though the space is tipped up on its end with a much smaller load floor. Adding the optional third-row seat expands passenger capacity to seven, but it also eliminates most of that cargo space. BMW claims adults up to five-feet, four-inches tall will be comfortable in the third row, though we find it to be one of the smallest on the market, with too little head and legroom, and too low of a seat bottom, for anyone other than preteen children.
A cargo blind opens and retracts over the carpeted area behind the second seat, which features several tie-down points and a rail system that accommodates slide-out accessories offered by BMW dealers. The rear seat backs fold forward easily, but not completely flat, so there a slight angle to the load floor. The bottom cushion for the rear seats can be removed completely, as a single piece. That levels the load floor, but then you have to find a place for the seat bottom.
Even with cargo space maximized, the X5 offers less capacity than most competitors. With 75.2 cubic feet available, the X5 is surpassed by the Acura MDX (83.5), the Volvo XC90 (93.2) and a host of others. There is some additional storage under the X5's load floor, enough for a tool kit or a six pack, in the bin with the temporary spare.
On the road, the BMW X5 comes closer in character to a well-tuned (if large) sedan than all but a few of the sport-utility or crossover vehicles currently available. The X5 is a heavy vehicle, but it can get down the road with more alacrity than the typical SUV, and that includes the diesel-powered X5 xDrive35d.
The 2011 X5 35i produces 300 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque. It's matched to an efficient 8-speed automatic with manual shift capability through steering wheel paddles or the gearshift. The engine provides much better power than the 265 horsepower naturally aspirated 3.0-liter inline-6 of 2010. Power is ready and available across the rev range, launching the X5 with vigor and providing plenty of passing response. If we didn't know more powerful versions were available, we would be plenty happy with this powerful six-cylinder. Zero to 60 mph takes only 6.4 seconds, according to BMW, impressive for a 5000-pound vehicle and more than a second quicker than last year.
The new 8-speed transmission allows the engine to stay in its optimal power band more often and also improves fuel economy. In Drive, the transmission starts in second gear, which can cause some sluggish launches. This may inspire drivers to use the transmission's Sport mode more often. Be careful, though, as S can reduce fuel economy.
The diesel engine in the X5 xDrive35d provides a lot of power as well: 265 horsepower, with a whopping 425 pound-feet of torque. This ultra-high tech, 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder diesel engine has such features as all-aluminum construction, high-pressure direct fuel injection, and a turbocharging system that employs both a small and larger turbocharger for optimum response at low and higher speeds. It's eligible for a federal tax credit for extra efficient cars, and it actually produces fewer exhaust emissions than many gasoline engines. It also generates less carbon dioxide.
The 35d has so much torque, even a casual jab at the gas pedal can squawk the tires when pulling away from a stop sign. (Torque is the force that propels the vehicle and gives you the feel of acceleration). Once a driver gets used to the throttle, however, the 35d can really haul. In short bursts, the 35d will accelerate more quickly than just about any vehicle of its size, but it doesn't keep pulling as well as the gasoline six. Yet it also has none of the smoky, oily, stinky quality that plagued old-time diesels. The same diesel engine has been introduced in BMW's 3 Series sport sedan, but we like it better in the X5. That's partly because it better suits the X5's bigger, heftier character, and partly because the diesel's shortcomings seem less prominent in the X5.
The diesel engine clatters a bit when idling, especially when it's cold. It's louder and rougher in general than the X5's gasoline engines, and some of the other new-age diesels from Mercedes-Benz and Audi. It requires urea to meet 50-state emissions standards. This ammonia-like substance is stored in an onboard reservoir, much like windshield washer fluid. The urea tank is large enough to be filled only at typical oil change intervals. Still, if the tank runs dry the X5 35d won't restart until it's replenished with urea.
The twin-turbocharged 4.4-liter V8 in the X5 xDrive50i delivers 400 horsepower and a massive 450 pound feet of torque. The X5 50i is extremely quick in all situations. It launches hard when pressed and passing is a breeze. Power delivery is also quite smooth and it's impressive how much more thrust is in reserve at highway speeds. Zero to 60 mph takes just 5.3 seconds, which is about a second faster than 2010's already impressive 4.8-liter V8. Deep stabs of the gas pedal generate a distant growl that reminds a driver of the capability under the hood, but the sound doesn't intrude on conversations or create more vibration inside the X5.
The 4.8-liter V8 makes the X5 as smooth as any luxury SUV for freeway travel, and quieter than many. With the inline-6 and especially the V8, the X5 is much quicker than competitors such as the Lexus RX or LX or Audi Q7.
The federal government rates the X5 35i at 17/25 mpg City/Highway, a big improvement over the 15/21 for 2010's 3.0. The 50i comes in at 14/20 mpg, which is just slightly better than the previous 48i model's 14/19. The improvement in fuel economy makes the X5 more competitive with rivals.
Fuel economy ratings for the X5 35d are an EPA-estimated 19/26 mpg, which is 10-percent better than the 35i. The fluctuating price of diesel may or may not allow for a reduction in operating costs, and 35d has a higher price of entry, so it probably won't pay for itself.
The X5 M uses a twin-turbocharged 4.4-liter V8 with a unique crossover exhaust manifold that pairs cylinders on opposite sides of the firing order to produce a more constant air flow. This results in reduced turbo lag, and other-worldly power numbers: 555 horsepower from 5750 to 6000 rpm and 500 pound-feet of torque from 1500 to 5650 rpm. On the road, the X5 M has tons of immediate grunt, and a further stab of the throttle provides a neck-snapping rush of acceleration. BMW says the X5 M can go from a standstill to 60 mph in just 4.5 seconds. Those figures match up to our driving impressions. It's impressive for a 5,368 pound vehicle. In fact, it's a tenth of a second quicker than the much lighter, though not turbocharged, M3. Of course, fuel economy suffers. The X5 M is EPA rated at only 12/17 mpg.
Handling is impressive in all models, especially when considering the X5's mass. The X5's front suspension breaks with BMW's 45-year tradition of familiar strut design by adding an extra pivot point in the lower control arms. This change is significant to the typical buyer because it plays to the X5's stock-in-trade among luxury SUVs: its exceptional on-road driving dynamics.
How exceptional? On familiar, low-traffic stretches of curving roadway, we can get the typical SUV right up to the point where its tires will lose consistent grip and its mass is ready to slide. We couldn't safely get near the limits of the X5 on most public roads because its limits come at speeds far too high for public welfare. It will handle bends that leave Lexus SUVs plowing like tractors, or where the Mercedes ML and Volvo XC90 are leaning toward the outside of the curve like used-up Marathon taxis. The optional 19-inch wheels and high-performance tires grip pavement tenaciously, and the level of stick seems more impressive given the high seating position of the driver. The X5 is a sport-utility for Germany's famed Nurburgring racing circuit, where BMW engineers spent a lot of time tuning it.
In short, the X5 lives up to BMW's well-earned reputation for great handling vehicles. Its on-pavement potential exceeds whatever the vast majority of drivers are likely to exploit, and its strength might be the very reason some buyers should consider a slightly less capable competitor. The emphasis on performance is the source of the X5's compromises as daily transportation.
The X5 features full-time all-wheel drive, which varies the power between the front and rear axles electronically. It has no low-range gearing and it rides closer to the ground than many SUVs. Its AWD system usually sends most of the engine's torque to the rear wheels, promoting the sporty driving feel. It can shift engine power almost instantaneously, and it's a valuable aid in a snow storm or on sloppy pavement. But we'd keep the X5 on the road or at worst on gravel or smooth dirt roads.
The X5 M adds Dynamic Performance Control. DPC uses two planetary gear sets and two clutch packs in the rear differential to multiply torque to individual rear wheels. Sending more power to an outside wheel helps steer the vehicle through turns. It's hard to feel the system operate, but we swear we could feel it pulling us through a corner on Road Atlanta in the X5 M's sister, the X6 M.
The M model also has Active Roll Stabilization, which firms up the anti-roll bars to help the vehicle corner flatter. We found that the X5 M stays very flat in corners, which almost feels strange given the high ride height. It's very much like a sports sedan, only bulkier and higher off the ground.
Ride quality in all X5 models is firm. It's not obtrusively stiff, in our view, but certainly stiffer than competitors, and probably less comfortable than many buyers want for the handling payoff. The standard steering is heavy at low speeds, surprisingly so. It might be too heavy for the average hockey dad or soccer mom.
It's almost as if BMW has gone overboard trying to turn a tall, heavy SUV into a sporting, exhilarating BMW. In this vehicle, the various bits that add up to sporting driving dynamics seem to be just that: bits, somewhat disjointed, without the holistic, organic quality that characterizes a 3 Series or 5 Series sedan. Chalk that up to a taller ride height and excess weight.
The gear selector is a tall, oblong device that reminds us of the paddle control for a video game. There's a button on top to release or engage Park; Drive or Reverse come with a quick flick fore or aft. There's also a separate slot for sequential manual shifting, which fits into the fun/livability conflict throughout the X5.
When the driver wants to shift manually, it works great, changing gears immediately with a quick movement of the wrist, up or down. But this definitely is not a shifter you want to rest your hand on when while driving. Even during a moderately hard stop, the momentum and weight of the hand will slide the selector into neutral or even park, and you may not know it. Similarly, making a quick three-point turn isn't always that quick as it takes some time to figure out each shift. On the plus side, the shifter takes up less space, which BMW uses for cupholders and small items storage.
Drivers can also shift manually via a pair of aluminum steering wheel shift paddles. Tapping the paddles up or down shifts gears; there is no need to put the gearshift in Sport mode. Selecting the Sport mode holds gears longer for performance driving. In the M model, we found the transmission to be in the right gear 95 percent of the time during performance driving with the transmission in Sport mode and the M Drive in the Power setting.
Stopping power is superlative. Yes, this big sport-utility dips forward more prominently than BMW's sedans might under hard braking, but it pulls to a stop like a sports car. Moreover, the electronic controls allow a driver to maintain full steering control in full-panic stops. The electronics also help keep the X5 balanced when braking hard through a turn, and they include a feature that compensates for brake fade as the brakes heat up with heavy use.
We had a couple of opportunities to try the brakes on a racetrack, which is the ultimate test of stopping power. We drove the base models on a shorter racetrack with speeds that didn't exceed 100 mph and while we heated them up, the brakes remained strong with no appreciable fade. The M model has larger brakes that work even better. We tested them in the very similar X6 M on the longer, higher speed circuit at Road Atlanta. The brakes performed admirably initially, but began to fade after numerous full braking maneuvers from 140 mph, due mostly to the vehicle's weight. You probably never go that fast in your X5 M, so brakes won't be a problem. However, some drivers may find that the brake pedal in all models has a sensitive feel. It might require some practice to modulate for smooth, even stops.
Think of the BMW X5 as a tall sports sedan with reasonable towing capability and a great view ahead. It's not meant to be an off-road vehicle, and in terms of utility, the X5 lacks the cargo-passenger flexibility and ultimate cargo capacity of many competitors. The new engines for 2011 are a vast improvement over those they replace and are among the most powerful in the class while also being more fuel efficient. If sporting, on-pavement driving dynamics are the priority in a luxury SUV, the X5 is a great place to start, especially the high-performance M model. If family friendly utility and minimal aggravation are most important, it may not be.
J.P. Vettraino reports to NewCarTestDrive.com from Detroit, with Phil Berg contributing from rural Michigan, and Kirk Bell reporting from South Carolina, Atlanta and Miami.