Game changer. When the first BMW X5 came out over 20 years ago, nobody would've guessed it portended a sea change in American automotive tastes. At the time, luxury crossover SUVs were little more than bizarre offshoots from brands that exclusively built cars with two or four doors. Nowadays, sedans are playing second fiddle to overwhelmingly popular SUVs and crossovers.
The venerable 2021 BMW X5, having helped usher in the current trend, has no problem being the popular kid of the brand's lineup. With a variety of powertrains and a dizzying array of optional equipment, it can be anything from a comfy family hauler to a six-figure performance vehicle that rivals the BMW M5 for track superiority.
It does all this while looking exceptionally dapper. The general shape is familiar to anyone who's paid attention to BMWs in the last 15 years, but somehow it doesn't come off as dated. The deft detailing and a general lack of gingerbread keeps it looking fresh. The X5 embraces the classic, timeless BMW design motifs in a thoroughly modern package.
Fast or faster? Every X5 is fast, but how fast exactly depends on which powertrain you choose for. Spoiler alert: the V8 engines are breathtakingly quick, but the inline turbocharged six-cylinder is by no means a slouch. In fact, it'd be the one we would take home.
Why skip the V8? Well, besides the price – the cheapest eight-cylinder model, the M50i, can't be bought for less than $84,000 – the performance difference during everyday driving is negligible. The 3.0-liter straight-six uses its turbocharger to generate 335 horsepower and 331 pound-feet of torque, and around town that translates to properly luxurious levels of thrust. That this 5,000-pound crossover rips a 5.3-second 0-60 mph time is truly impressive.
That 0-60 mph time doesn't budge for the new 389-hp 45e plug-in hybrid. In a sign of the times, this model has been introduced just as the old V8-powered 50i was eliminated. We find the trade-off a fair one – anyone intent on a V8 will prefer the M50i anyway, and the plug-in hybrid brings unprecedented fuel economy benefits. With a battery pack and electric motor affixed to the base inline-six, the EPA expects the 45e to return 30 miles of all-electric range and 20 miles per gallon combined when running in hybrid mode.
We've danced around the X5's V8 a bit, but here's the skinny: it displaces 4.4 liters, wears two turbos, and generates 523 hp in M50i trim and a ridiculous 617 hp in X5 M Competition guise. Gas mileage is as bad as you can imagine, but the performance simply defies physics – nothing of this size should accelerate so strongly: 0-60 mph happens in 4.1 seconds for the M50i and 3.8 seconds for the full-bore M Competition.
All models pair up to an eight-speed automatic transmission that delivers perfect shifts nearly every time. Paddle shifters offer manual control, but the computers have enough sense to determine when you want to have fun and when you want to cruise. Leave the gearbox to its own devices and you'll get performance commensurate with the conditions.
Ride and handling. Each engine comes with its own suspension tuning. The base model is again our favorite; it has the softest ride without sacrificing the sophisticated handling the marque is associated with. An available air suspension makes things even creamier while increasing the X5's breadth of capability. Lower the ride for better aero? Can do. How about jacking it up to clear a boulder or a curb? Again, check. In its highest setting, it offers 8.7 inches of ground clearance.
The V8 models firm things up, particularly so with the M Competition model. Stiff springs, big wheels, and narrow tires mean that the ride borders on harsh even in the softest drive setting. If you live in a place with buttery-smooth pavement you'll only benefit from such a setup, but anyone who endures weather-ravaged roads should be forewarned – the big-dollar V8 models don't play well with rough pavement.
For what V8 X5s sacrifice in comfort, they make up in performance. Active-roll bars help keep these big SUVs from leaning in corners, and the resulting cornering behavior is almost unnatural – you find yourself bracing for lean that never comes. Once you're used to it, it's hard to return to utility vehicles without the tech, which almost seem clumsy in comparison.
The X5 can tow up to 7,200 pounds with the right equipment, so don't think you need a GMC Yukon Denali to tow a lot of weight in opulence.
Interior decadence. Behind the BMW X7, BMW 7-Series, and BMW 8-Series, the X5 delivers the most expensive but most opulent cabin. Premium textiles decorate an interior that looks appropriately posh; even on the six-figure versions the cabin doesn't feel lacking for anything.
Leather isn't standard, but heated and power-adjustable front seats, a 12.3-inch touchscreen, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto capability, navigation, and a digital instrument cluster are all included. The features round out an interior decorated with soft-touch materials, attractive trim, and tasteful detailing.
At nearly 195 inches long, the X5 is big, but not the biggest in the BMW stable. That title goes to the X7, which measures in at 200 inches. We'd recommend that model to anyone wanting three rows. Though seven-row seating is available on the X5, we wouldn't pay for it. Best to leave this a five-passenger luxury missile.
The decadence of the cabin puts the X5 in the realm of competitors like the Lincoln Aviator, Porsche Cayenne, Audi Q7, Audi Q8, and the Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class. You could argue the Acura MDX, Cadillac XT6, and Lexus RX are alternatives as well, but they cost significantly less and don't have the performance or opulence of the X5.
Final thoughts. There's very little to fault about the 2021 BMW X5. Yes, it is expensive, but the X5 is no phony – it delivers an experience that's worth every penny of the asking price, at least in the six-cylinder models. That value argument begins to erode for the V8 models, but before writing them off don't forget the German competition is equally refined, expensive, and quick.
The addition of the hybrid model is what we're most excited for. It blends performance and efficiency in a wonderfully low-key manner. There are more efficient hybrids out there, but the 45e stirs in enough classic BMW traits to make it worth consideration. Try it against the Volvo XC90 T8 and decide for yourself which highfalutin hybrid is the better midsize luxury crossover SUV.
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