Nobody asked me, but . . .
Not a company to pull punches, here is what BMW had to say about the second-generation X5 when it was launched last year:
“BMW will write the latest chapter in the story of the world’s first Sports Activity Vehicle®, the BMW X5. Originally launched for the 2000 model year in late 1999, the BMW X5 permanently changed the automotive landscape. It proved that the driving dynamics, responsiveness, and linear control signature to every BMW could be compatible with utility, versatility, and other-roads capability.”
Wow. And for dinner, I’ll order humble pie . . .
So let’s see if I can add anything here. For starters, neither a man from Mars nor a woman from Venus is going to mistake the X5 for anything other than a BMW. From the distinctive kidney grille clear back to the BMW signature taillights; the DNA is strong and evident. It’s nice to know that in a country overrun with SUVs and crossovers that you will never have to walk around a parking lot activating the horn and/or headlights to pick out your X5 from among the sea of look-alike unwashed masses.
When I took delivery of my X5, it was dark and cold, not unusual for an early evening in late December in New York. I quickly loaded our luggage into the BMW’s cavernous cargo area and my wife, daughter and I were on our way to our Long Island destination.
I know my way around the metro NYC parkways, but at rush hour it is usually wiser to pay particular attention to the traffic and the hordes rushing home than to have to concentrate on a vehicle’s eccentricities. And I’m happy to report that the X5 really has only one . . . one that I have railed about since it was introduced in 2001 on the 7 Series: iDrive. For me, it was the answer to the question BMW should have posed before unleashing the system on the public: Should a BMW driver be required to retain the services of a riding mechanic to adjust the controls as he or she motors along in an Ultimate Driving Machine?
To give the devil his due, iDrive has received noticeable and necessary improvements during the past decade. And other marques have copied its architecture: good, bad and ugly. The original system was based on Bill Gates software. Sorry, Bill and BMW, I don’t do Windows. Not that I can’t, but I prefer Mac. And the iDrive interface wasn’t intuitive, instinctive or instructive.
As we were heading east on the Grand Central Parkway, I asked my wife, who was sitting in the front passenger seat, if she was getting warm air from the vents on her side of the car. She was; I wasn’t. I had already checked that the HVAC system was in its dual mode, allowing for separate temperatures left and right and I’d fiddled with the temperature, auto and fan speed controls on the center stack. To no effect.
My next move was to that damned silver knob on the center console. Yeah, iDrive. Between the two of us, we found a climate control setting using the knob. But the icons and verbiage about the vent settings that appeared on the screen did not help us decipher what the BMW was attempting to tell us. So I gave up and resorted to the heated seat switch for the rest of the trip, vowing to resolve the problem the next day via the owner’s manual.
Two other X5 characteristics, both dynamics-related, were also immediately apparent. The steering is heavy, especially at low speeds. Across a broad range of models I typically love BMW steering. It’s my litmus test for every other car I evaluate. I’m not sure why BMW’s engineers cranked so much effort into the X5’s system. It’s more than I’d expect in an M model. But the other side of the equation was the expected precision, feel and responsiveness that make a BMW a BMW.
The roads around NYC are not kind to any vehicle. When asked to describe them to first-time visitors, the word Baja is usually the first one out of my mouth. In NY they pave potholes with potholes. And tires with section heights of 40 or lower are an open invitation to a bent rim. I wasn’t surprised to discover the X5’s ride is BMW firm. But that firmness does not translate into harshness. BMW calls the X5 an SAV, a Sports Activity Vehicle. You’re supposed to think that BMW has transplanted an M5 suspension under what is essentially a Sports Utility Vehicle. A total contradiction of terms and vehicles . . . unless you are BMW. Somehow BMW has managed to pull off this slight-of-hand magic trick. And it’s no illusion. I’m following all manner of vehicles on the Grand Central. Almost without exception I observe most of these vehicles jitterbugging down the highway: bouncing here, bopping there. I brace for the coming impact and . . . nothing. The BMW is chewing up and spitting out the worst of what NY roads have to offer in the way of bumps, dips, potholes, washboard . . . and laughing at it. My barometer for carsickness is seated in the back. Not one peep out of my daughter, Meredith. This is, indeed, better than good.
Next morning, with daylight to guide me, I make a surprising discovery: the XDrive35d badging on the front doors. It’s a Diesel! Coulda fooled me. Last evening, cosseted in my leather seat and surrounded by seemingly every comfort and luxury feature known to man, I started the engine with the remote Start button on the dash, put the auto tranny into Drive (more about that later) and motored away. There wasn’t one indication—glow plug warm-up, engine noise, smoke or smell—to alert me to the fact I was sitting behind one of Rudolph’s engines. And I don’t mean the one with the red nose.
BMW’s X5xDrive 35d was introduced to the US as a 2009 model, and despite increased competition remains the fastest, most fuel-efficient diesel-powered vehicle in its class. Like all BMW gasoline engines, the X5’s diesel is constructed with a weight-saving aluminum cylinder block. That’s unusual given the diesel’s much higher 16.5:1 compression ratio, it’s twin turbos and the propensity for aluminum to transmit sounds that cast iron blocks will typically damp out. This engine also has aluminum cylinder heads.
In contrast to the two small, equal-size turbochargers of BMW’s twin-turbo gasoline engines, the diesel employs two sequential turbos of different sizes. At low engine speeds the smaller, lower-inertia (the faster it spools up) turbo does the air compressing. This engine develops an impressive 390 lb-ft of torque at as low as 1500 rpm.
With increasing engine speed, the larger turbocharger begins to take over, boosting this second engine to its prodigious maximum of 425 lb-ft by 1750 rpm. Peak power, 265 bhp, is achieved at 4200 rpm.
The turbo diesel provides robust performance at all speeds but is particularly impressive at low to medium speeds. The resulting 0-60-mph time of 6.9 seconds is only 1.6 seconds slower than the V8 X5xDrive 50i. And this from a vehicle weighing nearly 5200 lb. In spite of its responsiveness, it returns EPA mileage estimates of 19 mpg city and 26 highway.
If you are outside the X5 when the engine is started, you can detect a bit more engine noise than from a BMW gasoline engine. But like all BWM inline 6-cylinders, the 3-liter diesel is remarkably smooth running. And woe the driver who does not keep a sharp eye on the speedo. You can be running comfortably and quietly at 100 mph before you realize there’s a flashing red light in your rear view mirror.
Using the console-mounted e-shifter, the X5 driver chooses from three shifting programs: Drive, Drive Sport, and Manual. In Manual mode, the driver selects from the six forward gear ratios via the + / – action of the shifter (push forward to downshift; pull back to upshift). At any speed, Neutral is selected via a forward push of the selector from Drive and, when at a standstill, Park is selected by depressing the “P” button atop the shifter, or by pushing the Engine Start-Stop button (doing so will also stop the engine). It all sounds easy, but it’s a bit confusing and takes getting used to.
An X5 option, AdaptiveDrive, is unique in the X5’s segment and provides coordinated interaction of the anti-roll bars and shock absorbers. Using sensors, this combination of active roll stabilization and electronic damping constantly monitors and calculates data on the road speed of the vehicle, its steering angle, straight-line and lateral acceleration, body and wheel acceleration, as well as height levels. Then, based on this information, the system adjusts both the swivel motors on the anti-roll bars and the electromagnetic shock-absorber valves, controlling body roll and damping as required at all times. By simply pressing a button, the driver can choose either a sporting or a more comfortable basic setting of AdaptiveDrive.
And does it work? You bet. I’ve already described the fabulous ride quality. Suffice to say the handling is also very special.
Like other current all-wheel-drive BMWs, the X5 incorporates BMW’s advanced xDrive all-wheel drive and traction system. Driving torque is always transmitted to the rear wheels, and most of the time to all four wheels. Normal torque split is 60% rear/40% front. The torque split between rear and front wheels is steplessly variable via a multi-disc clutch.
Besides optimizing traction, xDrive can also enhance both agility and stability on grippy as well as slippery road surfaces. Using the same type of logic that Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) employs to recognize and correct for excessive over- or understeer, xDrive adjusts the front/rear torque split to avoid these tendencies. If the system senses undesirable oversteer, it closes the multi-disc clutch completely, sending the maximum possible torque to the front wheels. In the case of excess understeer, xDrive opens the clutch completely, sending no driving torque to the front wheels.
The MSRP of the 2011 X5 I tested was $51,800. But remember my comment about it being equipped with just about every conceivable comfort and luxury feature? I lied. The suggested retail price of my driver, including a destination charge of $875, came to $69,725. And I know you could drive that price higher with options such as the Sport Package.
But taking some of the sting off that hefty price tag were a heated steering wheel, power tailgate, real time traffic information for the nav system, ambiance lighting, the previously described AdaptiveDrive, smartphone integration, BMW apps, Xenon Adaptive Headlights with auto-leveling and Corona headlight rings, Halogen free-form fog lights with cornering lights function and innovative fold-flat third-row seats that will hold small acrobatic adults in a pinch, but are best suited to kids and cats.
As expected at this price point, everything I could see or touch was of high quality materials with exceptional attention to fit and finish.
Most importantly, the X5 drives like I expect a BMW to drive. It’s not only ideally configured to haul goods, but it’s equally adept at hauling the goods.
Prologue: After researching the owner’s manual and fiddling with the vent controls, I was able to adjust the vents using iDrive. But I have no clue as to why you need the iDrive settings and how they interact with the center stack HVAC controls.