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Expert Reviews 1 of 3
By Joe Wiesenfelder
February 22, 2005
It's been five years since BMW became the first automaker to market a sporty sport utility vehicle that's sporty in the on-road sense, not the rock-climbing sense. When word got out about their plans, reactions ranged from "What are they thinking?!" and "Madness!" to "Cool!" and "It's about time." When it hit the market, it was clear that BMW had succeeded in making an SUV that was just enough of an SUV and completely a BMW. It looked, handled, braked and accelerated like a BMW.
Others have followed, and despite BMW's paving the way, Porsche's Cayenne announcement met with even more outrage possibly warranted, because not all versions of the vehicle they delivered behave like a Porsche. With the X5 near the end of its product cycle, I hit the road in the top of the heap, a V-8-powered 4.8is, to see how the 2005 competes with the likes of much newer models such as the Cadillac SRX and Infiniti FX45. Exterior & Styling Old though it might be, the X5's styling is probably widely appreciated for what it's not: new. By new I mean bearing the styling direction of BMW's more recent models, which, overall, has flopped in this country. If photos of the redesigned 3 Series are any indication, it's possible BMW is finally accepting that North American complaints can be brushed off, but poor sales cannot. The new 3 BMW's bread and butter in this hemisphere carries hints of the new style but is more conservative overall. Perhaps the next X5 redesign will follow the same course.
As a 4.8is, my test vehicle had a titanium-colored grille, "black chrome" tailpipes and black trim along the side windows. This trim level's xenon high-intensity-discharge headlights come with four pressure-washer jets atop the bumper that make the front end look like a bulldog with an underbite. Ride & Handling More than anything, BMWs all of them are known for their handling. BMW makes sure that all of its models have a front/rear weight distribution of 50/50 or close to it. This allows four tires to share the job of sticking the vehicle to the road in turns. An imbalance asks the front or rear pair to do more than their share, which results in premature understeer or oversteer. The top trim level comes only with air springs and a sport-tuned suspension. Between the firmer suspension and 20-inch wheels with very low-profile tires, the X5 4.8is has a more taut ride, but I can't imagine that anyone who would opt for this trim level would find it uncomfortable.
Even with the newer competition as a comparison, the X5 still handles impressively. The standard all-wheel drive has a rear-wheel bias, which means it feels like a rear-wheel-drive car but the front pair activates when needed and prevents wheelspin. Also standard is Dynamic Stability Control, BMW's electronic stability system. As these systems go, the X5's allows a little more slippage, which I appreciate, and is far less noticeable than many systems when it does activate less abrupt and relatively quiet.
With the DSC turned off, I found a greater understeer bias than in the lesser trim levels, perhaps due to the larger engine's weight or location. In a sustained hairpin turn, one can balance out the weight distribution by applying the throttle, but I found that the only way to do so was by accelerating, which is to say increasing speed. In some vehicles one can maintain this balance while keeping speed constant.
With the sport suspension option's large stabilizer bars, body roll is well under control. Standard Michelin Diamaris 4x4 summer performance tires rated P275/40WR20 in front and P315/35WR20 in the rear deliver good grip and very gradual, controllable slip (see tire codes). One critical warning: These tires are not for use in winter. They aren't optimal for cold weather, and they're a disaster on snow and ice. Aside from their utter lack of grip on the powder, the short sidewalls practically guarantee wheel damage if you hit even a moderate pothole. Do not think that all-wheel drive makes tire type irrelevant. It means nothing when summer tires hit snow. Going & Stopping Equipped with the most powerful engine, the X5 4.8is is ridiculously quick. We're talking zero to 60 mph in about 6 seconds. The 4.8-liter V-8 gets its extra 0.2 liter of displacement from a larger cylinder bore and longer stroke than the 4.4-liter. The 10.5:1 compression ratio gives it 355 horsepower and 369 pounds-feet of torque compared to the 4.4-liter's 315 hp and 324 pounds-feet of torque.
I like the six-speed-automatic transmission. It seems to react faster than many high-gear-count automatics, and its clutchless-manual operation is the best approach, with one exception. The Drive setting is responsive thanks to the engine's prodigious torque, but it's calibrated overall for fuel economy. Slide the gear selector lever leftward into the +/- gate and it goes into S (Sport) mode. This raises the rpm at which it upshifts, increases engine braking and generally gives you a more responsive accelerator pedal.
Then pushing the lever forward or backward switches to a sequential-shifting mode. It holds whatever gear you've selected until you change it unless you floor the accelerator, which trips a switch and causes a quick downshift. This is not a bad failsafe in case you forget you're in a high gear and you try to overtake or lurch into traffic. The one drawback is a maddening one: Pushing the lever forward downshifts; rearward upshifts. This is completely unintuitive and the opposite of most cars with fore/aft shifting except for companies like Mazda, which does so specifically because BMW does, following it like an enamored puppy.
It might be better for a buyer who has to adjust only to one system, but anyone like me who occasionally drives the other type of transmission is in trouble. In more than a week, I never got it down. Presumably, this is a simple software or polarity issue, and companies would be wise to offer a switch and a choice. Note: The X5 doesn't have shift switches or paddles on the steering wheel. I didn't miss them, though they might mitigate the lever's flopped up/downshift convention.
Moving on to the other senses, the X5 4.8is sounds terrific when accelerating. If anything, I wouldn't mind if it were a little louder. In terms of smell, this car really stinks figuratively. Its EPA Green Vehicle Guide rating for emissions is a god-awful 1 out of a possible 10 (best). For the record, all other models also score a 1 except the 3.0i with automatic, which scores a still-pathetic 3 in the 45-state version.
The fuel economy also leaves a lot to be desired. The 4.8is gets an EPA-estimated 16/21 mpg in city/highway driving. The "good" news for buyers is that this is actually only 1 highway mpg lower than the 4.4i and a startling tie with the six-cylinder 3.0i automatic and 1 city mpg better than the manual.
The brakes are typical BMW highly effective and confidence inspiring. The front pair of the four-wheel discs are 1 inch larger in diameter than those on the lower trim levels. Aside from the standard ABS, BMW adds to the electronic brake-force distribution a provision called Cornering Brake Control that's claimed to improve stability when braking during a turn.
BMW claims the X5 is suitable for medium-duty offroad use. It incorporates Hill Descent Control, a feature that uses the ABS to control the SUV's speed and direction when descending a steep hill. What it doesn't have is a dual-mode transfer case. The Inside One thing I can say for the five-seat X5 is that, as one of the earliest car-based, unibody SUVs, it has always been space efficient, giving a good amount of interior room for its exterior size. Versions with the optional air suspension make ingress a bit easier by lowering closer to the ground. This variable height isn't as dramatic as it is on some trucks with the feature, but it does help. Nothing seems to make up for the shelf that juts out a few inches from the side sills guaranteed to soil your pant leg if you've driven in dirt, dust or road salt.
The X5 has been widely knocked for its interior materials quality. My opinion varies with trim level. For a 3.0i that stickers for about $42,000, the real wood trim and other elements don't seem too bad, though the upholstery is "leatherette," which for reasons no one ever adequately justified is the euphemism for vinyl. Step up to the 4.4i and you get Dakota leather. My 4.8is had sport seats with Nappa leather. It also had the Alcantara leather, a no-cost option that adds textured material to the seats and door panels. On the seats it helps hold occupants in place. On the door, all it does is look like a fuzzy checkerboard.
What I find insulting is the 4.8is' interior treatment, which replaces the wood with "graphite" appliques. Graphite? You sure that's not graphitette? Whatever it is looks inexcusably cheap in a trim level that lists for (hold your breath) $70,000. At this level, I don't want to see any "ettes" whatsoever unless I get to pay with dollarettes.
Nifty backseat features, standard in the 4.8is, include heated seats with power-reclining backrests that can be controlled from the seat or the liftgate. Safety In terms of safety performance, the X5 avails itself very well. It is rated a Best Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, in second place behind Volvo's XC90. It boasts six standard airbags, including frontal, side-impact for the front occupants and side curtain-type airbags for the side windows, front and rear. Side-impact torso bags are even optional for the backseat. Buyers who expect to ferry children in the backseat should forego this option. Cargo & Towing The X5 has a combination liftgate/tailgate that I've always liked. It makes for a lighter liftgate that requires less clearance behind the vehicle, and the tailgate isn't so long that it distances you too far from the cargo floor when lowered. If this is an issue for you, option the $380 retractable cargo floor that was on my test vehicle. It helps loading and unloading cargo up to 330 pounds. As is now standard among SUVs, the backseat is split, 60/40 and folds flat.
For an SUV that isn't truck-based, the X5 has a healthy trailer towing capacity of 6,000 pounds, regardless of drivetrain. Though they both have the preferred rear-wheel drive, the Cadillac SRX and Infiniti FX45 top out at 3,500 pounds.
With optional cross-members fitted to the standard roof rails, the roof rack can hold up to 220 pounds.
Important: Not all of the capacities cited can be maxed out simultaneously. The X5's gross vehicle weight rating is 6,008 pounds. Features Notable features not already mentioned include sonar-based park assist on the front and rear bumpers. It beeps in tones of increasing frequency as the car nears an obstacle. Like most SUVs, the X5's visibility to the rear is poor, and the hood is relatively high. This feature optional on the 3.0i and standard on the other trims helps prevent mishaps.
The X5's age shows in its audio system. My 4.8is had the optional GPS-based navigation system with a slick motorized LCD screen, but it motors down to reveal a . . . what? A cassette player? (Didn't I say no "ettes"?) I wouldn't mind this, but the six-CD changer that makes up for the lack of CD capability up front is in the cargo area. I've never met anyone who'd take a changer in the trunk over a single-CD player in the dash. In-dash changers are becoming the norm.
As for the navigation system, it did a reasonable job of routing and directing me to some destinations via voice prompts, but some streets just didn't seem to be in there. It also doesn't show a map. The worst aspect, common to German cars, is that the interface is a rotary knob/push-button located on the right-hand, far side of the stereo faceplate. I have railed against the knob as the worst way to select letters from the alphabet and praised Honda/Acura's brilliant touchscreen system. (Recently, in an attempt to move the LCD higher and closer to driver's line of sight, Acura has switched to the knob system. Should I just retire?) X5 in the Market No one could say that BMW's dive into the SUV pool has been a mistake. Years later, even as competitors catch up, it has nothing to apologize for in terms of performance. Price is another issue. With competition comes price competition, and it's difficult to forecast how BMW will handle the design and pricing of the current X5's replacement. Its other recent model redesigns have seen their sales drop precipitously much sooner than expected after their release. In the meantime, the market will decide if the current X5 is priced right or not. As for the 4.8is trim level, there's no doubt it's a performer and a hell of a good time, but I think $70,000 is simply too expensive.