Even in its mildest six-cylinder form, the BMW X5 is a cut above and a solid departure from the crowded field of sport utility vehicles.

Although the very idea of BMW, the maker of "ultimate driving machines," marketing an SUV may seem like a sellout, at least the X5 is a tight, crisp-driving truck that combines the versatility of an SUV with BMW's usual sporty road manners.

BMW doesn't even call it an SUV but an SAV for "sport activity vehicle." All well and good, but I'd rather call a spade a spade and an SUV an SUV.

What you could call the X5 is an SUV for people who still like to drive. Although most SUVs are tuned for comfort with soft suspensions and modest handling, X5 is stiff and maneuverable. Though its tall profile and hefty weight may limit enthusiastic driving, X5 exhibits the same crisp steering, braking and maneuverability as BMW automobiles.

This may not be the recipe for a top-drawer off-roader, though the test truck did show some decent trail-handling ability in an excursion up a steep, rutted incline. Coming back down was even easier due to the Hill Descent Control like that found on Land Rovers, which keeps the X5 trundling downhill at a measured pace without any driver input.

The bulk of X5s and other SUVs never visit any venue more strenuous than a gravel parking lot, but the full-time all-wheel drive should prove valuable for snow country or muddy back roads.

The test X5 3.0i is the least of three versions in terms of performance. It's powered by a classic BMW inline six-cylinder engine that displaces 3 liters and develops 225 horsepower, which is gutsy enough for all practical purposes.

This is the same 3-liter engine that feels so muscular in the compact 3-series cars and the Z3 sports car. But the X5's more than 4,500-pound curb weight dampens the performance considerably.

For that, BMW supplies its other two X5s with mighty V-8s. The middle-range 4.4i is propelled by a 290-horsepower mill, while the 4.6is churns out 340 horsepower. I haven't been in those, but according to reports, they are considerably faster and sportier than the 3.0i.

That's fine, but I still thought the test X5 was a pretty sweet vehicle, especially at a solid $10,000 cheaper than the 4.4i or more than $17,000 cheaper than the 4.6is.

The X5 3.0i comes standard with a five-speed stick shift or, as tested, a Steptronic five-speed automatic that can be shifted manually.

Handling, ride and stability are assisted by several electronic features, including four-wheel traction control; electronic brake proportioning that adjusts braking forces front and rear; Dynamic Brake Control to decrease stopping distances, and stability enhancement for cornering and emergency maneuvers.

The test truck was outfitted with adjustable ride height, a handy feature for keeping the X5 low for highway travel or raised for rough terrain.

The interior of the Z5 is expectedly attractive and accommo dating. Materials seem first-rate, seats are roomy and comfortable, and switches and controls are logical and accessible. The cabin seems a bit narrow in comparison with such SUV giants as Lincoln Navigator or Cadillac Escalade, but in line with most compact SUVs.

The test X5 was loaded with options that pushed its bottom line above $50,000. Options included a $3,900 premium package of leather and wood trim, on-board computer, moonroof, adjustable rear seat back, power passenger seat and other goodies; navigation system, $1,800; automatic transmission, $1,275; adjustable ride height, $1,200; radar-operated parking-distance control, $700; cold-weather package, $750; rear climate package, $600, and automatic dimming mirrors, $300. Shipping was $645.

X5 receives a strong challenge this year from Volkswagen and Porsche, which recently debuted their similar Toureg and Cayenne models, respectively. Both of them, but especially the Porsche, take the same sporty road.

And at could end X5's domination of this singular niche.

BMW X5 3.0I

Vehicle type: Five-passenger, four-door sport utility vehicle, all-wheel drive.

Base price: $38,900.

Price as tested: $50,070.

Engine: 3-liter inline-6, 225 horsepower at 5,900 rpm, 214 pounds-feet torque at 3,500 rpm.

Transmission: Five-speed automatic.

Wheelbase: 111 inches.

Curb weight: 4,586 pounds.

EPA mileage: 15 city, 21 highway.


Tight performance.

Attractive interior.

Advanced features.


Pricey options.

Mild acceleration.

Still drives like a truck.