Quality, times five
BMW X5 a substantial SUV choice

First warning on the 2004 BMW X5 4.4i: Don't listen to the hype. BMW has insisted on calling its X5 a "Sports Activity Vehicle" - either a silly attempt to create a new automotive segment or an effort to force a change in the language by continually repeating jargon.

It's a little like "embedded," which no self-respecting journalist dreamed of five years ago. Now, in Iraq, you would think they invented the word.

The tested X5 4.4i is a sport-utility vehicle - four doors, five seats, rear cargo area, rear seats that fold to make the cargo area bigger. Basic SUV stuff.

Oh, and one other thing: It's an exceptional SUV.

That's a good thing because the bottom line on the sticker for the test vehicle was $62,695. That included about $10,000 in gaudy options, the best of which was BMW's "Sport Package," with sexy touches such as 19-inch alloy wheels and black chrome exhaust tips.

If you want a more practical version of the X5 4.4i, the starting fare is $52,100.

BMW models are a blizzard of alphabet soup, but the basic thing you need to know about the X5 4.4i is that it comes equipped with a 4.4-liter V-8 with 315 horsepower and 324 foot-pounds or torque, checking in at 3,600 revolutions per minute.

Matched to a seamless six-speed automatic transmission, an outstanding all-wheel-drive system and independent suspension front and rear, the X5 is the highway bully of your dreams.

On a run up to Reno and back, the X5 toyed with pretenders trying to match its level of performance. On steep uphill runs, the X5 dug in and effortlessly maintained high speed while shapely sports cars and V-8 sedans gasped and dropped back. Even at the top of a long climb around 7,000 feet, the X5 did not whimper or seek relief through its gearbox.

If anything, it seemed to yawn and ask for more of a challenge.

On curves - uphill and down - the X5 was monorail-solid. I was begging the back end to slide out just an inch or two. How about a little bit of body roll?

No chance.

The BMW's suspension and stability control systems functioned flawlessly.

On the surface streets, the X5 was not so civilized. The tightly wound suspension that made it such a warrior on the open road transmits street imperfections up the spine of the driver and passengers. Making a swift entrance into a typical suburban driveway felt more like hitting a too-tall speed bump at 35 mph.

But given the choice of freeway fun or sedate surface street manners, I'll take the former every time.

Appreciation of the X5's performance goes up the first time you yank open one of its doors - or more accurately, attempt to open one of its doors.

The first time I tried this, I pulled the driver's door open about six inches and then lost my grip. The doors are heavy - tank-solid. It's a nice t hing to know in this age of red light-runners who would just as likely T-bone you as sneeze.

The heavy doors prompted me to ponder the curb weight of the vehicle, which I pegged at around 4,250 pounds.

Not even close. It's 4,927.

So I was whipping a nearly 5,000-pound vehicle around everything that moved on the curvy mountain run up to Reno and back? Now, I'm really impressed with the X5's capabilities.

Even among fortunate buyers who don't blink at dropping $60,000-plus on a motor vehicle, those good feelings might sag at the gas pump. The fuel economy ratings for the BMW X5 4.4i are 16 miles per gallon in city driving and 22 mpg on the highway - not bad for a heavy vehicle with a hot-rod V-8 engine.

But BMW recommends premium unleaded for this X5. With a gas tank holding 24.6 gallons, welcome to the routine $50 fill-up at California gas pumps. Ouch!

Thankfully, there are tons of standard features on the X5 - freebies that m ght perhaps soothe the sting of those pricey gas stops. A short list of goodies includes hill-descent control, dual front door-mounted side air bags, rain-sensing windshield wipers, leather-wrapped steering wheel with a power tilt/telescoping feature, heated exterior door mirrors and an in-vehicle electronic tailgate release.

That last feature is notable because the rear cargo area has a wide opening to take on large or unusually shaped objects. Best to have the tailgate already open when you're struggling to hang onto that octagon-shaped birdbath.

One more bonus: It looks nice. The tester actually looked more compact than its 183.7 inches in length and height of 67.5 inches. The front is nicely rounded, drawing attention to the classic BMW double-grille. Riding on gorgeous, five-spoke, 19-inch alloy wheels certainly added to the look and the sporty ambience.

Overall, it's one sweet, luxury-level SUV.

And if you want to call the X5 a Sports Activity Vehicle, fine. Just do it out of my earshot.

BMW X5 at a glance

Make/model: 2004 BMW X5 4.4i.

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

Base price: $52,100 (as tested, $62,695).

Engine: 4.4-liter V-8 with 315 horsepower at 5,400 revolutions per minute and 324 foot-pounds of torque at 3,600 rpm.

EPA fuel economy: 16 miles per gallon city; 22 mpg highway.

Transmission: Six-speed automatic with overdrive and special features.

Steering: Power rack and pinion with speed-sensitive feature.

Brakes: Power four-wheel discs with anti-lock and braking-enhancement features.

Suspension type: Independent strut-type on front; independent, four-link integral on rear (with adjustable ride-height feature).

Cargo volume: 69 cubic feet.

Fuel tank: 24.6 gallons.

Curb weight: 4,927 pounds.

Track: 61.4 inches (front and rear).

Height: 67.2 inches.

Length: 183.7 inches.

Wheelbase: 111 inches.

Width: 73.7 inches.

Ground clearance: 7.1 inches.

Tires: P255/55R18 all-season radials (standard; 19-inch tires on tested X5 with Sport Package).

Towing capacity: 6,000 pounds.

Assembly site: Spartanburg, S.C