With sport utility sales burning up the charts, it’s easy to see why every automaker wants to build one. They’re popular, and more important, they’re profitable. One result of this booming trend is a handful of capable sport utes springing forth from some fairly unusual sources. And one of those sources is BMW, and its entry into the fray is called the X5. But can a car company whose primary focus has been a line of cars designed to help you skillfully avoid pot holes, successfully change that focus and produce a vehicle designed to take you through them?
They can if they take the same approach that made their road-hugging, pot-hole-dodging, sedans and coupes such a great success. And, as the folks at BMW are quick to point out, the all new 2000 BMW X5 4.4i Sports Activity Vehicle will also dodge that pothole, if you choose to, just about as well as any car.
That’s because, unlike many of its competitors, BMW pursued a more car-based approach when creating the new X5. And that meant forsaking the body-on-frame blueprint usually followed by SUV builders in favor of uni-body construction. A design philosophy also shared by the popular Jeep Grand Cherokee and the Lexus RX 300.
So, this should in no way be considered a weakness. The X5’s strong uni-body and chassis structure maintains the same torsional rigidity as the 5 and 7 Series passenger cars, due to the extensive use of high strength steel.
And the front and rear components of the robust 4-wheel independent suspension are sorted out and held together by heavy-duty sub-frames. These components, supporting a 111-inch wheelbase, give the X5 an unusually fine blend of ride and handling. Among the very best of any SUV on the road.
Under the front, one finds coil springs and struts, double-pivot lower control arms, twin-tube gas shocks, and a stabilizer bar. While under the rear is a 4-link Integral suspension with twin-tube gas shocks and self-leveling air springs. A more stiffly calibrated “sport” suspension is also available.
We had a chance to flog the X5 at not only our normal test track, but also at speed around the Road Atlanta road course. During our handling tests the X5 displayed a touch of under steer on turn in, and in low speed maneuvers the speed sensitive rack and pinion steering feels overly heavy. But the side to side transitions are very controlled, and more car-like than SUV veterans would ever dream possible. Of course this BMW-style handling prowess is assisted by a wide variety of technical details like traction control, and an electronic stability program.
The X5 also features a full-time four-wheel drive transfer case that normally splits torque in a 38% front, 62% rear, ratio. Like the Mercedes-Benz ML, it uses selective brake application to move power to the wheels with the most traction. But unlike the ML there is no low range for super serious off-roading. There is, however, a nifty little feature borrowed from BMW’s Land Rover division; it’s called Hill Descent Control. Activated with the touch of a button, HDC helps stabilize vehicle speed during steep descents by also using the ABS system. All told, the X5 has more off-road abilities than most buyers will need.
The ABS system does a commendable job keeping the X5 4.4i stable under full braking, too. We managed stops from 60 in an excellent 117 feet. That’s with 13.1 inch vented discs up front, 12.8 inch solids at the rear. Electronic brake proportioning and Dynamic Brake control are always on stand by.
Also on constant alert is the 4.4 liter, DOHC, 32-valve V-8 under the hood. With the aid of BMW’s VANOS variable intake valve timing, this all aluminum powerplant produces 282 horsepower at 5400 rpm and 324 pound-feet of torque at just 3600 rpm.
And that’s good for runs to 60 in 6.6 seconds. While our quarter mile trips passed in 15.2 seconds at 92 mph. Not bad for a 4828 pound truck that thinks it’s a car. Our drivers loved the X5’s broad powerband and the smooth, 5-speed Steptronic transmission that allows for manual gear changes. A less potent 6 cylinder X5, the 3.0i, is due by summer.
The current X5’s exterior styling also gets high marks as it successfully treads the line between rough and ready, and refinement. The front treatment, with its signature “twin kidney” grille, is unmistakably BMW. And its bulging lower body panels, along with the standard 18 inch wheels, 19 inch are optional, give the X5 a squat muscular stance. But some think the X5 looks more like a muscular minivan than a “sports” 4X4. However, the twin exhaust tips protruding from under the bumper let everyone know the X5 is fully capable of backing up its aggressive swagger.
A cumbersome two-piece tailgate, another Land Rover trait, allows access to the X5’s seats-up 16.1 cubic feet of cargo space. The 60/40 split rear seats can be folded to expand that capacity to 54.4 cubic feet. Now, that’s small by 4-door 4x4 standards. A retractable load floor is optional.
Up front in the cockpit, all the luxury and comfort usually associated with the BMW marque awaits you. Leather upholstery is standard, as are the 8- and 6-way power seats for the driver and passenger riding shotgun.
The driver faces a power tilting/telescoping leather-wrapped steering wheel, mounted with cruise, audio, and phone controls. It fronts a compact and rather tall binnacle that shades the very basic gauge cluster. The center stack houses the AM/FM/Cassette stereo and controls for the optional, and somewhat confusing, GPS navigation system. Pertinent information for both systems is displayed on a sizable LCD screen. Too bad its angle allows the sun to make it almost unreadable. While underneath, the capable, automatic dual-zone climate control system, with its activated charcoal microfilter, keeps the atmosphere comfortable and clean.
Behind the front seats, rear occupants will find commendable accommodations for two, with 35.4 inches of leg room, and 38.5 inches of head room. Like most mid-size SUVs, the X5 SAV touts seating for 5. But three in the back seat tends to push the comfort zone a little more than we’d like.
The same could be said for the price. MSRP, including destination charges, is $49,970. That’s about $5,000 more than the Mercedes ML430, without adding any options. Add a few of the X5 4.4i’s desirable and pricey additions, and the top side of the $50,000 range approaches rapidly.
But the BMW name has never been synonymous with inexpensive, and there’s no reason to think that their entry into the very hot, luxury SUV segment would command anything but a premium. And should you choose to plunk down that premium price, you’ll get not an SUV, but an SAV instead. One that’s just as capable at dodging those potholes as it is running through them.
Engine: 4.4 Liter Dohc 32-valve V-8
Torque: 324 Lb Feet
0-60 MPH: 6.6 Seconds
1/4 Mile: 15.2 Seconds @ 92 MPH
60-0 MPH: 117 Feet