Before I begin, there’s something I need to get off my chest. BMW has a history of building brilliant driver’s cars. The brand is synonymous with agile rear-wheel drive saloons which handle like few others.
They do it in a way that combines German precision with motoring passion. BMW’s straight six engines and dynamic handling characteristics are renowned for generating expletives of a favourable nature.
So, what possessed the Bavarian road-warriors to build an SUV?
Some time back, the product planning team at BMW decided that a very lucrative vehicle was missing from its line-up. There were roadsters, coupes, sports sedans and executive limos, but BMW didn’t have an SUV.
So the X5 was created and the gap was filled (and has been followed by all manner of ‘X’-Series Beemers since).
Now SUVs are not known for their handling strengths. In fact the idea of ‘ultimate driving pleasure’ in an SUV is an almost-alien notion.
Trust BMW to devise a way to do it which combines (boring) SUV practicalities with the on-road dynamics the brand has become famous for.
Realistically the BMW X5 xDrive35d tested here is about as far from the BMW norm as you can get. For starters there is its aforementioned ‘SUV-ness’, that means all-wheel-drive, high centre of gravity and heavy mass.
Then there is the engine. It’s BMW’s legendary 3.0 litre straight six, except its not. That 35d designation means it’s a diesel, and boy what a diesel. If ever an engine blurred the lines between what diesel and petrol engines do, then this is it.
The X5 has the potential to be the most polarising vehicle built by the Bavarian firm. Thanks to some more standout polarisers in the BMW range and some diligent work by BMW’s engineers on chassis dynamics, that just isn’t the case.
From the Outside
Compared to some of BMW’s offerings the X5’s lines are almost conservative; perhaps best-described as “sedate”, but in a handsome and well-sorted way.
It comes without the odd shutlines of the 5 Series and the complex creases and curves of the Z4. It looks - the X5 - the way a BMW should (at least to these eyes).
There’s good reason for that too. As a volume-seller and an important part of BMW's stable, BMW’s designers have worked hard to create a car with appeal to a more conservative buyer (who appreciates style and balance), but one that also catches upwardly-mobile aspirational family buyers.
The result is a car with wide appeal - few would be deterred by the styling of the X5.
Our test car came fully-optioned with the M Sport package. It sat high and tough on massive 19-inch alloys. It also comes with a body-coloured appearance package that eradicates the blackened bumpers and wheel arch extensions of the standard car.
A glance along the body from the front or rear three-quarter view shows just how much delicate metal origami has been put to use in the X5’s flanks.
There are wide flarings employed around the wheel arches, a heavy crease though the top quarter of the doors and an ever-changing play of light between these surfaces.
A long, sweeping bonnet hints at the power lurking beneath and incorporates a chunky interpretation of BMW’s twin-port grille. At the rear, wide haunches blend into cleverly-formed rear lights which illuminate in an almost neon-billboard style.
On The Inside
Climb aboard the X5 and from the driver’s pew the outlook is much the same as any other modern BMW. The layout is simple and airy. The textures and finishes are modern and elegant.
And the iDrive, that one thing that so many motoring writers seem to enjoy ridiculing, is really not so loathsome. In fact it makes damn good sense, and is easily mastered.
I’ll admit the system isn’t so intuitive that you can just climb aboard and go, but after a day or two of familiarisation any other dashboard-control layout simply appears chaotic by comparison.
With that out of the way, let’s move onto the rest of the interior.
The absence of dashboard clutter certainly cleans things up and as pictured here in cream, black and aluminium, creates an air of inviting austerity.
Space in every direction is commodious and then some. The sports bolstered front seats offer a firm kind of comfort, but the sheer width of the seats means that the winged cushions are really just for show.
In the rear: head-room, leg-room and shoulder-room abound. Troopers relegated to the back can easily find comfortable sprawling-space, however the lack of rake-adjustable backrests seems an oversight (for the money you’re paying here).
The sheer weight of the 60:40 folding rear seats seems out of place too. However, with the seats folded the X5 can carry almost anything you care to throw at it.
Returning those seats to their rightful position though requires careful positioning and effort if you don’t want to give yourself a hernia. (The manual doesn’t mention anything about warm-up stretches before tackling them.)
In the cargo area things are far more cheery. There are adjustable sliding anchor points, foldaway hooks in the boot walls and a storage compartment under the floor.
That it’s all so beautifully trimmed (you won’t want to be throwing hay-bales in there) gives more than a clue as to type of life BMW had in mind for this premium X5.
The superb interior of the X5 becomes a supremely enjoyable place to be. Especially when basking beneath the massive optional panoramic roof, which extends from the header rail all the way back to just above the heads of the rear occupants.
On The Road
Diesel engines are funny things. Often they’ll command a price premium over their petrol counterparts yet offer less performance, albeit with a sizeable torque advantage.
In the X5 range, BMW offers an entry-level xDrive30d diesel which features a single turbo-charger as its price leader. Next in the range is the xDrive30i petrol, followed by the twin turbo xDrive35d tested here, sitting between the petrol six and V8.
For the circa-$9,000 additional spend over the petrol six, the xDrive35d offers 210kw at 4000 rpm - a 10kW advantage. The really impressive figure though is the monstrous 580Nm of torque available at 1750rpm, bettering even the 475Nm on offer in the V8 xDrive48i.
On the road this translates into strong performance everywhere in the rev range. The X5 oozes grunt and performs in almost undiesel-like way.
Sure there’s the punchy torque delivery, a diesel hallmark, but with the assistance of those twin turbos, the xDrive35d can really get up and dance.
Whether punching away for the line, or in highway overtaking, this X5 absolutely hauls.
The soundtrack too is oddly out of place, but in a good way. Pushing the accelerator into the firewall rewards with a deep-bass soundtrack, free from clatter, and sounding more like a high-performance petrol engine than any oiler has a right to.
Even the considerable heft of the X5 is hidden. Steering, while not pin-sharp, is highly-responsive to inputs, without being ‘darty’. Feedback through the wheel is a little fuzzy but certainly not to the point where it is numb.
The brakes in the X5 are truly commendable too. Pedal travel is shorter than expected but well-modulated and smooth.
Without putting you through the windscreen, the X5 will haul itself up in a hurry and is certainly up to multiple hard stops without losing composure or showing signs of fade.
Teutonic influence for doing things neatly and efficiently even extends to the operation of the stability control. If a wheel slips the brakes will just pull it into line and allow the car to continue on its way. No heavy-handed retardation of engine power and no nannying of the driver’s abilities.
Ultimately, the X5 fits the bill as a comfortable cruiser with a fantastic ability to swallow big distances. On the open road, wind and road noise barely permeate the cabin.
For the driver, the X5 delivers a nice tactile feedback through the wheel, but not so much that it becomes draining. At this wheel a long haul will rarely become hard work.
So, To Conclude
You don’t need to spend too long circling the ‘burbs to know that the X5 has made its presence felt in the market. It’s the ‘upwardly-mobile’, upper-middle class SUV of choice. Around schools, and in the shopping centre car-parks of ‘the better’ suburbs, they’re everywhere.
The original X5 refused to comply with the boxy SUV norm. The second-generation car not only offers compelling good looks, but also a driving experience a step or more above its high-riding competition.
In xDrive35d guise the X5 pushes itself further ahead of the pack. That immensely strong and satisfying diesel engine truly does set a new standard for economical power and refinement.
An SUV is not for everyone – they’re a bit polarising on inner-city streets – but in the X5 BMW has blended the right mix of luxury, technology, performance and quality.
The X5 xDrive35d is an inviting and rewarding automobile which just happens to offer SUV levels of accommodation.
- Truly surprising, effortlessly-powerful diesel engine
- Equally surprising on-road dynamics (for a heavyweight SUV)
- Beautifully trimmed interior
- The iDrive for the way it de-clutters a dashboard
- Fantastic highway-eating capability
- Lack of rake-adjustment and heavy rear seats
- The iDrive learning phase
- It may be slightly larger than it needs to be
- I just don’t quite get the appeal of SUVs
The Final Word
The X5 is a testament to technology. It’s been used to transform the diesel mill lurking beneath the bonnet and to also transform the interior environment and systems’ operation.
But it is not just the technology that appeals: plush interior comfort, handsome good looks and effortless performance allows the X5 to straddle both ends of a very broad market – appealing equally to older luxury car buyers and the ‘must-have’ generation.
It is a claim often made but rarely delivered, however BMW has found a way to genuinely combine ‘Sport’ with ‘Utility Vehicle’.