What is it?
In a world where BMW’s range takes in every X-number from 1 to 7, the X5 barely raises a remark. Why wouldn’t Munich (well, Spartanburg) build a new version of its big smart crossover? Yet in its day the X5 was a revolution. Just before the last century ended, the original X5 became the first ever ‘off-roader’ that behaved like a car on the road.
We’re here to review the fourth generation. Where that primordial X5 went, the Range Rover Sport, Porsche Cayenne, Audi Q7, et al have followed.* This is busy territory.
It’s worth remembering that the X5 is now a big car, with optional third-row seats. The real replacement for the early X5 is today’s X3.
Enough history. What’s new news? Pretty well everything. Only the engines and transmissions are old friends, though they’ve had a going-over. The X5, like the X3 and X4, has switched onto BMW’s modular longitudinal platform.
On the top, we find more luxury and connectivity. Plus BMW’s fanciest in driver assistance, and a new all-screen dash. No big surprises; it’s just keeping up with the Schmidts.
Underneath, some new-to-BMW engineering: all-round air suspension. It’s easy to poke fun at people who never use their SUV’s potential (Less off-road than up-kerb! The only climbing they do is the social kind!… sorry). But for those that do use the capability, this will be a boon.
On the road, air springing helps comfort, but also brings better cornering and aero when it drops to its high-speed position. Off-road, you get more clearance and deeper wading. For load carrying, it will be self-levelling. For getting kids and the infirm aboard, you can kneel the car.
Four-wheel steering also makes its way onto the X5, and active anti-roll on the M50d version. These chassis changes are all about making a big tall heavy vehicle behave like one when you want it to, but like the opposite when you want that instead.
First engines out of the traps are a 40i six-cylinder turbo, and a 30d diesel. In the X5 M50d, the same three-litre diesel comes in quad-turbo form, for 400bhp and a fivish-second 0-100kph time. That version has steel-spring suspension, presumably on the assumption that you won’t be taking it down the farm track.
Soon after launch they’ll add a plug-in hybrid, with a six-cylinder engine and powerful e-motor, and an electric range of nearly 80 kilometres.
What is it like on the road?
If people really do permanently swing away from diesel – and big SUV buyers will be among the last – they can have some fun with the six-cylinder petrol in the 40i. It sounds the choir of combustion harmony, revs with glee and pulls like it really means it. And it’s got a petrol particulate filter to ease their local-air-quality conscience. Their global-carbon conscience won’t have such a great time because it’s going to be a drinker.
Luckily the 30d diesel is a smasher. It hits all the latest toxic-emission requirements and drinks less. For a diesel it’s smooth and quiet (sport mode synthesises some bass through the speakers but that’s superfluous), and in the middle rev bands it’s pretty well as lively as the petrol. But if you’re trying to overtake, it labours to haul the X5’s 2.2 tonnes.
Both engines play perfectly with the super-attentive eight-speed auto.
The X5s we drove had four-wheel steering. We’d advise caution here. The system, like nearly all of its type, does counter-steering for urban parking smarts, and for agility in tight corners. Then it goes to same-phase steering for high-speed stability. Clever in theory.
In practice, not so much. The steering is a little unpredictable and ornery. It’ll turn into a 50mph bend with a twitch, so you stop winding on the lock, then mid-bend it wants some more. It’s tricky to be smooth. Sport mode increases the threshold speed for counter-phase steering, so at least the car behaves the same at most road speeds.
In the end after an especially serpentine section I reckoned I’d got used to it. Hmmm. Shouldn’t the car suit the driver, rather than the driver eventually suiting the car?
Really, do you actually need this? UK motorways aren’t fast enough to need that extra stability, and neither do we have roads with loads of tight second-gear bends. So the standard front-only steering system ought to be fine.
Anyway, in other ways it’s a good undercarriage. There’s loads of grip (almost too much: the test cars had 315-section back tyres). The overall body control is remarkable for a 2.2-tonner and you even feel an entertaining tingle of rear-drive action if you belt out of a bend in sport mode.
The ride’s placid enough at most speeds, though on those 21-inch wheels can have be harsh on sharp little lumps. Road noise isn’t any great issue.
The brakes are a fully by-wire system, borrowed from the new 8-series. You’d never know – they feel very natural. So, er, why? ‘Because they allow the next generation of driver aids.’
Ok then, switch on all those aids. Now a little camera in the instrument pod starts spying your face. Look away from the road for long, and it warns you, then turns the aids off. I never got that far; without my input into the steering, even in well-marked motorway lanes, the thing lurched about like it was driving away from the pub after a monumental session.
Electronics for going (deliberately) off the road are more helpful, especially with the off-road pack which includes a set of calibrations of powertrain and DSC for various conditions. There’s an amazing set of camera views that let you see the ground, plus rocks and trees and holes, all round the car. The pack also adds underbody protection, but with the raised-height air springs you’re less likely to need it.
Layout, finish and space
Goodbye to BMW’s neat and simple shapes. No more oblongs and circles. The X5’s dash is all about acute angles now. The instruments, a virtual set, won’t permit you circular dials – you’re forced into polygonal clocks that trade legibility for attention-seeking.
Everything has brushed ‘metallic’ surrounds that don’t actually feel like any metal was harmed in their production. The ‘piano lacquer’ plastic is so wavy you’d swear the music would be out of tune. The grey switches are unreadable when backlit. The climate controls have been dealt a superfluous redesign that subtracts clarity. The gearlever can be, optionally, a faceted glass thing like the stopper of a cheap sherry decanter. The whole thing aims to be lavish, but over-promises and under-delivers.
This is a pity. The fundamentals are strong. Great seats, ideal driving position, a solid feel to the way the major controls work. The iDrive gets more complex than ever in its brand-new ‘version 7.0’ iteration, but it still feels like it’s basically on your side. It makes good use of the huge screen. They say the redesign allows drivers to change the layout to suit themselves. (Unless they want round instruments.)
Connected services, including traffic and an onboard wifi hotspot, are standard. So’s a wireless charging plate. For a bit extra you can get a pair of cupholders that’ll heat or cool.
The back seat is roomy, and the boot too. The seven-seat option motorises the middle row forward, so’s to make access to the third one fairly straightforward. And because you can leave it part-way forward, it’s possible to negotiate tolerable third-row legroom.
BMW has got to know crossover buyers well, and has built a really solid entry. The basics are right. It’s competent, and you don’t have to spend a pile on options to get a desirable spec.
It’s superbly powered, and great to steer notwithstanding our reservations about the 4WS. It actually will go off-roading too.
The cabin is roomy and comfortable, but did it have to be this flash?
- Paul Horrell