High performance sport utilities are nothing new. Porsche’s Cayenne has been around for a while (15 years, in fact), and for the most part the diehard Zuffenhausen aficionados have at least accepted, if not embraced it. Jeep continues to make its ridiculous SRT variation of the Grand Cherokee, which has the ability to consume fuel and tires at an equally distressing rate. GMC is to blame for starting this foolishness in the early ‘90s with the Typhoon version of its otherwise lamentable S15 Jimmy.
BMW isn’t immune to the desire for a padded bottom line and has provided buyers with several variations of the South Carolina-built X5 mid-size SUV for 18 years now too, including M-branded versions with their own eyebrow-raising performance.
So while comparably priced and dynamically superior 5 Series wagons languished in showrooms, North American drivers climbed over themselves to grab a trendy SUV instead.
Giving credit where it’s due, BMW has always done a great job with the X5, imbuing it with handling capabilities and performance pretty close to that of most proper sport wagons, as well as increased ground clearance to safely conquer slightly deeper snow. (Don’t bother asking about off-road capability, it’s not the point of this machine.)
Now four years into its lifecycle, the latest version of the X5 continues to impress.
It’s been a few years since I drove the X5 when I signed out our test machine from BMW Canada’s media fleet, and my recollection was a very positive one. I remembered being thoroughly impressed by the X5’s on-road capabilities and sublime front-seat comfort, causing me to forgive the fact that it’s actually an SUV and not one of the sport wagons the Europeans do so well.
But time waits for no man (or machine) and the competition continues to march forward, bringing out new offerings, technology, and performance. The Range Rover Sport’s presence and off-road capability, and the Mercedes-Benz GLE 450 with its lusty engine and updated infotainment system, made me all but forget about the X5.
Climbing into this X5, it didn’t take long to remember why BMW’s mid-size ‘ute I was so endearing to it, or the droves of North American buyers who continue to make the model one of the marque’s most popular sellers. The seats — BMW’s Comfort Seats — are nothing short than an ass-coddling triumph. With the backrest being divided into upper and lower hemispheres, it’s possible to find a comfortable seating position no matter how poor your posture. The upper and lower portions of the seat are also adaptable for width, enabling drivers of all carriages — from engorged to emaciated — to find contentment.
The dash layout is unlikely to win any artistic design awards, but it’s functional and will be familiar to anyone who has spent any time in pretty well any BMW from the last dozen years or so. The latest generation M Sport steering wheel feels great in-hand, with its chunky rim, paddle shifters and thin spokes featuring a reasonable number of redundant buttons.
BMW’s iDrive — once the subject of disdain and ridicule — has evolved into what could arguably be the industry standard. Its layout and operation is intuitive, and its control — with both touchscreen and dial — is excellent. Plus, the wireless Apple CarPlay integration makes the celebrated interface even easier to use.
The standard Harman Kardon sound system provides solid audio performance with full, rich sound, which makes me wonder if most human ears can fully appreciate the available 1,200-watt, 16-speaker Bang & Olufsen system.
And both the rear seat (with its useful 40-20-40 split) and cargo hold offer competitive space for a mid-size SUV. A third row of seats is optional, but not fitted to our test machine.
Plus, this particular rig was optioned up to look like a seriously sporting ute, what with its M Sport Package (including adaptive suspension), M Power Kit, and ridiculously impractical carbon fiber bits from the front splitter to the side mirrors and back to the rear diffuser. The M Performance exhaust means it even sounds ferocious.
The trouble is 320 horsepower (the M Power Kit gives it a 20 hp boost over the standard fare) feels good, but not scintillating in a rig that weighs in at nearly 4,800 lbs, and with all those M’s on the spec sheet, it kind of seems like it should do 0-60 quicker than the claimed 6 seconds.
Of course, the TwinPower turbocharged inline six-cylinder engine powering this X5, is the base model engine. There’s a diesel with 413 lb-ft of torque, a 445 hp V8 and the obscene 567 hp X5 M, if more grunt is desired — and it should be for a performance machine. I say skip some of the frivolous style options and go for the V8 to really make the X5 feel special.
The transmission at least — that venerable 8-speed ZF automatic — is excellent. Shifts are almost imperceptible when just cruising along, but blazingly quick when Sport mode is selected or the paddles are used.
While the grunt of the V8 models would be welcome, it does come with a few hundred pounds of extra heft, mostly over the front end, which may diminish handling a bit. But even with our six-cylinder version and the suspension set to its firmest settings, it’s hard to forget this is still a tall, utility vehicle when pressed into corners. There’s considerable body roll. The steering lacks feel and feedback. Some of the sharpness might be lost in our tester’s squishy Pirelli Scorpion winter tires.
Despite grumbling about squirmy tires and a roly-poly nature, the BMW nevertheless is a capable handler, tackling corners and on-ramps without losing composure. And it should also be said that it still slots somewhere between a Cayenne’s performance and that of a Lexus RX at the softer end.
In the auto industry, four years is a long time. As some of its competitors are younger, they feel more spry and modern than the X5. That said, BMW’s mid-size SUV remains a solid-feeling and luxurious machine. Its cabin technology and active safety features are all as current-feeling as any of its competitors, but then at over $80,000 USD (or over $90,000 in Canada), it darn-well better be.
The folks in Greer, South Carolina continue to build a good mid-size luxury SUV for BMW, but the competition is fierce and chasing profits in a sporty sport utility vehicle will only get more difficult with age.
Correction: As stated by one of the commenters below, it’s the GMC Typhoon and not the Syclone that provided drivers a high-po SUV in the ’90s. We’ve updated the article to reflect this.
[Images: © 2017 Jeff Wilson]