Not many remember that the original BMW X5 was the vehicle that actually put the ‘Sport’ in Sport Utility Vehicle. When it was launched internationally in 1999, the X5 was the first 4x4 of its kind to use a car-like monocoque body and the first serious attempt by a manufacturer at making a driver’s car out of a high-riding SUV. The resultant vehicle’s excellent driving manners opened up this kind of vehicle to a whole new type of buyer – over the years, BMW has sold 1.3 million X5s worldwide – and it’s why this third-generation X5 looks pretty much the same as before. Why fix what’s not broken, right?
So, what you see when you walk up to it is an X5 that incorporates all of BMW’s current styling cues. The nose is a lot bolder now and, like we first saw in the F30 3-series, incorporates headlights that stretch up to the grille. The kidney grille itself is more prominent, which along with the aggressive-looking bumper, strong contouring on the bonnet and pronounced shoulder line adds to the X5’s more grown-up and purposeful look. At the rear, the new tail-lamps and bumper are subtle changes over the old car, in comparison to the front.
This BMW X5 shares much of its platform with the old car but a lot of it has been thoroughly updated. The body shell is stronger and lighter than before and a lot of working has been done to improve refinement. Transmission noise has been cut down via the front bulkhead, the glasshouse while the wheel-housings have sound deadening too. There are new 7-series-based seats that cut down on vibration and the suspension has been reworked to deal with small bumps better. Most significant of all though is a switch from hydraulically assisted steering to the electric variety.
Climb into the driver’s seat and you can instantly sense the step up in quality. The dashboard is well made and looks rich with its variety of materials and textures, and despite the buttons being a bit too small and fiddly, they still have a nice, tactile feel. The best bit is the intuitive touch pad on top of the iDrive controller. It allows you to access your phone book with just a scribble of your finger (it can read quite well), in addition to the conventional scroll/push function.
The seats are really supportive with good side bolstering and though you are not sat too high off the ground, all-round visibility is quite good. The rear seats, while not overly generous in size, have good cushioning all round and, on long drives, are very comfortable. The rear seats split 40:20:20 and, for India, you can opt for the 5+3 configuration, which makes the X5 a much desired eight-seater. The split tailgate is carried over from before, with the top-half being electrically operated.
Lots of small bits and bobs add up to give the new X5 an interior that is more plush than before but it’s not that much of an improvement to put it ahead of, say, a Porsche Cayenne.
For the launch drive, the new BMW X5 was offered with two engines – the xDrive50i, which gets the petrol 4.4-litre V8 that produces 442bhp and the xDrive30d, which is powered by the familiar 3.0-litre straight-six diesel that puts out 254bhp.
Sampling the petrol V8 first through the streets of Vancouver before hitting the Rockies, I am amazed at the responsiveness of this engine. It lunges forward at the tap of the throttle and feels more sportscar than SUV. And despite the use of an aluminium bonnet and plastic fenders, the X5 is quite heavy, at 2175kg, but it never feels that way. The eight-speed gearbox (standard across all X5s), with its quick-acting torque converter, plays a key role in transmitting all that grunt so effectively. Out on open roads, you have more power on tap than you know what to do with and it’s easy to get carried away by its staggering performance. For the record, the 50i will accelerate from 0-100kph in 5.0 seconds.
The 30d is the X5 that will account for over 90 percent of sales in India. It’s incredibly responsive and pulls cleanly from as low as 1700rpm. Though it doesn’t have the explosive performance of the petrol, this diesel has serious punch and pulls like a freight train with one seamless slug of torque. It’s a pity then that this engine isn’t as refined as it should be. There’s a noticeable drone from under the hood, which only disappears when you’re cruising at modest speeds. Again, the eight-speed gearbox works intuitively, smoothly ironing out any bumps in power delivery.
A big improvement is the ride quality, which is fantastic. True, the smooth roads of British Columbia make it hard to judge otherwise but, even on the small imperfections we found, the suspension (even in the stiffest Sport mode) always had an underlying suppleness to it.
The steering too was quite a revelation. Most owners would find it hard to tell that the hydraulic steering has been replaced by an electric one. The steering is pretty feelsome and, at speed, offers lots of feedback and confidence without much of the inertness you would associate with an electrically-assisted unit.
The new X5 will be launched at the Auto Expo next February and is expected to go on sale in March 2014. With its beefed-up looks, improved dynamics and plusher interiors, the X5 has the goods to take a fresh stab at the premium luxury class and, if priced right, come out on top.