Can BMW’s speedy SUV compete with a raft of new foes, asks Kevin Hackett?
Road test: 2014 BMW X5
It’s perhaps difficult to believe, but BMW’s new X5 is only the third generation of the model. It might seem like it’s been around longer than time itself yet, it was only 15 years ago that the big Bimmer changed the automotive world. You might think that’s typical journalist hyperbole, but think about it: when the X5 came along, what else was out there? Porsche’s Cayenne was still three years away, the Mercedes-Benz M-Class was a disaster and the few other SUVs available were far more suited to mud plugging and dune bashing than they were for use on public highways. How things have changed.
The X5 never made a secret of the fact that it was more at home on the road than the rough stuff and that never seemed to harm sales, with it going on to sell almost 1.5 million units over its first two generations – not bad form for a company that previously had never built anything like it. But BMW did used to own Rover and, as a result, Land Rover. While it may have washed its hands of the then-troubled British concern, it did manage to glean plenty of know-how when it came to designing large SUVs, but wisely it chose to do so on its own terms, with its own distinct design language.
But the X5 no longer has the landscape to itself and its rivals came thick and fast, constantly evolving and improving, to the point that the market is saturated with vehicles that could give the BMW a run for its money. So this third-gen X5 had better be a belter if it’s to fend off its foes. “The Boss is Back,” screamed the advertising billboards a couple of months ago. But is it?
The exterior facelift is subtle yet effective, managing to retain its visual cues as well as bring some aggression into the mix. The LED lighting, particularly the read lamps, looks superb at night and that’s continued inside, where subtle, cool blue neon soaks the surfaces with a delicious, high-tech glow. The overall cabin architecture breaks no new ground, though, and will be familiar to anyone who’s ever sat in a new BMW. In other words, it’s nowhere near as special to be in as the mighty Range Rover or even the latest Porsche Cayenne. It’s imbued with an overt saloon car vibe, no doubt contributed to by the fairly low roofline.
The controls are beautifully laid out and intuitive to use. Particularly noteworthy is the infamous iDrive infotainment system, which has come in for flak in the past for being difficult to master. Now it’s simplicity personified, looks gorgeous on the large, central screen and the main rotary controller feels more beautifully damped than anything else out there.
On the move, the range-topping 50i M Sport model with adaptive suspension more than holds its own with its contemporaries. The engine is basically a slightly tweaked carry-over from the previous generation, that’s 10 per cent more powerful than before and, as is expected these days, more fuel efficient. So now we’re experiencing the thrust of 450 horses and 650Nm of twist which, in a car this big and tall, actually translates into a whole heap of fun.
The engine growls purposefully and responds with alacrity when you push the throttle and it seems to never run out of puff. It’s electronically limited to 250kph, which almost goes without saying these days, but you really don’t want to be travelling at speeds greater than that in an SUV, do you? No. Really you don’t. It will hit 100kph from a standstill in five seconds flat, so it really doesn’t hang around, but imagine what it would be like if it didn’t weigh the best part of 2.5 tonnes.
Despite its physical mass, this X5 manages to keep its driver entertained at the wheel. In Sport and Sport+ modes, it comes alive with almost a savagery – one that remains dormant in normal conditions. In Sport+, the gearbox won’t shift up even if you’re bouncing off the limiter, giving a greater sense of control of proceedings, although this is just a ruse, because in a car this complex, the driver is never fully in charge. On the contrary, the X5 makes good on its claim of being “The Boss”, but it manages to do so without the entire alienation that you get from some other luxury SUVs.
There’s plenty of room for the entire family, too, and you have the option of specifying an extra row of seats if you so wish. But that would, to my mind, detract from some of the core competencies of this car, as well as eat into its ample boot space. It behaves almost like a sports car and that experience should never be shared with another six passengers.
It’s no match for the new Range Rover or its Sport derivative when it comes to interior class, refinement or off-road capability so, no, it’s not “The Boss”. But it’s a classy, credible alternative and comes highly recommended.
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