2006 BMW X5 Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Freshened styling and a new 4.8is model.
Others have followed, but the BMW X5 invented a class. As BMW's 3 Series defines the sport sedan, the X5 defines an expanding group of big, powerful SUVs that shine for their on-pavement agility and lightning acceleration, with an emphasis on luxury appointments. Climb out of a truck-based luxury SUV like the Cadillac Escalade, and the X5 feels as capable on the road as the big BMW 7 Series sedan (even though it isn't).
Improvements for 2004 are more extensive than any since the X5 was introduced five years ago. And a new high-performance 4.8is model has been added to the lineup.
Logic? You'll have to set it aside to appreciate the BMW X5. The X5 is 2.5 tons of speed, comfort and prestige. It's quicker away from traffic lights than most cars, and capable of nearly 150 mph, though we certainly don't recommend driving a vehicle this tall that fast. Its steering is precise and it's exceptionally stable at supra-legal speeds. Massive tires contribute to impressive cornering grip and stopping power. The X5 offers nearly all the bells, whistles and high-tech gizmos that you'll find on the most expensive sedans in the world. A big V8 delivers the ultimate X5 thrill, but it's also available with an outstanding six-cylinder.
That trademark BMW twin-kidney grille indicates its owner is successful. It also indicates BMW's reputation for quality and driving excitement. Moreover, the X5 delivers most of the attributes that made SUVs popular in the first place. It works well in foul weather and easily negotiates muddy trails. It offers the commanding seating position many drivers prefer. It looks tough and polished at the same time.
Now let's get back to logic. BMW says the X5 is designed for all roads, meaning superhighways, graded gravel or logging trails. It's not intended for carving your own road, or fording shallow streams or climbing boulders. In fact, the X5 is not capable off road, not when measured against sport-utilities that are capable. The X5 offers less cargo capacity than nearly any other SUV of its size and weight, less even than a BMW 5 Series wagon, and its high floor makes loading cargo more challenging. Though it handles well for an SUV, its weight and height simply won't allow it the quick transient response of a sport sedan or sport wagon in the same price range. Compared to other BMWs, the X5 is not the ultimate driving machine, and its fuel mileage is poor in comparison. It also costs more than some comparably equipped, very good luxury SUVs.
For 2004, the X5's look has been freshened, with a redesigned front end, new taillights and new wheel designs. Mechanically, both manual and automatic transmissions have been upgraded to six-speeds, with a more powerful V8 and a new, more sophisticated all-wheel-drive system called xDrive. There's more standard equipment, including rain-sensing wipers and a power passenger seat in all models, and new options like heated rear seats on the six-cylinder X5. New for 2004 is BMW Assist, a telematic system with automatic accident notification and other premium services.
Forget rational vs. emotional. If you seek a luxurious sport-utility that makes a fine, highly useful everyday vehicle, with high style and modicum of off-pavement capability, the 2004 BMW X5 is the benchmark.
The BMW X5 is offered in several variations: the X5 3.0i ($40,995), 4.4i ($52,195), and the new 4.8is. While the 3.0i and 4.4i have added standard equipment and more technology for 2004, their prices reflect an increase of $1,445 and $2,245 respectively compared to 2003, keeping with BMW's trend toward some of the biggest prices increases in the auto industry this year.
The X5 3.0i is powered by BMW's classic 3.0-liter inline-6 engine, producing 225 horsepower. Standard equipment includes adjustable power front seats with driver's position memory electronically tagged to the key, remote keyless entry, power windows that can be opened with the key fob, cruise control, cabin-air filtration, a universal garage door transmitter, 17-inch alloy wheels and a tow-hitch receiver. For 2004, the standard manual transmission has been upgraded to a six-speed, while the leatherette (vinyl) upholstery remains.
The X5 4.4i adds BMW's powerful 4.4-liter V8 engine, which adds 33 horsepower this year for a total of 315, matched with a new six-speed automatic. The 4.4i is now almost as powerful as last year's 4.6is. The 4.4i also adds dual-zone climate control with rear-seat adjustments, leather upholstery, self-leveling air suspension and 18-inch wheels.
The new X5 4.8is is an ultra high-performance model that features a 4.8-liter V8 engine that produces 355-horsepower and 360 pounds-feet of torque, coupled with a six-speed Steptronic automatic transmission. It comes with 20-inch W-rated performance tires (275/40 front and 315/35 in the rear). Massive 14-inch front/12.8-inch rear disc brakes bring BMW's most potent SUV to a quick and sure-footed stop.
Both the X5 3.0i and 4.4i can be equipped with a long list of stand-alone-options, or any of four option packages. The moonroof, for example, can be ordered separately ($1,059), but it's also included in the Premium Package, which also adds auto-dim mirrors, adjustable rear seat backs, lumbar support, an onboard computer and the BMW Assist telematics package to the 4.4i ($2,500), plus leather to the 3.0i ($3,900). The Sport Package ($2,500 for the 3.0i, $1,600 for 4.4i) includes a firmer sport suspension, sport steering wheel, 18-inch alloy wheels (for the 3.0i), sport seats, black chrome exhaust and a titanium colored grilled. The Cold Weather Package ($750) includes heated front seats, ski bag and headlight washers. The Rear Climate package ($600 for the 3.0i, $400 for 4.4i) brings rear privacy glass, rear side-window blinds and rear climate control adjustment for the 3.0i. Popular stand alone options include a five-speed automatic transmission ($1,275) and the bi-Xenon headlamps ($800) for the X5 3.0i, and a premium stereo with 12 speakers, two subwoofers and digital signal processing ($1,200). A retractable load floor ($380) and satellite navigation ($1800) are extra-cost options on all X5 models. BMW Assist ($750) provides telematic collision notification, an SOS button, roadside assistance, locator and concierge services. An annual subscription ($240) must be paid after the first year.
All X5s come with full-time all-wheel drive and Dynamic Stability Control, which includes traction control, electronic brake proportioning, an electronic stability program, and Hill Descent Control.
Passive safety was a major development goal for the X5, which can be ordered with no fewer than eight airbags. Each front-seat occupant gets a front airbag, a side thorax airbag and a curtain-style head protection airbag. BMW's Head Protection System extends these curtains the full length of the cabin, protecting outside rear passengers as well. Rear-seat side impact airbags are optional ($385). Moreover, the X5's unit-body has been design for maximum energy dissipation in heavy impacts. According to BMW, it performed better than any vehicle ever tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) in its 40-mph offset crash test, which simulates the most.
The 2004 BMW X5 feature freshened styling cues, though no one is likely to mistake it for something other than the familiar X5. From the windshield forward, all of the sheet metal is new for 2004. The contours of the X5's hood are more pronounced, the grilles are wider and set higher, and the headlight clusters are reshaped. The front bumper has new contours and fog lights. Side by side with a 2003 X5, the changes for 2004 are noticeable.
There's no question who builds this vehicle. The BMW X5 looks like a 5 Series wagon on steroids, and is remarkably close to the wagon in overall size. From its kidney-shaped grille to its multi-segmented tail lights, the curvy X5 is all Bimmer. The slope of the tailgate matches that on the 5 Series wagon. The major difference is that the X5 is 10 inches taller than the 5 Series wagon, which creates a key component of its sport-utility character. Large-diameter wheels with low-profile tires enhance its aggressive appearance.
The new BMW X5 4.8is sports a unique front air dam, body kit, and huge wheels and tires.
Truck-based SUVs, such as the Mercedes-Benz M-Class, are built with a separate body bolted onto a boxed ladder frame. The X5, however, uses a monocoque body shell like that of a regular sedan. This unit-body construction provides a much stiffer structure, which improves handling, reduces noise and allows better fit and finish, though many consider the design less rugged and durable. The X5 is not the first unit-body SUV, and many more have followed. With a few notable exceptions (such as the Jeep Grand Cherokee), unit-body SUVs tend to be like the X5, with on-pavement performance taking precedence over off-road ability.
The X5 has a great interior. Typically BMW, it's all business and no nonsense, but it's also very luxurious. The 3.0i comes standard with leatherette (vinyl) upholstery, but leather is an option. The 4.4i comes with Dakota leather as standard equipment, and a choice of light or dark poplar wood trim.
The simple, uncluttered layout, accented with touches of wood or aluminum, lends an air of elegance. The door handles have a nice brushed-aluminum finish, and the soft plastic surfaces feel more like leather. The switchgear is ergonomically well designed. Available steering wheel controls allow a number of adjustments, including climate, stereo and integrated phone without removing a hand from the wheel.
Despite the X5's high seats, many drivers will drop the bottom cushion down, and that can obscure much of the exterior from view, not to mention stuff located a few feet around it. For that reason, Park Distance Control is valuable. Sensors on the front and rear bumpers detect parked cars, tricycles, and other obstacles, and an alarm beeps faster as you maneuver closer to whatever might stand in your way. When the tone goes solid, the bumper is very close to the object. Different tones are used front and rear, making it much easier and quicker to parallel park in tight spaces.
The front seats are excellent: firm and supportive, with lots of adjustments. The rear seats are also comfortable, and the seatbacks can be reclined. Despite the X5's greater exterior height, however, headroom is nearly identical to that of the 5 Series wagon.
The X5's cargo capacity is no better than a 5 Series wagon's. Nor is hauling capacity one of its strengths. With a maximum 54.4 cubic feet of cargo space (23.8 cubic feet with rear seat in place), the X5 has less volume than nearly every other luxury SUV. The moment we opened the rear hatch, we were struck by the relative lack of space. Power switches in the cargo area move the reclining seatbacks forward for some additional capacity, but the seats move slowly, and the gain in space is small. The rear seats are split 40/60 and can be folded down to provide a fairly flat, though not perfectly flat, surface.
The height of the load floor makes it more difficult than it is with most wagons to load cargo, and even more difficult than some other SUVs. The X5's cargo deck stands about 35 inches off the ground. That's five inches higher than in the Land Rover Discovery, a highly capable off-road vehicle with high ground clearance and a live rear axle. Caesar the English mastiff, who has ascended his dog ramp into dozens of different SUVs, found climbing into the BMW a real challenge because the pitch was so steep.
The X5's rear hatch is split, with a window that flips up and a tailgate that drops down. Reflectors on the tailgate's jamb enhance safety when accessing gear at night. A sturdy rollaway cargo cover can be removed for carrying larger items.
The rear window can be opened independently of the tailgate, convenient for quickly loading small items. A remote release opens the rear window, but this only led to a frustrating sequence of events: We'd press the release, climb out, and close the driver's side door. Closing the door would increase air pressure inside the cabin just enough to lift the open rear window, which would then flop down and latch itself again. So we'd arrive at the back of the vehicle only to find that we had to walk back to the driver's seat and re-release the hatch. Do this a few times in succession and you begin to feel like an idiot. This can also make the X5 a bit inconvenient when dropping passengers at the airport. Armed with groceries, you'll more likely open the rear hatch with the keyless remote control, which works well.
The BMW X5 performs impressively when equipped with the V8 engines. Power from the 4.4-liter V8 is seamless, and deep, with the redline arriving at 5800 rpm. The six-cylinder 3.0i isn't in quite the same league, but it's still smooth and torquey, and it's liveliest with the new 6-speed manual. But as we'll see, the manual has its drawbacks.
According to BMW, the 3.0i manual accelerates to 60 mph in a 7.8 seconds, which is pretty quick for a 5,000 pound SUV. The 4.4i gets there in a very quick 6.8 seconds, which is only 0.3 sec slower than last year's hot-rod 4.6is. Speaking of hot rods, the new 4.8is model, which replaces the 4.6is, is expected to offer 0-60 performance in about 6 seconds and a top speed of more than 150 mph.
We doubt, however, that many X5 owners will drag race their neighbors, at least not after the first few months of owning one. But they will notice how the 4.4-liter V8 makes terrific sounds when they step hard on the gas. And how smooth, responsive, and quiet it is when driven around town.
The 4.4-liter engine in the 4.4i is essentially new for 2004. While it has the same displacement as its predecessor, nearly everything else has changed. Power has increased 12 percent, to 315 horsepower, yet so have fuel efficiency and EPA mileage ratings. The key here is BMW's new Valvetronic system, an engine management system that eliminates a conventional throttle and changes engine breathing (and therefore power output) by varying how far the intake valves open. Bottom line: It delivers optimum response and fuel efficiency in all situations.
The new six-speed automatic further enhances the outstanding performance of the 4.4i powertrain. Shifts are smooth during casual driving. Slam the accelerator pedal down and it downshifts instantly for quick acceleration. The automatic features a Steptronic mode, which allows a choice of automatic or semi-manual control. It works just like a regular automatic in the automatic mode. Notching the lever to the left puts the transmission into Sport mode and enables manual override; then a quick nudge forward or backward ratchets the transmission up or down one gear. X5's Steptronic is executed perfectly. The manual shifting adds an element of fun when the road is clear, and a quick downshift can make passing on two-lane roads safer and smoother.
The BMW X5 is exceptionally stable for a vehicle of its height. It changes direction with surety and aplomb, and with less twitching and head tossing than a Mercedes M-Class. (Compared to the Mercedes-Benz ML, the X5's track is 1 inch wider, and the BMW rides 2.2 inches lower.) That's not to say the X5 is soft. With the sport suspension, it feels firm in the twisties and at high speeds. And with nearly perfect 50/50 front to rear weight distribution (rare in a vehicle of this type), it can almost be driven like a sports car. On the freeway, the X5 changes lanes with the lightest touch and total precision. But it can also feel choppy, particularly when trundling at low speeds over a bumpy road while holding onto a hot cup of coffee.
The X5 offers excellent handling for an SUV. But it's still an SUV, with a high ride height and 4927 pounds of heft. Whatever else you drive will likely prejudice your opinion. If you get out of a truck-based SUV and into an X5, you'll be amazed by the BMW's relative response, nimbleness and stability. If you get out of a BMW sedan, however, you'll find that the X5 does not inspire the same confidence. BMW claims that its test drivers have circled race courses in the X5 nearly as fast as they can in a 328i. This is probably true for experienced drivers who know their own limits and those of the vehicle they are driving, but for the rest of us, the X5 is a tall vehicle that leans more than a sedan going through corners. Its weight and higher center of gravity means it doesn't offer the transient response in emergency lane-change maneuvers o.
The BMW X5 offers excellent handling and performance. Regardless of how much cargo it hauls, the V8 model sure hauls itself. The X5 is a big, high-performance machine that can hold its own in any on-road situation. It offers the high seating position and rugged image that SUV buyers crave.
There's a price for this rugged-lifestyle statement, to be sure. On the road, the X5 does not ride, handle, or accelerate as well as the 5 Series wagon. Getting yourself in or out is more difficult as well. And the height of its cargo area makes loading more difficult.
In terms of SUV attributes, the X5 offers less cargo capacity than most comparably sized SUVs and no more than a BMW 5 Series wagon. The 5 Series wagon is more practical. Off-road, it falls behind any serious 4x4 sport-utility. It does offer a 6000-pound tow rating, however.
X5 buyers don't seem to care about any of that, however. They like the X5 because it is prestigious, fast, and luxurious, roughly in that order. With its twin-kidney grille, it shouts success. It goes like stink and coddles the driver and occupants in sporty, upscale accommodations, and it fits the trendy-SUV bill. Undeniably, the X5 offers BMW luxury, character and panache.
BMW X5 3.0i ($40,995); 4.4i ($52,195).
Spartanburg, South Carolina.
Options As Tested
Premium Package ($2,500) includes power moonroof, auto-dim mirrors, adjustable rear seat backs, lumbar support, onboard computer and BMW assist telematics package; Sport Package ($1,600) includes sport suspension, sport steering wheel, light wood trim, sport seats, Shadowline body trim, black chrome exhaust and titanium colored grilled; Cold Weather Package ($750) includes heated front seats, ski bag and headlight washers; Park Distance Control ($700); rear door-mounted side-impact airbags ($385); navigation system ($1,800).
BMW X5 4.4i ($52,195).
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