By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
BMW’s X5 has one thing no other mid-sized luxury-brand crossover’s got — an available turbodiesel engine — and another thing very few others — in fact, just one, the Infiniti FX — have: a RWD sport sedan-based layout instead of a front-wheel-drive car based layout (like, for instance, the FWD ES350-based Lexus RX350).
You can also choose a V-8 engine if you like — and an even bigger (and much more powerful V-8) if the first one’s not enough for you.
Hence, the reason why BMW refers to the X5 not as a crossover — or even as an SUV — but as a Sports Activity Vehicle. And it’s not a gimmick. The goods are there.
At $47,200 to start, it’s expensive. But the X5’s almost unique individual features — and it’s unique package of features (you can get a diesel or a V-8 and RWD sport sedan-based layout in the same vehicle) certainly makes it easier for BMW salesmen to justify this BMW’s price.
WHAT IT IS
The X5 is BMWs mid-sized crossover SUV. It seats 5-7 (with the optional third row seating) and comes standard with xDrive, BMW’s full-time AWD system. There are four engines choices: a gas-fed inline six, a turbodiesel inline six and two gas V-8s.
Prices start at $47,200 for the X5 with gas inline six, $56,300 for the X5 diesel and $63,800 for the X5 with 4.4 liter gas V-8. At the summit is the $85,700 ultra-performance X5 M, which has a 555 hp gas V-8.
The X5 was heavily updated in 2011 so changes for 2011 are relatively few. Navigation — formerly optional even in the $63k Xdrive 5.0 — is now standard equipment.
Later in 2012, BMW will add an ActiveHybrid version of the X5 to the lineup.
Four engine choices — five by later in the model year.
RWD-based layout makes this AWD crossover SUV handle like a sport sedan.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Pricey. Starts out about $4k more than the similar-in-layout Infiniti FX35.
Diesel’s mileage not as high as you might expect.
All that incredible technology (more on this below).
UNDER THE HOOD
The X5 comes standard with a turbocharged 3.0 liter, 300 hp inline six, eight-speed automatic transmission and BMW’s full-time xDrive all-wheel-drive system. Fuel economy with this combo is 16 city, 23 highway and you can expect a 0-60 time in the 6.4-6.5 second range. This is roughly even, power and performance-wise, with what you’d get in the $43,450 Infiniti FX35 (303 hp, 3.5 liters), the only other mid-sized crossover SUV that’s also based on a RWD sport sedan layout.
Next up is a turbodiesel 3 liter inline six that makes 265 hp and 425 lbs.-ft. of torque. This engine is paired with a six-speed automatic rather than the eight-speed used with the gas six, because it — the diesel — does not rev as high as the gas engines and makes most of its power much lower in the RPM range, so doesn’t need a transmission with eight forward speeds to maximize either efficiency or performance. Which, by the way, is very good: Zero to 60 in just over 7 seconds. Fuel economy, though, is nothing stellar: 19 city, 26 highway — only slightly better than you’d get with the 3 liter gas engine.
You can also get a diesel engine in the $47,950 VW Touareg, but the VW is more SUV than crossover — and even farther from being a sporty crossover. It’s also, frankly, a VW. Not that there is anything wrong with that. But VW is not — yet — a prestige brand.
The Audi Q5 is nice — but it’s much smaller than the X5 and doesn’t offer a diesel option. The Q5’s bigger brother the Q7 does — but it’s much bigger than the BMW and like most vehicles in this segment is descended from FWD/AWD cars, not RWD sport sedans — so the emphasis is not on handling and on-road agility.
That makes the diesel-powered X5 a rare fish.
If neither the gas six nor the diesel six does it for you, BMW also offers a 4.4 liter gas V-8 (400 hp, ten more than the $59,450 Infiniti FX50’s 5 liter V-8) also teamed up with the eight-speed automatic and xDrive AWD. So equipped, the X5’s 0-60 time drops to just over five seconds.
So, too, does its gas mileage — to 14 city, 20 highway.
But if that’s not a worry — and you want even more performance — BMW offers an M version of the X5 equipped with a twin-turbo version of the 4.4 liter V-8 that produces 555 hp, which turns this crossover SUV into a cheetah on meth: Zero to 60 in 4.5 seconds.
And 12 MPG city — 17 highway.
Some of the M stuff — including 20-inch wheels, body kit, M steering wheel and a firmer, sport-tuned auto-adjusting Adaptive suspension — can be ordered as part of a stand-alone package (without the 555 hp V-8).
ON THE ROAD
The thing to know about the X5 is that it’s really a sport sedan masquerading as an SUV. Crawl underneath the back end and check out the real-deal “pumpkin” (ring and pinion housing) and the driveshaft that goes up to the front instead of being turned 90 degrees and cut in half, each half connecting to one of the front wheels. Likewise the engines — mounted longitudinally, not sideways.
The weight of the drivetrain is spread out more evenly, front to back — instead of mostly concentrated over the front wheels. That’s what you want if you want to corner; that is, if you want to drive. And that is what BMWs are about more than anything else. The others will tout their traction, their goodness in the snow. All of which is true — and laudable. But no FWD-based anything (even when AWD is added) has the driving feel of a RWD-based vehicle. Because it can’t duplicate the natural balance; the way the power flows from front to rear, leaving the front wheels to steer. A Lexus RX350 or Acura MDX is a different animal. Fine for everyday driving plus another 20 percent on occasion. But if you want more than that, you want a RWD-based machine. Only the X5 and the Infiniti FX give you that.
And which of those two is better? Well, it depends. You can get the FX in rear-wheel-drive (and do burnouts, if you want to) while the X5 comes standard with xDrive AWD. But on the other hand, the Infiniti doesn’t offer a diesel — or a twin-turbo V-8
Speaking of the diesel: It’s a mixed bag. The very high torque (425 lbs.-ft.) at very low speed (1,750 RPM) is wonderful in everyday driving, especially stop-and-go driving. You hardly touch the pedal — and I’m telling you, it goes. But the mileage uptick over the standard gas six is just 3 MPG both ways (city and highway) while the price jump from the standard (gas) X5 to the X5 with the diesel is almost $10,000. Given that diesel fuel is about 30 cents more per gallon on top of that and it’s hard to make an economic case for the turbodiesel engine, even when you factor in that BMW also throws in a panorama sunroof and heated front seats (these can be ordered optionally on other X5’s too).
But if you just like torque… well, there you go.
AT THE CURB
The X5 seats four honestly, five acceptably — and seven challengingly — when equipped with the optional third row. As in all mid-sized SUVs and crossover SUVs that offer it, the third row is a kids’ row. If you don’t need to regularly carry a couple of small kids, you should probably skip the third row option and enjoy having two realistic rows of seating and a large (75.2 cubic foot) cargo area. This is another area where the X5 trumps the Infiniti FX, which only has 62 cubic feet of cargo room — and doesn’t have the BMWs very useful two-section tailgate.
The upper section goes up like a typical SUV/crossover tailgate but there’s also a separate fold-out (and fold-flat) lower section. When folded down, it’s ideal for, well, tailgating — and it’s easier to get items in and out, too. The flat loading surface also makes it possible to cart home longer items such as 2x4s with better support, since you can lay them completely flat and also because the “bed” of the X5 extends another foot or so when the lower tailgate is in the folded-down position.
BMW did a lot to shave the X5’s weight — or at least, tried hard to keep it from becoming a major porker. The front fenders are made of a composite plastic material, not metal — and the hood is almost wafer thin. No doubt this helped keep the X5’s gas mileage within acceptable bounds. But I got to wondering what even a minor fender bender — or hitting a deer — would cost.
The X5, like all current BMWs, is a technological marvel. Even the gear selector for the transmission is “drive by wire” — you just tap it lightly to put it in Drive (and there’s a little button on top of the selector that you tap lightly to engage Park). The GPS, audio and multiple other functions — including the vehicle service monitors, Bluetooth wireless and (yes) e-mail access and real-time news/weather updates — are all accessed and controlled via a mouse-input adjacent to the shift lever on the center console. In BMW’s defense, this car’s systems are so all-encompassing — the car does almost everything except rear up on its haunches and sing “My Way” better than Frank Sinatra — that consolidating it all into a single integral unit with scroll/select inputs is probably the only way to do it without literally covering the dashboard, seats and door panels with switches and buttons.
But on the other hand, it’s a bit awkward (and potentially distracting) to try to navigate through all this stuff and may the Motor Gods have mercy on you — and your wallet — when the software gets buggy or some other electronic debacle happens.
Of course, BMW is by no means the only high-end automaker whose vehicles have become fabulously complex. But BMW is certainly on the cutting edge — and that can cut both ways. You’ll be driving the latest thing, with more capabilities than your neighbor’s car and probably everyone else’s too (assuming they are not also driving new BMWs).
But with all that cutting edge stuff comes potentially unforeseen trouble — and possible hassles as well as expense.
THE BOTTOM LINE
If you’re not scared of all that technology — and want a mid-sized crossover with some cojones — the X5 might be the one for you.