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OFF-ROAD TEST

BMW X5 3.0d





24 September 2007


Activity, rather than utility

The X5 takes BMW’s sports activity vehicle (SAV) philosophy to a new level, and a change to lightweight double wishbone front suspension gives it a more rounded personality in terms of perfecting the ride, handling, refinement and roadholding

The second generation BMW X5 continues to stand apart from its rivals, by virtue of its positioning. We always thought it was a marketing masterstroke to define it as an SAV – for sports activity vehicle – rather than an SUV. After all, if you’re spending close to R600 000 on a premium wagon that isn’t really intended for off-road use, do you want the word “utility” to be used in the same context? No, we didn’t think so either.

But what they have done with the new X5 is address its main shortcoming: modest luggage space and a reasonably tight passenger compartment. The former issue has been attended to with a longer rear overhang (growing the luggage compartment volume by 22%) and the latter by an increase in the wheelbase.

The look of the X5 is evolutionary and it isn’t instantly apparent that it deserves the “all-new” tag, especially front on. Bold wheelarches and trademark convex/concave surfaces define the profile and it looks longer and lower, arguably with slightly less appealing overall proportions: the previous version was stubby and purposeful. Most observers agreed that it is now more elegant but that it has lost some sex appeal.

But the new body is 15% less likely to twist, and is also exceptionally aerodynamic (something to which the smooth underbelly bears testimony) and it has a drag coefficient of just 0,34. BMW has also worked hard on keeping weight down with “intelligent lightweight technology”, rather than just upping power and torque to compensate for increasing demands for safety and comfort.

We’ve tested the baseline 3.0d version because it is clearly going to be the best seller, thanks to the drivetrain’s ability to combine stellar performance, fuel economy and all-weather security.

Unfortunately, manufacturers aren’t making it any easier for us to assess the intrinsic “goodness” of a product, and the X5 had roughly R135 000 worth of extras fitted, pumping the base price of R574 000 beyond R700 000.

Some of the options should really be standard kit at this level. Sure, not everyone wants to pay an extra R20 000 for satellite navigation, but surely rain-sensing wipers/auto headlamps (R1300) and the automatic anti-dazzle mirror (R1900) should be standard?

Features and equipment
★ ★ ★ ★

The X5 is fitted with the latest all-aluminium version of the 3,0-litre turbodiesel straight six, which now pumps out an effortless 160 kW – not to mention 500 Nm of torque.

Third-generation common rail injection and vein-popping injection pressure (1600 bar) ensures high combustion efficiency, and smoke and smell are not factors. Headline numbers for the previous iron block engine were 150 kW/480 Nm, and there was a 25kg weight penalty.

An evolution of the xDrive all-wheel-drive system still underpins the chassis mechanicals, with a multi-plate clutch distributing torque front to rear. In normal driving, front/rear split is 40/60 but BMW traditionalists will be pleased that all available torque can be sent rearwards. Electronics control the process of what goes where and when, torque-wise.

A host of improved driver aids are in place, including hill descent control and driver-activated DTC (dynamic traction control) which makes the electronics more user-friendly in the off-road environment.

The six-speed gearbox with Steptronic manual override is similar to the previous one but now all gearshift actions are electronically controlled – as opposed to mechanically – for faster shifts.

Accommodation
★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Like most BMW products, the X5 feels oh-soright within seconds of sliding in behind the wheel. An ideal driving position can be found quickly, thanks to the supremely comfortable, electrically-adjusted seat and a steering column that can be set for reach and height.

Seating in our test X5 can only be described as brilliant in the way it combined support with plushness. We particularly liked the headrests: spring-loaded winglets enable the headrest to be set so that it doesn’t only sit just behind the skull but also provides some reassuring support towards the sides.

However, these “Comfort” front seats added R14 200 to the bill and you pay a further R3800 to set the amount of lumbar support electrically.

The rear seating is no less befitting of a limousine, and the combination of perfectly shaped pews in soft, supple leather and acres of leg and shoulder room is compelling for two; more than satisfactory for three. A giant sunroof allows in extra natural light, but maybe the R15 400 it adds to the cost should in that case be split five ways?

The overall ambience of the cabin is Business Class plush yet it remains drivercentric in time-honoured BMW fashion. This means excellent ergonomics but with evolutionary touches.

The transmission tunnel has two key controls mounted on it: an unusually-shaped gear lever and the iDrive controller. An electronic – rather than mechanical – interface with the gearbox has allowed the designers to fit the lever further forward and towards the driver’s side of the transmission tunnel, thereby freeing up space along the spine of the vehicle for a number of storage compartments.

The four iDrive submenus – Navigation, Climate, Entertainment and Communication – are displayed on a screen at the top of the centre stack, but owners now have a bank of eight buttons under the single-shot CD, which can be pre-programmed with settings from any of these submenus.

The tunnel also has a button for the electronic parking brake, a Sport button that sharpens dynamic responses and a bold Menu button to return iDrive to the submenu “page”.

The luggage compartment, while still not the biggest in its class, should seldom be found wanting. There’s now 100mm more load length and with the rear seats folded, luggage volume grows to 1750 litres – 13% up.

It is designed with the fitment of a third row of seats in mind but five-seater examples have additional storage under the floor or the no-cost option of a “skinny” emergency spare, as well as the (R7500) removable towbar. We decided that our test car would be good for hauling a horsebox thanks to self-levelling rear air suspension – a comparative steal at R6800.

Access to the boot is via a conventional hatch, the size of the aperture increased by folding down a stubby tailgate.

Performance
★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Some two-thirds of the recreational vehicle market now burns diesel, and with an engine like this it isn’t hard to see why. Not only is it very frugal but it is silky smooth, too. And it goes like stink – but without the stink.

You waft along on a wave of torque, the gearbox and engine in complete harmony. Shifts are creamy and almost imperceptible, and while there can be a slight delay stepping off or when stabbing the throttle to get it to kick down two or three ratios in stop/start guerrilla warfare, it can’t really be faulted.

Stopping the beast is equally effortless and we can’t recall a vehicle of this genre that feels as planted and as determined to scrub off speed. It put in the kind of performance of which a racing car would be proud. And as for fade, well, what fade? – the X5 boasts a Fading Compensation function that adds hydraulic pressure when fluid temperature rises.

Open road cruising ability is superb, combining fuel consumption of 9,8 litres per 100km at a true 120 km/h with a surge of near-instant response when needed. We managed a top speed of 206 km/h – a little shy of BMW’s claim of 210, but it is nice to know you could do that at night, thanks to the brilliant headlights – optional Xenons as it turns out, and a R6000 add-on.

When we handed the X5 back it was averaging 11,3 litres per 100km – a number that included our high speed and performance testing at Gerotek. We reckon 11 could be achieved easily as a monthly average.

Ride and handling
★ ★ ★ ★

You’d expect any BMW to provide exceptional dynamics and a high level of driver involvement, so let’s dissect the handling first. From the very first turn of the wheel you sense that you can really wring its neck if need be. It doesn’t feel any larger than its predecessor and steers with even more authority in more varied conditions – now you can place it exactly where you want virtually all of the time.

Feedback through the wheel is ever so slightly muted, but turn-in is as crisp as a July morning with the back of the car dutifully following exactly where the nose is aiming.

Balanced is such a hackneyed term to describe handling characteristics, but it applies here perfectly and the relationship in the split of torque on dry tarmac and how the steering and suspension masters its arrival at the wheels is remarkable.

Grip reserves are huge and as expected there’s a hint of the nose giving up the fight first, but not without the driver getting plenty of warning. It was almost uncanny how level the X5 remained around corners – so uncanny that we checked the spec sheet: and there, priced at R27 500, is Dynamic Drive, which controls the anti-roll bars and dampers electronically.

Our regular soft-roader test route revealed two things: the X5 is very low-slung (despite us measuring static ground clearance at 215mm, the long wheelbase means that humping it is not to be recommended). It also confirmed xDrive’s astonishing ability to keep the wheels gripping the surface, so that the X5 clawed its way quite serenely through situations that tax the majority of soft-roaders.

The 255/50/19 tyres (dig into that wallet and find another R12 500) are sporty in anyone’s language and there are some trade-offs in terms of ride quality, but it certainly isn’t a great sacrifice.

BMW say this is fourth-generation Runflat rubber and while there’s a slight lumpiness on pock-marked surfaces and occasions when bigger obstacles make their presence heard (but not necessarily felt), there is little that deflects the vehicle from the driver’s chosen line.

Verdict
★ ★ ★ ★

The X5 takes BMW’s SAV philosophy to a new level and a change to lightweight double wishbone front suspension gives it a more rounded personality in terms of perfecting the ride/handling/refinement/roadholding scenario.

With the fitment of Dynamic Drive (and a raft of other options) it is difficult to judge just how big a step forward a “cooking” X5 would be (if such a beast actually exists) but we will have to assume this car would still leave us hugely impressed if we took a small hatchback’s worth of value out of it…