The year: 2001, issue 15
The car: BMW X5 4.4 V8
The scenario: Described as a “Sports Activity Vehicle”, BMW’s versatile X5 is engineered to offer the dynamics of the company’s sports saloons with a surprising measure of off-tarmac ability. We took it to the racetrack and bundu.
Terrific! BMW X5 4.4 V8
One of the advantages of being a relatively late entry into a market sector is that you can learn from your competitors without repeating any of their mistakes. The X5 is thus perfectly poised to challenge the stalwarts as the Mercedes-Benz M-Class, Range Rover and Jeep Grand Cherokee. Initially it has been available only in flagship 4.4 l V8 guise, but more affordable six-cylinder 3.0i and 3.0d diesel versions are waiting in the wings to counter Merc’s three engine options.
While it is described as the world’s first “Sports Activity Vehicle”, or SAV, that’s largely marketing hype. The BMW is targeted at similarly affluent audiences seeking to express their individualism and love of the outdoors, although its creators are quick to point out some fundamental design differences. It has a moncoque bodyshell in contrast to the ladder frame chassis of the ML 430, and an all-independent suspension instead of the solid axles of the Land Rover and Jeep.
And in this company it is unique in choosing to do without a set of low range crawler gears, going the high-range-only route with all the savings in weight and complexity this implies. The result is a highly focused sports vehicle with quite astonishing levels of grip on different surfaces, although its makers are quick to point out : “If you want to cross the desert or the jungle in a car, there are better alternatives. The X5 ,on the other hand, is a multi-functional vehicle whose primary target is day-to-day operations – and here it proves to be the master in almost all disciplines.
Clearly BMW recognises that most owners in this luxury sector don’t indulge in extreme 4x4ing, although they do enjoy the adventurous, go-anywhere image synonymous with icons like the formidable Range Rover.
FEATURES AND EQUIPMENT √√√√√
Read the specification sheet of the X5 and you could be checking out a 5400 or a 740i , the list reflecting a commitment to offering the last word in safety and luxury. So expect the same superb 4,4 –litre 32 valve V8 mated to a five-speed automatic gearbox with the “manual shift” Steptronic feature and a suspension largely derived from the 7-series. But the X5 takes things a few steps further with the addition of front-wheel drive and features like Hill Descent Control (HDC) , showing that its ownership of Land Rover has paid some worthwhile dividends.
The X5 is rivalled only by the Mercedes-Benz in the sophistication of its electronic chassis control system with Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) and Automatic Differential Brake (ADB-X) countering any potential loss of adhesion or control under difficult conditions. In keeping with a price that started at R 465 000 at launch, you get all manner of goodies including front, side and head airbags, an electric sunroof, a sophisticated hi-fi system, leather furnishings, wood trim, sun blinds for the rear side windows, luggage net, self-levelling suspension, headlamp washers, roof rails and an appropriate alarm and immobiliser system to keep the car in the right hands.
Tick a few items on the formidable options list and your investment can easily soar beyond R 500 000. The list includes a satellite navigation system with TV and on-board monitor, a car telephone, voice control, a more upmarket audio system, double glazing, tyre pressure monitoring, park distance control, a removable towbar, rain-sensing windscreen wipers an heated front seats.
If you don’t wish to delve into the individual options list you can order the R 10 500 Activity package consisting of all-terrain tyres, aluminium running boards , an extendible load floor that slides out the luggage compartment , and Xenon headlights. Or you can go for the R 11 500 Sports package and distinguish your X5 with a sportier suspension setup with ultra low-profile rubber on 19-inch rims, sports seats, a sports steering wheel with multi-function buttons and black trim detailing.
Unlike the Merc, the X5 doesn’t aspire to third row seating, pampering four occupants and providing space for an occasional fifth person in the centre position, which comes with its own three-point inertia-reel seatbelt and individual head restraint. With four aboard that fifth spot features a handy fold-down centre armrest. Versatility is enhanced by the asymmetrical split to the rear backrests, with the possibility of folding the rear furniture to make it a two-seater with a huge luggage area.
In true Bee Em tradition the fascia is an ergonomic delight, with everything exactly where it should be. By comparison the aging but undeniably aristocratic Range Rover is confusing, while the M-Class is similarly intelligent in layout , but lacks the aura of uncompromising class and quality. Where does the X5 differ from a sporting stablemate like a 540i is in the higher seating position. As well as reinforcing that feeling of invulnerability in the traffic, it provides the lofty view that is essential to off-road driving when you have to be on the lookout for tree stumps or boulders that could cut a tyre or dent or bend a running board.
Whether you’re sitting in the front or rear, you are well looked after in supportive seats that are shaped for enduring comfort, with good leg- and head room. Obviously, the merc’ with its seven-seater possibilities has the advantage if you want to carry more than five people, but the BMW challenges the Range Rover as the ultimate cocoon for four or five passengers. While the cheaper Grand Cherokee is perceived by some as a rival, its high floor in the rear means that you sit rather comfortably, with the solid axle underpinnings also conspiring against a truly pampering ride.
Needless to say the BMW provides twin cup holders front and rear and various stash places , including a Jeep-style sunglass holder in the roof, but it lacks the sheer roominess of the Range Rover’s centre console box.
The luggage area is well-shaped , generously proportioned and beautifully finished, with the possibility to tumble seats to increase the load area, and to tie down heavy objects for added safety. Overall the interior, with its aura of class and comfort , is hard to fault.
Towering engine performance comes as no surprise , and you find yourself revealing in velocities that would make a Range Rover or Jeep owner turn green overnight. That said, both cars are designed to offer levels of off-road ability that set them apart , with their prowess assured by massive wheel travel and articulation, loads of ground clearance and low-range gearing.
So when it comes to rivals the merc’ is the most obvious, although both the Audi all-road and Volvo Cross Country could enter into the picture, especially if it is searing acceleration and an exalted top speed that are your requirements.
In standard trim, the X5 is rated for 207 km/h, but specify the optional Sports package and it is claimed to run 230 km/h, although with the potholes and deteriorating road conditions in many parts of Southern Africa , we don’t recommend this option. On the road the drivetrain is everything you expect from a sporting BMW , the bonus being the delightful V8 growl that was engineered into the package to cater for America’s love of big, brawny V-engines. From idle to redline it feels and sounds great, the five-speed auto responding smoothly and readily to right foot demands.
And when you leave the tarmac behind, its lack of low range crawler gears becomes an issue only in the extreme terrain its makers never envisaged as part of the mix. Generally its sheer torque masks the absence of ultra-low gearing , and in most off-highway situations it isn’t found lacking.
RIDE AND HANDLING √√√√
Three or four years ago it would have been almost impossible to imagine large 4X4 sports vehicle with dynamics like this, making the yardstick Range Rover seem clumsy in comparison. But the M-Class redefined the standards, with the Audi, Volvo and BMW continuing the trend. The X5’s handling is exemplary by any standards, being nothing less than brilliant on-road, with the advanced electronics enabling the driver to get away with all sorts of discretions. Charge into a corner too quickly and it will understeer gentle as a giant invisible hand takes charge of the throttle and braking systems.
And, when the road surface deteriorates or you take to secondary dirt tracks, the BMW remains surprisingly confident, although its relatively short wheel travel means that it cant compare with serious off-roaders in the bump absorption stakes. There are times when the relatively stiff springing short travel to see it lifting wheels, but the traction control works valiantly to keep the Bee Em moving. In some situations like mud or ice, its grip is more than a match for that of many conventional heavy–duty 4x4s.
Leisure Wheels put it through its paces under a variety of conditions, including The Off-Road Experience’s punishing course in Nelspruit, and came away hugely impressed. Traction is superb, ground clearance generally adequate, and the absence of low range handicap only in the more severe obstacles that aren’t fair for luxury “soft roaders”. Brilliant braking, with stopping times to rival accomplished, sporting saloons, completes the package.
If you fit the profile of the typical affluent 4×4 buyer, you’ll probably never need the off-road capability of a Range Rover, Jeep Grand Cherokee or Toyota Land Cruiser. Which raises the question: could anyone need more than the X5 delivers? It looks great , according to those we showed it to, and has as combination of luxury, safety , performance and handling that’s hard to match. Add the aura of class and quality and we have a yardstick. It’s terrific!