SEE ALSO: BMW Buyer's Guide
Luxury sport-utility vehicles are some of the most prestigious products in the American automotive marketplace, and so nearly all top-level automakers have an offering in the class. Even BMW, long known for sports sedans and motorcycles, but never for trucks, has an entry in the field, the X5. Actually, there are two X5s. The X5 4.4i, with a 282- horsepower 4.4-liter V8 engine, made its debut last year and shook up the premium luxury SUV segment. Now the X5 3.0i does the same for the heart of the luxury SUV class. Although its new 3.0- liter inline six-cylinder engine is smaller and, at 225 hp, less powerful than the V8, the X5 3.0i, it is more powerful than most of its direct competitors. The 3.0i shares the 4.4's rigid unit- construction chassis, fully-independent suspension, and full-time all- wheel drive system.
As might be expected, the X5 is not your typical SUV. In fact, BMW calls it a "Sport Activity Vehicle" to differentiate it from truck-based sport-utility vehicles. And who but BMW would build an SUV-like vehicle with the cupholders hidden under one of two cell-phone holders and, in the X5 3.0i, an engine that sounds right out of one of the American Le Mans Series M3 racers? A recent week with an X5 3.0i showed it to be every bit a BMW, with no trucklike tendencies. The punchy acceleration and excellent brakes expected in a Bimmer are present. Cornering abilities are better than expected in an SUV, although the higher center of gravity and greater mass put the X5 at a disadvantage compared to other BMWs. But other Bimmers, say a 530i sport wagon, don't have the X5's 5,000 lb towing ability. X5: the ultimate towing machine? Hmm, just the thing to tow that track-prepped 2002 or even M3....
APPEARANCE: From any angle, there is no doubt as to the X5's manufacturer. The trademark twin kidney grille and quad headlights under a plastic fairing are a giveaway from the front, as are the large, rounded taillights from the rear. The rounded two-box shape is discernibly BMW, and similar to that of the 3-Series and 5-Series wagons, but the X5 has a chunkier look, taller, with shorter front and rear overhangs and more ground clearance. Prominent vents in the sculpted hood and an aggressive, black plastic-clad lower front bumper fascia, wheel arches, and lower cladding give it the contemporary SUV look. Flared fenders say "You want performance with that utility?" The only chrome is found around the grille, with black trim predominating.
COMFORT: There is no doubt as to the manufacturer inside, either. The design is similar but not identical to that of BMW's sedans and wagons, with a dark anti-glare top to the instrument panel, instruments placed in a pod directly in front of the driver, and a use of colors and trim that gives a feeling of spaciousness. In standard form, the X5 3.0 is plainer than the 4.4, with leatherette upholstery, color-keyed trim, and only a power driver's seat. But most of the amenities that are standard in the more expensive 4.4 are available for the 3.0. The "Premium Package" adds the leather upholstery, power passenger seat, moonroof, and poplar trim of the 4.4. The "Climate Package" adds rear and dual-zone front climate control, privacy glass, and sun blinds for the rear doors. The seats are the usual BMW fare - firm and supportive for long-distance comfort. There is plenty of rear seat room, at the expense of cargo space. But there is really no shortage of cargo space, which is aided by the 60/40 split rear seat and easy, if slightly high, cargo access. The full-sized spare tire is located under the cargo area.
SAFETY: The X5's chassis structure is designed for effective energy management in full- and offset-frontal, side, and rear-impact crashes. All seating positions have three-point safety belts. Front, side, and head-protection side airbags are standard equipment.
ROADABILITY: On the road, the X5 is an interesting vehicle. The regular suspension is firm, as is the case with most sporting Bimmers, yet it is not harsh or jarring. In no way does it feel like a truck. Instead its ride, steering response, and suspension characteristics make it feel like - no surprise - a BMW sedan or wagon. It is taller, and so any body motion is more pronounced, but it is composed over speed bumps, chuckholes, and bad pavement. Don't expect it to outcorner an M3, but it does perform better than your average sport-ute when the road gets interesting. I had the opportunity to try an X5 3.0i on a muddy, technical off-road course last summer, and it did surprisingly well, much better than most other new-age SUVs. With seven inches of clearance, it's not really meant for serious off-road work, and, at $40,000 few owners will even consider it. But semi-improved dirt roads should be no problem, and it should do fine as year-round on-road transportation in snowier climates, pleasing skiiers and other winter-sports enthusiasts. Dynamic stability control and hill-descent control systems add security in tricky situations.
PERFORMANCE: BMW has long been famed for silky-smooth inline six-cylinder engines, and the 3.0-liter M54 will certainly not tarnish that reputation. It's similar to the 2.8-liter six used in the 3 and 5-Series and Z3 roadsters in recent years, but has a longer piston stroke for additional power. BMW's "VANOS" variable valve timing is used on both the inlet and exhaust camshafts, and dual- length intake manifold runners help further spread useful power over a wide rpm range. Unlike the X5 4.4i, or other premium SUVs, the X5 3.0i is available with a manual transmission. My test vehicle was so equipped, and the five-speed gearbox adds greatly to the X5's sport-oriented character. Shift action is as smooth as in any other BMW, and it is a joy to run this car, er, truck, er, sport-activity vehicle through the gears. Despite a curb weight well over two tons, the X5 3.0i is quick and light on its feet. The brakes are up to the usual BMW high standards. The X5 3.0i can tow up to 5000 lbs.
CONCLUSIONS: The BMW X5 3.0i is the sports sedan of sport- utility, er, sport-activity vehicles.
SPECIFICATIONS 2001 BMW X5 3.0i Base Price $ 38,900 Price As Tested $ 43,270 Engine Type dual overhead cam 24-valve inline 6- cylinder with stepless variable valve timing on both camshafts Engine Size 3.0 liters / 182 cu. in. Horsepower 225 @ 5900 rpm Torque (lb-ft) 214 @ 3500 rpm Transmission 5-speed manual Wheelbase / Length 111.0 in. / 183.7 in. Curb Weight 4519 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 20.1 Fuel Capacity 24.6 gal. Fuel Requirement unleaded premium gasoline, 92 octane Tires P235/65 HR17 Michelin MXV4 Plus m+s Brakes, front/rear vented disc / solid disc, antilock standard Suspension, front/rear independent struts with double-pivot lower arms, coil springs / independent multilink with coil springs Drivetrain front engine, all-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 15 / 20 / 17 0 to 60 mph 8.1 sec (mfg) Towing capacity 5,000 lbs Coefficient of Drag (cd) 0.35 OPTIONS AND CHARGES Climate package - includes: rear passenger temperature controls, automatic air conditioning, roller sun blinds for rear doors, privacy glass $ 850 Premium package - includes: power glass moonroof, power front seats, light wood trim, leather upholstery $ 2,850 Destination charge $ 570