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2005 BMW X5 4.8is Review

BMW X5 4.8is Hot Rod Bimmer (select to view enlarged photo)

BMW X5 4.8is Hot Rod Bimmer
By Steve Purdy, Shunpiker Productions

SEE ALSO: New Car Buyer's Guide for BMW

We would have a hard time finding an auto reviewer who did not consider the BMW X5 to be either best in class or mighty close to it. Based on the mid-size 5-Series sedan platform the X5 is the larger of BMW’s two “Sports Activity Vehicles” or SAVs; the smaller being the X-3 based on the 3-Series platform which we’ll test another time.

Our loaned X5 is the high-performance 4.8is version in LeMans blue delivered on a bitterly cold winter day here in Michigan. My accomplice, Joe, and I will take her south to Hilton Head, then to Tennessee and back for a good thorough test. We may not get to test her in snow – but you never know.

With base price of $68,800 ours stickers out at $72,295, with the $1,800 navigation system being the only listed option, and an $895 destination charge. (Those numbers don’t add up, you say? I noticed that, too.) Standard features on the 4.8is are: 6-speed automatic transmission, digital compass mirror, panorama moon roof, rear door window sun blinds, ski bag, heated rear seats, park distance control, rain sensor, adaptive headlights, and premium sound system. Dozens of other features and amenities are listed in two columns of small type on the sticker - too many to list here (for all of the specs just click on the link at the top of this screen)…just know that it lacks nothing, an a gas-guzzler tax does not apply.

Twenty-inch wheels and tires add to the dramatic look of this hot X5. At 275/40R20 front and 315/35R-20 rear, the Michelin Diamaris performance rated tires look like something more appropriate for a Corvette. The book warns “Due to low-profile tires, please note: wheels, tires and suspension parts are more susceptible to road hazard and consequential damages. Performance tires are not recommended for driving in ice and snow.” Ok …we’ll be careful.

We loaded our gear, including two full sets of golf clubs, with the rear seats folded down we have room to spare in the now ample cargo area. When not folded down the heated rear seats recline about 15-degrees. If we had rear seat passengers we’re confident they would be perfectly comfortable and happy back there, but then the cargo area would not have been adequate for golf clubs and luggage. Perhaps a small trailer might be needed if we were traveling with four.

Turn the key and she bursts to life with a programmed-in blip of throttle. The exhaust note is rich. At idle we hear a throaty rumble from inside the cockpit. Looks good! Sounds good! Loads good! Let’s hit the road.

The grunt from under the hood comes from a 4.8-litre, 355-hp, 32-valve, V-8 engine making 369 lb-ft of torque at 3,500 rpm. Both valve timing and valve lift are variable and controlled electronically. Intake valve lift is adjusted constantly by the Valvetronic system eliminating the need for a throttle butterfly. The Double-VANOS system steplessly adjusts valve timing, flattening the torque curve, minimizing fuel consumption and emissions. She must have premium fuel and the 24.3-gallon tank will give us about a 400-mile range. Zero to 60 mph takes 5.9 seconds and top speed is listed at 153 mph, with fuel economy of 16/21. Not bad.

Our first day’s drive is mostly freeway – I-75 south to I-40 east to I-26 south - a good way to become acclimated to our ride. Most of the controls are reasonably intuitive though we have to get out the manual for some. Really good design, of course, means never having to read the book. Once through Ohio, where historically oppressive speed enforcement on I-75 keeps us cautious, we stretch her legs through Kentucky. The steepest climb is at Jellico, Tennessee where the X5 surges effortlessly up the mountain until boxed in by a swarm of big trucks. We finish the day’s drive on State Route 72 to McCormick, South Carolina where our friends greet us with a chilled bottle of wine and warm hospitality. Our hosts told us to expect 14 hours door-to-door. We did it in 13 , without feeling pressed.

We’re up early enjoying coffee on the deck to the sound of birds and squirrels. We go out to start the X5 and find the battery dead. Oh oh! I left the headlights on last night. We open the hood and find no battery. Now, where have they hidden that essential component? We have to go the book again and find the positive terminal in the engine compartment specifically for jump-starting. We never did find the battery. A later check reveals that the “Dummy, You Left the Lights On” warning system is just two pleasant tones, not enough to get my attention when I’m chatting with someone while exiting the vehicle.

After a warm, sunny round of golf at Savannah Lakes Village with our old friends and a few new ones, and dinner at the Little Italy pizza joint in humble McCormick we strike out for Hilton Head just about dusk. It should be about 3 hours if we go straight as possible southeast along the Savannah River. We’ll give the navigation system a chance to guide us.

What can we say about the BMW’s navigation system? Aaarrggg . . . ! Our electronic navigator – let’s call her Eve – first wants us to go all the way back northeast to I-26, then southeast to I-95 and then south by southwest to Hilton Head. Even Eve’s map shows that route to be over 100 miles out of the way. Can’t we just skitter directly along the Savannah River? My map shows good roads - perhaps a bit twisty - and little civilization to slow our progress. My pretty blonde and I made that back-road drive a few years ago, albeit in the daylight, finding it scenic and reasonably direct.

Well, Eve gets us through Augusta well enough though she really wants us to turn around and head east back to I-26. She finally accepts the fact that we are not taking her route and somewhere south of Augusta quits telling me to “make a legal U-turn at the next intersection.” Then she begins to direct us southeast along the river on Highway 125. My human navigator, Joe, drifts off to sleep as we briskly cruise along Atomic Road (Highway 125) between the Department of Energy’s mysterious Savannah River Site, and the river. It’s dark, no traffic, and Joe’s snoring, so I let Eve take us in from there.

Running most of the time on high beams the Xenon headlights burn back the dark. The bluish-white light turns the roadside and about 40 feet up into the trees into daylight. I’m able to turn down the dash lights to minimize eye fatigue but the navigation screen glares so brightly I need to block it out.

Once beyond the federal lands I question a couple of Eve’s decisions but finally decide to trust her. Big mistake! When I check the map in the light next day I find she still took us at least 50 miles out of the way. Bummer! It takes us 4 hours. As we explore the workings of the navigation system over the next few days we realize that once we put in our destination we needed to indicate whether we wanted the “main road” route, the “most direct” route or a couple other options. Not very intuitive, I’d say.

The BMW X5 4.8is commands respect. Its broad, muscular stance on those huge tires, its brash Teutonic styling and the rich grumble of its exhaust suggests importance. We feel right at home among the rich and famous of Hilton Head, whether at the golf course or the public relations office at the world-renowned Harbor Town resort. PR director, Sam Zabawsky, gets us onto the famous Harbor Town Golf Links, on the grassy knoll behind the green of the signature 18th hole to photograph the X5 at dawn with the lovely lighthouse in the background. (Watch the PGA’s MCI Harbor Town Golf Tournament in April and you’ll see the lighthouse in the photo accompanying this narrative.)

The X5 and the sexy Z4 Roadster are made in the Spartanburg, South Carolina assembly plant. We stop for a visit on our way back north where media relations pro, Bunny Richardson, takes us on a plant tour after we browse the on-site museum and visitors center. We are amazed at the brightness, cleanliness and size of the plant as well as the demographics and demeanor of the workers. BMW built the first car in that new plant in 1994 so the work force is young. More importantly they project an upbeat, energetic atmosphere unheard of in traditional rust-belt factories. We surmise that must contribute to quality and efficiency.

We stop for the night at Fairfield Glade, Tennessee, on the Cumberland Plateau, just west of Knoxville, one of the finest golf resorts in the mid-south. At 30-degrees we find it just a tad too cold to play so we head off on the back roads to really put the X5’s handling to the test. With the xDrive all-wheel drive system, Dynamic Stability Control, Cornering Brake Control, Dynamic Brake Control and stiff sport suspension we probably couldn’t get in trouble without being totally stupid. Front and rear suspensions are as sophisticated as you might expect, or perhaps more so. We gave it a thorough thrashing on the 30-mile stretch of smooth, twisty Genesis Road between Crossville and Lancing where we turn north on US 127.

We miss a turn off Highway 90 heading for Cumberland Falls, Kentucky and end up at a boat launch on the wrong side of the river. This just gives us more of a chance to enjoy the 6-speed electronically controlled automatic transmission’s Adaptive Transmission Control and Steptronic gear selection, with Sport mode. What that all means is that we can let the transmission do its own thing without intervention, or we can set it in a Sport mode to shift at much higher RPMs, or we can literally shift it ourselves. We’ve been playing with that all week. What fun, indeed.

We hike the trails both above and below the falls, overindulge in the buffet at the lodge and get home to Michigan well after midnight. The good news is that about eight inches of snow are headed this way. We’ll get to test the X5 in the snow after all.

By Sunday afternoon five of the eight inches have fallen and it’s wet and slippery. I take the back roads to my mother’s place then to my brother’s and in the process put to rest the admonitions about how bad these wide, high-performance tires are in the snow. Certainly a different style of tire would be much better but the traction control, ABS and all the other sophisticated electronic helper systems keep it going, keep it straight and stop it safely. No worries, even in the wet stuff.

We averaged about 18.5 mpg over a good variety of driving conditions. Not bad for a powerful V-8 in a fairly large vehicle.


Not having driven all the others I couldn’t attest to the X5 being best in class, though it’s difficult to imagine a vehicle much better.

I have a few suggestions, however.

How about a bit simpler and more intuitive navigation system? Yes, Eve has a very pleasant voice but she gets to be a bit of a nag after a while when we can’t figure out how to turn her off. I’m sure another few weeks of practice and reading the manual we could have gotten the hang of it all, but we’re barely computer literate and don’t really get it.

The most important element of reducing fatigue during long night drives is to be able to turn off the dash lights. We can’t do that in the X5. The dash lights dim, and that helps, but the red and orange lights around the tachometer stay on full strength causing an annoying glare.

We’ve come to expect exceptional, if a bit over-engineered, vehicles from the Germans and there are no surprises here. For those to whom 70-grand is doable and a hot sport-ute is on the lust list, we guarantee no disappointments with the X5 4.8is.