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The BMW X5 Sports Activity Vehicle (2000), For the Road/Track/Mountains/Rain/Sleet/Snow and Dead of Night

By Larry Weitzman

With so many choices in SUV's, the decision making process grows even more difficult with every new entry into this bloated field. Higher fuel prices have put a new wrinkle into the equation, but the high prices have had little impact on the high end sports ute market and are still selling like lotto tickets in a $200 million dollar jackpot week.

A new kid on the block has arrived from the folks at blue and white all the way from South Carolina. It is a BMW and it is different. BMW doesn't call it an SUV, but instead chose the moniker SAV or Sports Activity Vehicle. It is BMW's first foray into the all wheel drive market and it uses a different approach to blend sport and utility.

The look is unmistakably BMW. The front end has the trademark BMW "twin kidney" grilles that have grown shorter and wider over the years, especially if you remember the 1600 and 2002 of the late 60s and 70s. The headlights are also BMW style twin round units under glass with xenon high intensity discharge bulbs that light up the road like the landing lights of a Boeing 747.

The clean bumper with two inset driving lights has a clean, massive look and fits well with a hood line that uses ridges to highlight the grille's twin kidney intakes. On the sides of the SAV is a ridge line that starts in the taillights and continues forward ahead of the front doors and then "scallops" downward and disappears. This is a unique styling detail that draws attention away from its somewhat bulky side view. The wheel wells are squared and blistered and connected by a lower, subtle, soft flowing line.

The body is thicker, with a tall greenhouse aiding outward visibility. The shape is still unmistakably BMW. It rides on a very long 111 inch wheelbase when compared to the overall length of 183.7 inches. It sits tall with a ground clearance of 7.1 inches. But the best part of this unit is the black/chrome dual twin exhausts that emanate from the fascia just below the rear bumper. And those pipes mean business.

Behind those twin kidney grilles is BMW's familiar 4.4L DOHC V-8. There is also 3.0L 225 hp six available, but unless you are short of change, roughly ten grand of the stuff, go for the gusto of the V-8. In X5 form, the power output is identical to the 540 and 740 series, 282 hp at 5,400 rpm and 324 Hanoverian pounds of torque at 3,600 rpm. BMW lists 0-60 performance at 7.5 seconds. The guy in Germany who originally tested this automobile must have forgot to release the emergency brake, because my worst time was 7.30 seconds. My best time was 6.50 seconds with an average of 6.98 seconds. But as with my other tests of BMW's, they always seem to perform better than what the factory says.

Passing was also lightning quick, with 50-70 coming up in an average of 3.87 seconds and performing that test up hill will only slow that time to 5.38 seconds. The Steptronic 5 speed automatic is one of the best performing autos I have ever tested. Leave it in D for seamless, fully automatic operation or put the shifter in the gate to the left of Drive for the Steptronic treat. The tranny reacts exactly when the floor shifter is moved, a very short movement forward for an up shift and an even smaller movement rearward for a downshift. BMW dialed in just the right amount of resistence in the stick's operation. The is the first car or truck that had an automatic with a manual mode that actually mimicked and reacted with the smoothness and quickness of a full manual. It is an absolute blast to drive.

The engine makes absolutely wonderful sounds which enhance the enjoyment. But even with the high ground clearance and a near 5,000 pound curb weight, this Bimmer is not limited by its utility nature. My test vehicle had the optional sport package ($2,470) which included huge 19 inch wheels with 255/50 Z rated tires in front and 285/45Z rated tires in the rear and sport tuned suspension along with some cosmetic differences and a sport steering wheel. This Bimmer handles like no other sport ute. Maybe that's why BMW calls it a Sports Activity Vehicle. BMW must have meant the twisties kind of sport as this X5 goes through the corners like water in a hose.

The front suspension is a trick strut setup with double-pivot lower arms, coil springs, gas pressurized shocks and an antiroll bar. The rear uses a four-link independent system done in aluminum with self-leveling air springs, gas shocks and antiroll bar. The result is a suspension that is sublimely supple and versatile. It could handle the curves of Green Valley, Latrobe and Bass Lake Road at maximum legal speeds without even breathing hard. Steering was perfect, with accurate feedback and effort level. My wife thought the effort required while the vehicle was moving slowly was too great, but in automobiles, compromises are required and no car is perfect, but this one is very close in most respects.

Ponderosa Road was no match for the Bimmer. It took out the washboard and bumps significantly better than I take out the trash. The 19 inch wheels certainly helped, but the same trick, fully independent system that helps the Bimmer do the interstate like the polished bar in Harry's New York Bar in Paris also smoothed Ponderosa like no other SUV except maybe a handful, but none of them did the two 90 degrees bumpy corners as well. The BMW's near 50/50 weight distribution becomes very evident. I won't report the speed at which the BMW could comfortably do the corners, but there are some sports cars it would surprise. Handling is superbly balanced.

On the highway, the ride was firm and very well controlled. It was super smooth without any intrusion from tar strips, expansion joints or any other road irregularities. It is a wonderful road car. When not into the throttle the X5 turns a silent 2,300 rpm at 70 mph.

But the surprise was just how good an automobile this is. I was expecting another ho-hum luxury SUV without much rear cargo space that had glitz and glitter without much substance. Boy, was I wrong. There was nothing that this vehicle didn't do well. The brakes are huge with 13.1 inch ventilated discs in front and 12.8 inch rear discs. Electronic proportioning and Dynamic Braking Control help in hauling down this Bimmer to a stop in distances that would rival a sports car.

Hill Decent Control (HDC) is another feature that can be activated by a console button. When driving under 20 mph during a steep decent, HDC will apply the necessary brake pedal pressure to keep the vehicle speed between 3-6 mph, keeping the driver is full control. It can be overridden with more pedal pressure that can be manually applied at any time or when the vehicle speed exceeds 35 mph.

But BMW didn't stop there. In addition, the X5 comes standard with Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) which includes a lateral acceleration and yaw rate sensors. It continually measures vehicle speed, lateral acceleration, longitudinal acceleration, vehicle rotation and brake pressure. When this all-speed system detects wheelspin or slippage such as attempting to imitate Mario Andretti in the twisties, when you should have been emulating the "little old lady from Pasadena," the system goes to work instantly detecting oversteer or understeer, then reducing engine torque to the offending wheel(s) and then applying brakes to the appropriate wheel(s) to keep the X5 going exactly where it was pointed.

The traction control operates on the same principle, but when operating in deep snow or sand or with snow chains, the DSC button can be pressed, which enables the system to respond with a special setting for such circumstances. This is the setting also desired for extremely sporty driving.

The All-Wheel drive system uses a one speed chain driven transfer case that sends 38% of engine torque to the front wheels and 62% to the rear. By limiting power to the front axle, the possibility of a torque steer is reduced while enhancing vehicle handling. It is a simple system that reduces weight and the Automatic Differential Braking System which is controlled by the DSC, acts to limit wheel slip in the same manner as a mechanical limited slip differential.

Inside is one of the nicest of any BMW. It is the best dash of any SUV. The materials covering the upper and lower portion are the deepest and densest I have ever encountered. The door paneling is rich, but doesn't quite have the same depth of the dash. It is adorned, along with the door panels, in a light poplar wood, polished to a perfectly smooth finish.

The instrument binnacle is pure BMW. A large 155 mph speedo and 7,000 rpm tach sit center stage flanked by a smaller fuel and temp gauge left and right. Lighting is BMW red. There is a plethora of warning lights below the main instruments. The center section contains the sound system with the AC sitting below. The center console has a short gear shift lever and a dual storage armrest to the rear.

The seats are in a very subtle two tone leather with highly detailed edge pipping. A nice touch. They are eight way power adjustable (with a three-position memory) and feel somewhat firm for the first five minutes and then extraordinarily comfortable for any period thereafter. This is a great place to spend several hours. The door pulls are unique and create a nice styling touch.

The rear seating is 60/40 split folding with copious head and leg room for three. In the cargo area is what appears to be at least 30 cubic feet of storage which is wide and tall and about three feet deep. The tailgate is split with a lift up hatch and pull down tail gate with a panel that automatically covers the hinge area. Very clever. The are two power outlets and hidden storage panels.

The price of admission is not cheap. The "base" 4.4L X5 starts at 49,970 with destination. There are lots of options, the only two being necessary is possibly the Activity Package ($850) which includes heated front seats among its many items and the xenon high intensity discharge headlights ($500). Those headlights are worth it at twice the price and make night driving safer and fun. The Sports Package sells for $2,470 with the biggest two items being the recalibrated suspension and 19 inch wheels.

My test vehicle came with the above three packages plus the single play CD for $200 and privacy glass ($275). The total price was $54,265 or about 10,000 volts of sticker shock. But it is a tremendous motor vehicle with no peers. Sure there are some that are larger, maybe a little tougher, but none that perform with the absolute brilliance of this ultimate performing SUV.

Niello BMW has new X5's arriving. It will give new meaning to doing it in the dirt because getting to the dirt will become more fun than the dirt itself. And it sure cleans up nice.


   4.4i                $50,000 to about $55,000
   3.0i                $40,000 to about $45,000

4.4L DOHC 32 valve V-8   282 hp @ 5,400 RPM
                         324 lbs-ft of torque @ 3,600 RPM

3.0L DOHC 24 valve I-6   225 hp @ 5,900 rpm
                         214 lbs-ft of torque @ 3,500 rpm

5 speed manual (3.0i only)
Five speed electronically controlled
automatic with Steptronic, 3.0i and 4.4i 

Longitudinally mounted front
engine, all wheel drive

Wheelbase            111.0 inches
Length               183.7 inches
Width                73.7   inches
Height               67.2   inches
Weight               4,828 pounds (4.4L)
                     4,519 pounds (3.0l)
Weight distribution  (f/r)   50.3/49.7 percent   
Ground clearance      7.1     inches
Track (f/r)          61.4/61.4 inches
Turning Circle       39.7    feet     
Wheels standard      18X8.5 inches
  Optional (f/r)     19X9/19X10 inches
Tires   Standard     255/55X18H all season
Optional front       255/50X19 performance
   rear              285/45X19 performance
Cargo Capacity       54.4 cubic feet
 Fuel Capacity       24.3 gallons

0-60               6.98 seconds
50-70              3.87 seconds
50-70 up hill      5.38 seconds
Top Speed          Electronically limited to 128, certainly fast enough
Fuel Economy       EPA rated 13/17 mpg city/highway.
                     Expect about 15-16 mpg in El Dorado County
                     (if you can resist heavy pressure on the go
                     pedal and 17-19 mpg on the highway
                     at legal speeds.