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BMW X5 4.4i Sport Activity Vehicle (2000)

by Carey Russ

BMW Full Line Video footage (37:29)

Conventional wisdom in the automotive industry these days seems to be: a prestige manufacturer must have a luxury sport- utility vehicle. And so BMW has built the X5. It's the first civilian four-wheel drive truck-like vehicle with the BMW name, and a definite departure from BMW's normal offerings. With BMW's recent divestiture of Land Rover, it's the company's only sport- utilitylike vehicle.

But the X5 is somewhat different from other SUVlike machinery. It's easier to say what the X5 is not than to describe what it is. It is not a 5-Series wagon on stilts, nor is it the four- wheeled equivalent of the company's R1100 GS dual-sport motorcycle. And, note that BMW calls it a "sport-activity vehicle", not a "sport-utility vehicle."

The Spartanburg, SC-built X5 offers the high seating position of an SUV, and certainly looks the part. But it's a unit- construction vehicle, not a body-on-frame truck. Also, and unlike a conventional truck, the X5 has a fully-independent suspension. Its full-time all-wheel drive system is not a dual-range four-wheel drive system, but should offer improved traction in inclement conditions, and, with the standard seven inches of ground clearance, allow operation on all paved roads and most reasonably-maintained dirt roads. The X5 is the closest thing to a skier's Bimmer since the all- wheel drive 3-Series of a few years ago.

Despite a nearly-5,000 lb. curb weight, power is no problem thanks to BMW's wonderful 4.4-liter V8. Its 282 horsepower and 324 lb-ft of torque get the beast moving quickly. BMW offers a sport package on all of its cars, and the X5 is no exception. And, with that sport suspension, the X5 has the best cornering ability of any SUV-type vehicle on a smooth, well-paved road. Therein lies the X5's major weakness.

BMW's GS-series dual-sport motorcycles are beloved by their owners for their comfort, which comes from a long-travel, softly-sprung suspension. That makes them excellent long-distance touring machines. They are too bulky and heavy for serious off- road use, but have amazing on-road handling and can handle fire roads reasonably well. An X5 with a softer suspension could be a four-wheeled GS, but, as presently equipped with the sport package, it is not. Its rigid unibody structure and fully-independent suspension should allow a softer suspension calibration for improved comfort and roadholding on poor surfaces. The tires and sport suspension are the culprit. SUVs typically use high-profile all- weather tires that add an "air suspension" effect (although they also detract from turn-in precision, but turn-in precision is not generally considered a truck virtue.) Not here. My test X5 had the sport package, with stiff springs and shocks and 255/50 VR19 tires in front and 285/45s in the rear - all very well for, say, an M5. But in the X5, the result is a ride quality that is, to put it as diplomatically as possible, extremely jarring on anything but a perfectly-paved surface. Because of the high seating position, body movement is exaggerated. Bring your kidney belt -- a ride down a twisting, potholed mountain road is punishing, and not recommended within an hour of a meal. Yes, on a smooth road the X5 will outhandle any even remotely-similar vehicle, but a sport package-equipped 540i wagon will out handle it. And, not incidentally, carry more cargo.

The X5 has a longer wheelbase than a 5-Series wagon - 111 inches to 107.3. This is largely translated to rear seat room, at the expense of cargo space behind the rear seat. The X5 is a little wider than the 5-Series, inside and out, and has about an inch more headroom. But its cargo volume is considerably smaller at 16.1 cubic feet with the rear seat up and 54.4 with it folded, versus the 540 wagon's 32.1 and 63.9.

BMW understands sports sedans (and wagons) like no other automaker. Perhaps that's the problem with the X5. It has handling advantages that aren't necessarily an advantage for most SUV (or SAV) use. Is the X5 buyer looking for a vehicle that handles like a sports sedan but has more cargo capacity? If so, a 540i wagon equipped with the sport package makes much more sense. It's 800 lbs lighter, has a lower center of gravity, better fuel economy, more cargo capacity, and is an absolutely wonderful vehicle. For those who need or want a sport-utility, or sport-activity vehicle, try the X5 with the standard suspension. It has the same great drivetrain and interior, and should have better comfort.

APPEARANCE: There's no doubt as to the X5's maker. With the twin-kidney grille and four headlights behind glass (well, plastic), it's a definite BMW. Its proportions are very different than those of the 5 or 3-Series wagons, though. It is shorter and higher in the body, and in ground clearance. A sculpted hood with prominent vents and aggressive, black plastic-clad lower front bumper fascia give it the contemporary SUV look. Scuplted sides and a continuation of the front cladding around the wheel arches and below the doors add to the look. The backlight is rather sloped, and shielded by a visor-type spoiler. The only chrome is found on the grille, with black trim predominating.

COMFORT: Inside, the X5 features first-class accommodations. BMW fans will feel right at home. The front bucket seats are typically firm, comfortable, and supportive power-operated BMW fare, and the rear bench, while not quite as well-padded, has plenty of leg and head room. Step-in height is barely more than that of a wagon. The instrument and control layout and design is very similar to that of other BMWs, with a dark anti-glare top to the instrument panel, instruments placed in a pod directly in front of the driver, and tasteful bird's-eye maple trim. The tilt and telescope-adjustable steering wheel has controls for the audio and cruise control systems. The power window lifts are on the doors, American style. Storage space includes large door pockets, a console box with CD holder, and a medium-sized glove box. Noise levels are low. The rear seat offers more room than is found in some larger SUVs. As mentioned above, cargo space is less than might be expected, but should be adequate for most use. The two-piece tailgate operates very easily, and the lower portion has a trick plastic piece that automatically covers the gap between the tailgate and interior when the tailgate is down. A real spare tire, a P235/65 R17 Michelin, is found underneath the cargo area.

ROADABILITY: Perhaps the standard suspension is better. The sport suspension seems designed to win the autocross at your local truck rodeo. The wide, sticky Bridgestone Turanzas work wonders on smooth pavement, and the X5 can be quite entertaining. With its high center of gravity, the X5 can't quite corner like a car, although it does remarkably well for its height and mass -- as long as the road is smooth. When the road deteriorates, the ride quality gets painful. It's vintage, harsh truck. And forget snow with those wide, low-profile tires. Steering at low speeds is a bit heavy; on the up side, the X5 is rock solid and stable at speeds beyond what is normally prudent for a sport-ute. As is usually the case with firm sport-tuned suspensions, the ride gets smoother as speed increases. Just make sure the road is smooth. All-speed traction control and dynamic stability control help out when the going gets dicey, and there is a hill descent control system for steep, low-speed descents. SUVs aren't exactly noted for their ability to stop, but the X5 is a BMW SAV, not an SUV. Massive antilock disc brakes mean that it stops as well as most cars.

PERFORMANCE: No complaints about the drivetrain! The 4.4- liter twincam, 32-valve aluminum V8 is familiar from the 540i sedan and wagon. A lower (numerically higher) final drive ratio than the 5-Series ensures that the V8's 282 horsepower and 324 lb-ft of torque get the hefty X5 is off the line quickly. Passing and hillclimbing are no problem. Fuel economy, at around 16 mpg indicated, is not too bad for a 5000-lb vehicle. The 5-speed automatic transmission has BMW's "Steptronic" manual-shift mode, but with the engine's healthy torque output it's hardly needed.

CONCLUSIONS: With the sport suspension, the BMW X5 has a great engine and seats, good interior design, and the suspension compliance of a Conestoga wagon.

2000 BMW X5 SAV

Base Price               $ 49,400
Engine Type              dual overhead cam, 32-valve V8 with 
                           VANOS steplessly variable valve timing
Engine Size              4.4liters / 268 cu. in.
Horsepower               282 @ 5400 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)           324 @ 3600 rpm
Transmission             5-speed electronically-controlled 
                           automatic with adaptive shift control  
                           and Steptronic manual shifting
Wheelbase / Length       111 in. / 183.7 in.
Curb Weight              4828 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower    17.1
Fuel Capacity            24.6 gal.
Fuel Requirement         unleaded premium, 92 octane
Tires                    255/50 VR19 front, 285/45 VR19 
                           rear Bridgestone Turanza
Brakes, front/rear       vented disc / solid disc, antilock 
Suspension, front/rear   independent strut with double pivot 
                           lower arms / independent multilink
Drivetrain               front engine, all-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed      13 / 17 / 16
0 to 60 mph                7.5 sec
1/4 mile (E.T.)           15.5 sec
Coefficient of Drag (cd)  0.36


not available at press time