Reviews

2011 BMW X5 Driving Impressions


On the road, the BMW X5 comes closer in character to a well-tuned (if large) sedan than all but a few of the sport-utility or crossover vehicles currently available. The X5 is a heavy vehicle, but it can get down the road with more alacrity than the typical SUV, and that includes the diesel-powered X5 xDrive35d.

The 2011 X5 35i produces 300 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque. It's matched to an efficient 8-speed automatic with manual shift capability through steering wheel paddles or the gearshift. The engine provides much better power than the 265 horsepower naturally aspirated 3.0-liter inline-6 of 2010. Power is ready and available across the rev range, launching the X5 with vigor and providing plenty of passing response. If we didn't know more powerful versions were available, we would be plenty happy with this powerful six-cylinder. Zero to 60 mph takes only 6.4 seconds, according to BMW, impressive for a 5000-pound vehicle and more than a second quicker than last year.

The new 8-speed transmission allows the engine to stay in its optimal power band more often and also improves fuel economy. In Drive, the transmission starts in second gear, which can cause some sluggish launches. This may inspire drivers to use the transmission's Sport mode more often. Be careful, though, as S can reduce fuel economy.

The diesel engine in the X5 xDrive35d provides a lot of power as well: 265 horsepower, with a whopping 425 pound-feet of torque. This ultra-high tech, 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder diesel engine has such features as all-aluminum construction, high-pressure direct fuel injection, and a turbocharging system that employs both a small and larger turbocharger for optimum response at low and higher speeds. It's eligible for a federal tax credit for extra efficient cars, and it actually produces fewer exhaust emissions than many gasoline engines. It also generates less carbon dioxide.

The 35d has so much torque, even a casual jab at the gas pedal can squawk the tires when pulling away from a stop sign. (Torque is the force that propels the vehicle and gives you the feel of acceleration). Once a driver gets used to the throttle, however, the 35d can really haul. In short bursts, the 35d will accelerate more quickly than just about any vehicle of its size, but it doesn't keep pulling as well as the gasoline six. Yet it also has none of the smoky, oily, stinky quality that plagued old-time diesels. The same diesel engine has been introduced in BMW's 3 Series sport sedan, but we like it better in the X5. That's partly because it better suits the X5's bigger, heftier character, and partly because the diesel's shortcomings seem less prominent in the X5.

The diesel engine clatters a bit when idling, especially when it's cold. It's louder and rougher in general than the X5's gasoline engines, and some of the other new-age diesels from Mercedes-Benz and Audi. It requires urea to meet 50-state emissions standards. This ammonia-like substance is stored in an onboard reservoir, much like windshield washer fluid. The urea tank is large enough to be filled only at typical oil change intervals. Still, if the tank runs dry the X5 35d won't restart until it's replenished with urea.

The twin-turbocharged 4.4-liter V8 in the X5 xDrive50i delivers 400 horsepower and a massive 450 pound feet of torque. The X5 50i is extremely quick in all situations. It launches hard when pressed and passing is a breeze. Power delivery is also quite smooth and it's impressive how much more thrust is in reserve at highway speeds. Zero to 60 mph takes just 5.3 seconds, which is about a second faster than 2010's already impressive 4.8-liter V8. Deep stabs of the gas pedal generate a distant growl that reminds a driver of the capability under the hood, but the sound doesn't intrude on conversations or create more vibration inside the X5.

The 4.8-liter V8 makes the X5 as smooth as any luxury SUV for freeway travel, and quieter than many. With the inline-6 and especially the V8, the X5 is much quicker than competitors such as the Lexus RX or LX or Audi Q7.

The federal government rates the X5 35i at 17/25 mpg City/Highway, a big improvement over the 15/21 for 2010's 3.0. The 50i comes in at 14/20 mpg, which is just slightly better than the previous 48i model's 14/19. The improvement in fuel economy makes the X5 more competitive with rivals.

Fuel economy ratings for the X5 35d are an EPA-estimated 19/26 mpg, which is 10-percent better than the 35i. The fluctuating price of diesel may or may not allow for a reduction in operating costs, and 35d has a higher price of entry, so it probably won't pay for itself.

The X5 M uses a twin-turbocharged 4.4-liter V8 with a unique crossover exhaust manifold that pairs cylinders on opposite sides of the firing order to produce a more constant air flow. This results in reduced turbo lag, and other-worldly power numbers: 555 horsepower from 5750 to 6000 rpm and 500 pound-feet of torque from 1500 to 5650 rpm. On the road, the X5 M has tons of immediate grunt, and a further stab of the throttle provides a neck-snapping rush of acceleration. BMW says the X5 M can go from a standstill to 60 mph in just 4.5 seconds. Those figures match up to our driving impressions. It's impressive for a 5,368 pound vehicle. In fact, it's a tenth of a second quicker than the much lighter, though not turbocharged, M3. Of course, fuel economy suffers. The X5 M is EPA rated at only 12/17 mpg.

Handling is impressive in all models, especially when considering the X5's mass. The X5's front suspension breaks with BMW's 45-year tradition of familiar strut design by adding an extra pivot point in the lower control arms. This change is significant to the typical buyer because it plays to the X5's stock-in-trade among luxury SUVs: its exceptional on-road driving dynamics.

How exceptional? On familiar, low-traffic stretches of curving roadway, we can get the typical SUV right up to the point where its tires will lose consistent grip and its mass is ready to slide. We couldn't safely get near the limits of the X5 on most public roads because its limits come at speeds far too high for public welfare. It will handle bends that leave Lexus SUVs plowing like tractors, or where the Mercedes ML and Volvo XC90 are leaning toward the outside of the curve like used-up Marathon taxis. The optional 19-inch wheels and high-performance tires grip pavement tenaciously, and the level of stick seems more impressive given the high seating position of the driver. The X5 is a sport-utility for Germany's famed Nurburgring racing circuit, where BMW engineers spent a lot of time tuning it.

In short, the X5 lives up to BMW's well-earned reputation for great handling vehicles. Its on-pavement potential exceeds whatever the vast majority of drivers are likely to exploit, and its strength might be the very reason some buyers should consider a slightly less capable competitor. The emphasis on performance is the source of the X5's compromises as daily transportation.

The X5 features full-time all-wheel drive, which varies the power between the front and rear axles electronically. It has no low-range gearing and it rides closer to the ground than many SUVs. Its AWD system usually sends most of the engine's torque to the rear wheels, promoting the sporty driving feel. It can shift engine power almost instantaneously, and it's a valuable aid in a snow storm or on sloppy pavement. But we'd keep the X5 on the road or at worst on gravel or smooth dirt roads.

The X5 M adds Dynamic Performance Control. DPC uses two planetary gear sets and two clutch packs in the rear differential to multiply torque to individual rear wheels. Sending more power to an outside wheel helps steer the vehicle through turns. It's hard to feel the system operate, but we swear we could feel it pulling us through a corner on Road Atlanta in the X5 M's sister, the X6 M.

The M model also has Active Roll Stabilization, which firms up the anti-roll bars to help the vehicle corner flatter. We found that the X5 M stays very flat in corners, which almost feels strange given the high ride height. It's very much like a sports sedan, only bulkier and higher off the ground.

Ride quality in all X5 models is firm. It's not obtrusively stiff, in our view, but certainly stiffer than competitors, and probably less comfortable than many buyers want for the handling payoff. The standard steering is heavy at low speeds, surprisingly so. It might be too heavy for the average hockey dad or soccer mom.

It's almost as if BMW has gone overboard trying to turn a tall, heavy SUV into a sporting, exhilarating BMW. In this vehicle, the various bits that add up to sporting driving dynamics seem to be just that: bits, somewhat disjointed, without the holistic, organic quality that characterizes a 3 Series or 5 Series sedan. Chalk that up to a taller ride height and excess weight.

The gear selector is a tall, oblong device that reminds us of the paddle control for a video game. There's a button on top to release or engage Park; Drive or Reverse come with a quick flick fore or aft. There's also a separate slot for sequential manual shifting, which fits into the fun/livability conflict throughout the X5.

When the driver wants to shift manually, it works great, changing gears immediately with a quick movement of the wrist, up or down. But this definitely is not a shifter you want to rest your hand on when while driving. Even during a moderately hard stop, the momentum and weight of the hand will slide the selector into neutral or even park, and you may not know it. Similarly, making a quick three-point turn isn't always that quick as it takes some time to figure out each shift. On the plus side, the shifter takes up less space, which BMW uses for cupholders and small items storage.

Drivers can also shift manually via a pair of aluminum steering wheel shift paddles. Tapping the paddles up or down shifts gears; there is no need to put the gearshift in Sport mode. Selecting the Sport mode holds gears longer for performance driving. In the M model, we found the transmission to be in the right gear 95 percent of the time during performance driving with the transmission in Sport mode and the M Drive in the Power setting.

Stopping power is superlative. Yes, this big sport-utility dips forward more prominently than BMW's sedans might under hard braking, but it pulls to a stop like a sports car. Moreover, the electronic controls allow a driver to maintain full steering control in full-panic stops. The electronics also help keep the X5 balanced when braking hard through a turn, and they include a feature that compensates for brake fade as the brakes heat up with heavy use.

We had a couple of opportunities to try the brakes on a racetrack, which is the ultimate test of stopping power. We drove the base models on a shorter racetrack with speeds that didn't exceed 100 mph and while we heated them up, the brakes remained strong with no appreciable fade. The M model has larger brakes that work even better. We tested them in the very similar X6 M on the longer, higher speed circuit at Road Atlanta. The brakes performed admirably initially, but began to fade after numerous full braking maneuvers from 140 mph, due mostly to the vehicle's weight. You probably never go that fast in your X5 M, so brakes won't be a problem. However, some drivers may find that the brake pedal in all models has a sensitive feel. It might require some practice to modulate for smooth, even stops.

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