• By: Neil Moore

Burly X5 still gets high marks for handling

Photos by Neil Moore / Feature photo: BMW X5 blends luxury with ruggedness in this mid-size sport utility. Big tires and a wide stance keep it firmly rooted to the asphalt.

I’ve always appreciated BMW’s ability to embrace the ‘sport’ in ‘sport utility.’

Sure, they call their X5 a Sports Activity Vehicle (SAV), but labels aside, this mid-size truck hasn’t been clothed in the softer curves and crossover-like sheet metal adopted by some competitors.

Indeed, the X5 is ruggedly handsome, with proportions defined by its short overhangs, long wheelbase, wide track and upright A-pillars.

The X5’s long front bonnet and broad kidney grille appear to slam through the wind like a fist, but it’s no brute. There’s been attention to aerodynamics, not only in the vehicle’s creases and contours, but in its ground-hugging side skirts, optional carbon fibre front splitter as part of the $5,900 M Performance Package (more on that later), and in the front air curtains that guide potential turbulence over the wheels and out through breathers in the front fenders.

I like the LED rings around the four round headlights, flattened along the bottom edge and glaring aggressively ahead.

The X5 has been around since 1999, and is now in its third generation. Which for this automaker has meant a steady refinement in style and performance – but nothing radical. BMW has wisely resisted the urge to mess with one of its top-three sellers.

This vehicle comes in four flavours: twin-turbo inline six, diesel, plug-in hybrid and turbocharged V8. Okay, make that five, if you include the asphalt-ripping, 567-hp X5 M that starts at $110,400 and sprints from zero to 100 km/h in just 4.2 seconds.

Given the full luxo treatment, this X5 35i includes a digital gauge cluster, ceramic controls and BMW’s iDrive infotainment with rotary, mouse-style controller.

My tester for the week was based on the slightly more attainable base unit – the X5 xDrive35i. It starts at $68,500, although BMW Canada’s product planning team found a way to price it north of $95K.

Nonetheless, you don’t have to go big on displacement or add a ton of options to enjoy the “driver’s car” reputation expected of anything wearing the BMW roundel.

The 35i is powered by the proven 3.0-liter twin-scroll turbocharged inline six that delivers 300 hp and 300 lb/ft of torque. That may not seem huge for a 2,148 kg (4,736 lb) vehicle, but keep in mind there’s virtually no turbo lag, with peak torque available from 1,200–5,000 rpm.

Common to all models is an eight-speed automatic that always seems to find the right gear. And depending on drive mode (Eco, Comfort, Sport), it offers rapid-fire gear changes when you’re in the mood for something more spirited than schlepping the kids to soccer.

And there’s xDrive intelligent all-wheel-drive that provides a rear-wheel bias in normal conditions (for sportier handling), but routes power seamlessly to the axle with the most grip when weather sours.

Inside, there’s a feeling of full-size spaciousness, in particular in rear where there’s loads of head and leg room, not to mention shoulder room – enough to easily seat three full-size adults. Some models come with third-row seats, but like most mid-size SUVs with this feature, they’re best suited for kids.

And there’s a long list of standard stuff that includes leather seating (power adjustable and heated up front), heated steering wheel, navigation, two-zone climate control, rearview camera, power tailgate, panoramic sunroof and more.

Rear seats offer plenty of head and leg room for taller occupants. With a 40/20/40 split, the middle position drops for hauling longer objects – like skis – while carrying rear passengers.

My tester was equipped with two rows and a 650-litre cargo hold with moveable tiedowns and generous underfloor storage. The second row’s middle position drops flat so you can transport long objects – like skis or two-by-fours – while still carrying rear passengers.

But SUVs in this class are more about passenger comfort than hauling cargo, and mine was equipped with nearly everything in the X5 parts bin.

This starts with the $6,900 Premium Package that includes automatic four-zone climate control, heated rear seats, sunshades for the rear windows, upgraded Harmon/Kardon audio, heads-up display with speed limit info, and a bevy of driver aids: blind spot detection, parking assist, surround-view camera and more.

But performance is also high on my checklist, so the $5,900 M Performance Package ticked a lot of boxes, despite its steep price tag.

It includes appearance items like high-gloss black grille and carbon fibre mirrors, along with aero tweaks like the carbon fibre rear diffuser and previously mentioned front splitter. A bigger deal for me was the M Performance exhaust that added a nice burble when idling, progressing to an angry snarl under load, followed by a series of pops when you back off the pedal.

And it doesn’t just deliver big on sound, but adds 20 hp and 32 lb/ft of torque, shaving half a second off the zero to 100 km/h sprint. With this package, X5 covers the distance in six seconds flat.

For another $4,000, the M Sport Line package adds even bigger shoes: 20-inch alloys with 275/40 R20 tires up front and massive 315/35 R20 tires in rear. To put that in perspective, there’s nearly 11 inches of rubber (per tire) up front and 12.5 inches in rear.

The package also includes adaptive M suspension, sport automatic with paddle shifters, high-gloss roof rails, brushed aluminum trim, ceramic controls and more bling for the full luxo treatment.

There’s still more, such as the smartphone connectivity package (Apple CarPlay, wireless charging, hotspot) for $750. I would have thought this item might have been included in X5’s $68.5K base price.

But that’s a minor gripe, and all is forgiven when the rubber hits the road. Even these low profile tires that despite their large tread and diameter, have only about four inches of sidewall. Not much to cushion bumps and potholes, but quite forgiving in comfort mode. Less so in ‘sport’ and the optional ‘sport plus’ modes, although the tradeoff for a tauter suspension includes quicker throttle, later shifts and more growl from the exhaust.

Worth it, I’d say…

Fuel economy may not be the X5 35i’s strong suit, and at 13.0/9.8/11.5 litres/100 km (on premium fuel), fillups can be painful. Especially when you’re an auto journalist.

You can keep the numbers down using a light foot and “Eco Pro” mode, which by dulling throttle response, shifting earlier and turning down the A/C, can save up to 20 percent on petrol. But it sucks the life out of this otherwise lively powertrain, and I made little use of it.

Even more fuel efficient are the diesel and hybrid variants, but with a base price of $70,000 for the xDrive35d and $75,950 for the xDrive40e, you’ll pay more for going green. The premium for diesel, however, is surprisingly reasonable.

Sure, there’s plenty of competition from the likes of Audi Q7, Mercedes-Benz GLE, Porsche Cayenne and Acura MDX. All worthy contenders, and deserving a closer look by those shopping this segment. But there’s a reason BMW has sold 1.3 million of these worldwide over the past 18 years.

And that has to do not only with build quality, but the athletic driving dynamics synonymous with this brand. For those who have family needs but don’t want to sacrifice the joys of motoring, the X5 may be a good fit.

The X5 emphasizes its powerful shoulders from the rear. Pronounced wheel arches enclose wide tires with up to 12.5 inches of rubber in back.

SNAPSHOT: The X5 emphasizes its powerful shoulders from the rear. Pronounced wheel arches enclose wide tires with up to 12.5 inches of rubber in back.2017
BODY STYLE: mid-size sport utility
ENGINE: as tested – 24-valve inline six cylinder with twin scroll turbo (300 hp, 300 lb/ft of torque); with M Performance Exhaust (320 hp, 332 lb/ft)
DRIVE: intelligent AWD; eight-speed automatic with manual shift
FUEL ECONOMY: 13.0/9.8/11.5 litres/100 km (city/hwy/comb)
CARGO: 650 litres behind second row; 1,870 litres with seats folded
PRICING: (base) xDrive35i $68,500; xDrive35d $70,000; xDrive 40e $74,950; xDrive50i $82,800; as tested 35i with Premium Pkg ($6,900), M Performance Pkg ($5,900), M Sport Line ($4,000), LED Lighting Pkg ($2,500), Smartphone Connectivity Pkg ($750), Other options ($6,900) Total $95,210. Freight and taxes extra.
WEBSITE: bmw.ca