New Car Reviews

First Drive: 2011 BMW X5

How will you know a new, 2011 BMW X5 when you see one? You probably won’t. The second-generation X5, introduced for 2007, has received its mid-cycle freshening, but even the most hard-core BMW fanboys will be hard-pressed to tell it apart from the 2007-2010 models.

For the car’s press introduction, BMW helpfully produced composite pictures of the front and the rear, half old car and half new, so one could more easily discern the resized lower air intakes, the repositioned foglamps (they’re not as recessed as before), the bit of matte silver under the bumpers, and the reshaped exhaust tips. But without this handy side-by-side study guide, your new 2011-model X5 is unlikely to make your neighbor’s head swivel, nor are valets likely to grant you any more respect than if you pulled up in a three-year-old X5.

What’s really new

Instead of restyling the X5, BMW concentrated its efforts in the engine room. Even so, two of the four engine choices are carryover. The six-cylinder turbo-diesel, which was just introduced for 2009, is one, but that engine’s beguiling combination of 425 lb-ft of torque, coupled with the ability to post EPA numbers of 19 mpg city and 26 mpg highway, hardly mark it as a candidate for an upgrade. And at the top of the model range, the 4.4-liter turbo V-8 in the X5 M was similarly left alone, its 555 hp and 500 lb-ft apparently deemed sufficient, at least for the time being.

The two mainstay gasoline engines, however, are both new. In place of the old, normally aspirated straight six, the X5 now uses a new, turbocharged unit. It is not the twin-turbo example we know and love in the 135i, the 335i, and elsewhere, but instead is the latest generation turbo six. (Note to BMW geeks: that’s codename N55, rather than N45 for the older, twin-turbo six.) It appears also in the 535i Gran Turismo and the 2011 335i coupe/convertible—both out this spring—and shortly in the new 535i sedan, on sale in June.

Now with a single turbocharger, direct injection, and Valvetronic, it produces 300 hp and 300 lb-ft (the same as the old twin-turbo six, depending on the application) but is more fuel-efficient and more easily meets emissions standards. In any event, its 300 ponies are 40 more than you got in the 2010-model X5, which had a normally aspirated six, and the 300 lb-ft is an even bigger increase over that car, which was rated at 225 lb-ft. Although the engine displaces the same 3.0 liters, its more bodacious output evidently has earned the base car a bigger number in its ridiculously complex model designation: X5 xDrive35i, rather than X5 xDrive30i.

The V-8 X5 has been granted a new model designation, too: xDrive50i—up from xDrive48i—as its new eight-cylinder engine has also made leaps in output while actually going down in size. In place of the previous, normally aspirated 4.8-liter V-8, there is a new, 4.4-liter unit that sports direct injection and two turbochargers. The change takes power up from 350 to 400 hp and torque from 350 to 450 lb-ft. This twin-turbo V-8 was first introduced in the X6 and will soon appear in the new 550i. Although more powerful than the outgoing 4.8-liter, the new turbo V-8 should return about the same fuel economy: 14/19 mpg.

Both gasoline engines use a new transmission, BMW’s eight-speed automatic, seen previously in the twelve-cylinder 7-series and the 5-series Gran Turismo. Compared with the six-speed (which still sees duty in the X5 diesel and the M), the eight-cog gearbox has more tightly spaced ratios as well as taller top gears, aiding fuel economy. Also helping the cause of efficiency—again with the gasoline engines only—is regenerative braking, which allows the engine to expend less energy to keep the battery charged.

Underneath it all

With the introduction of the second-generation X5, BMW switched the SUV from the brand’s traditional damper-strut front suspension to control arms; at the rear is a multilink setup. Both are essentially unchanged here, with only minor revisions to spring and damper tuning. Active damping, with a selectable sport mode (Adaptive Drive, in BMW-speak), previously part of the M Sport package, can now be ordered on its own, although it’s pricey at $3500. Active steering remains, thankfully, a stand-alone option (for $1550); it’s most notable in parking maneuvers, where it lessens wheel winding, but it’s somewhat strange and nonlinear.

For 2011, the chips governing the brakes have gotten smarter, compensating for brake fade, preloading the brakes when the driver abruptly lifts off the accelerator pedal, periodically wiping wet brakes, and adding a hill-holder function. The traction control allows a bit more wheel spin (helpful in deep snow). Of course, all-wheel drive is standard. Wheels range in size from eighteen to twenty inches, depending on the model and options.

What’s inside

The X5’s plush cabin remains essentially unchanged, seating five — or seven with the optional kid-size third-row seat ($1700 and available on all but the base trim level). New driver aids include active cruise control and lane-departure warning. The backup camera has added an overhead-view function, and buyers also can order sideview cameras (for peeking out into traffic) as well. BMW has upgraded the X5 to the fourth-generation iDrive, which, as ever, promises greater user-friendliness, with more logical menu logic and dedicated buttons for more functions.

On the road

At our test-drive event, the only version on hand was the xDrive35i. So, how does it drive? It’s quicker. BMW says it can hustle from 0 to 60 mph in 6.4 seconds, which just happens to match the time for the previous V-8. (Good thing the new V-8 has gotten quicker as well, zooming to 60 mph in 5.3 seconds.) We found the turbo six adept at charging from 40 to 80 mph, easily dispensing with dawdlers on the two-lane highways on the outskirts of the Florida Everglades. Shift paddles would have been welcome—and more intuitive to use than the joystick shift lever, with its push-for-downshift, pull-for-upshift operation—but the eight-speed box is extremely responsive when left to its own devices. The eight-speed automatic also helps the six-cylinder powertrain achieve a predicted 10 percent gain in fuel economy, although EPA numbers aren’t out yet. (The 2010 xDrive30i was rated at 15/21 mpg.)

We were pleased that the new, regenerative brakes maintain a natural pedal feel, unlike the springy pedal action in the X6 ActiveHybrid. In our Active Drive-equipped test car, we were hard-pressed to discern any difference in ride or steering between Sport and standard mode on the straight, flat, and mostly smooth roads of South Florida. The current X5 in general rides better than the first-generation vehicle, and its steering is pleasantly weighted. Although tall and heavy, it is nonetheless a sport-utility that doesn’t ignore the “sport.”

In stores soon

Production of the 2011-model X5 starts in May, and it should be available at dealerships shortly thereafter. The base price of the six-cylinder model has been cut slightly, from $48,475 to $46,674. Now, however, there are two additional trim levels for the base-engine car: Premium ($52,475) and Sports Activity ($54,975). Both the diesel ($52,175) and the V-8 ($59,275) are sold in a single trim level. Although the price cut is certainly welcome, what’s surprising is how much equipment remains optional, including leather upholstery (!), on the base car and the diesel; the third-row seat; navigation, even on the most expensive versions; Bluetooth; and satellite radio. So be prepared to spend a bit more than the base price.

Engine: 24-valve DOHC turbocharged direct-injection I-6
Displacement: 3.0 liters
Horsepower: 300 hp @ 5800–6250 rpm
Torque: 300 lb-ft @ 1200–5000 rpm
Transmission type: 8-speed automatic
Drive: 4-wheel

Steering: Power rack-and-pinion
Suspension, F: Control arms, coil springs
Suspension, R: Multilink, coil springs
Brakes: Vented discs, ABS
Tire size: 255/55R18

L x W x H: 191.2 x 76.1 x 69.9 in
Wheelbase: 115.5 in
Track F/R: 64.7/65 in
Weight: 4960 lb
Fuel mileage: 16/23 mpg (estimated)

Buying Guide
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0-60 MPH:

6.1 SECS


16 City / 23 Hwy

Cargo (Std/Max):

NA / 75.2 cu. ft.