At Automobile Magazine, we have been very public in displaying our affection for BMW cars, showering them with awards and our own precious money. In the office, BMW keys are highly coveted, provided we don’t have to haul our kids, our dogs, and our sinks. For that purpose, sport-utes are the vehicles of choice. Yet we viewed BMW’s foray into the sport-utility market with equal parts anticipation and trepidation. On the one hand, a sport-utility that promised to drive like a BMW approached our idea of automotive perfection. On the other hand, it was disheartening to watch another hallowed carmaker follow Lincoln, Cadillac, and Mercedes-Benz into the sport-ute hills, prospecting for profits. After a year and 37,000 miles in an X5 4.4i, we found that it does indeed drive like a BMW. But we have yet to decide if BMW should be in the sport-ute business or even if the X5 is a sport-ute at all.
Some worried about the X5’s relevance to BMW. Senior editor Joe Lorio ranted: “Must every carmaker build a sport-ute? It’s as ridiculous as if every manufacturer were to field a full-size pickup, or an econobox, or an armor-plated luxury sedan. I think the X5 represents the wrong direction for BMW.”
For others, the X5 posed more of a semantic dilemma than a philosophical one: Can we call the X5 a sport-ute even though it lacks most of an SUV’s defining characteristics? It has a unitized chassis, not a ladder frame. It has a sophisticated independent suspension, not a live rear axle with leaf springs. It also lacks a low range in its transfer case, which some SUVs wear as a badge of honor.
Most damning in our eyes, the X5 doesn’t accommodate much cargo, with a meager 23.8 cubic feet of space behind the rear seats. This is far less than that of other bona fide SUVs, such as the (39.0 cu ft), the Land Rover Discovery (40.5 cu ft), and the Mitsubishi Montero (42.1 cu ft). Indeed, the X5 holds even less than BMW’s own 5-series wagon (32.1 cu ft). As a result, driving the X5 often required leaving a sink, a dog, or a kid at home.
Thus began the name game. Online editor Greg Anderson called the X5 a “tall 5-series wagon with worse gas mileage.” Founder and editor emeritus David E. Davis, Jr., felt it was more of an “all-wheel-drive mini-minivan” than an SUV. Executive editor Mark Gillies abandoned automotive terminology altogether, branding the X5 “an odd fish but a really good one.” Most staffers agreed that whatever the X5 is, it’s a good one.
The chassis and suspension inspired much praise. After a 1200-mile weekend, contributor Ronald Ahrens wrote: “There’s no shake, the car remains composed over railroad tracks, and road-surface irregularities are nothing but trifles. Ride quality is simply astounding.” Senior editor Eddie Alterman lauded its superb damping and over-the-road comportment. Managing editor Amy Skogstrom praised the taut suspension, preferring it to the “lumbering ride” of traditional SUVs. The sole dissenting voice came from design editor Robert Cumberford, who called the ride “jiggly” and the X5 “a terrible waste of a marvelous engine.”
So even a cranky man with a penchant for French automobiles could find no fault withthe powertrain. The same 4.4-liter V-8 and five-speed manu-matic transmission motivate BMW’s 540i, 740i, and X5 4.4i. Somehow, the powertrain feels perfectly matched to each application, even though only the final-drive ratio is changed. In the X5, the short 3.54 ratio helped get our 4980-pound test vehicle from 0 to 60 mph in a brisk 7.1 seconds, with effortless acceleration and almost seamless shifts.
The powertrain and chassis made for stellar towing. After pulling a U-Haul trailer laden with his dismantled Lotus racing car back from Indianapolis, Gillies wrote: “This is a far better tow vehicle than the XL Denali I used to take the Lotus to Indy (with the same kind of trailer). For one, you don’t get blown around. For two, it just sits at 80 mph all day. Just because a vehicle can haul a house doesn’t mean it can tow well. The BMW may not have a huge towing capacity, but it tows superbly.”
Anderson recanted his earlier dismissal of the X5 as merely a tall wagon after using it to collect an impulse eBay Motors purchase from Sacramento, California: “Even with the 1972 BMW 2002tii riding piggyback, the X5 maintained 80 mph without breaking a sweat. Only in the high elevations of northern Nevada did it ever seem to struggle, searching for lower gears on long uphill sections. The X5 handles the trailer with ease, no jolting or wagging. It feels more like a train than a truck. If it weren’t for the 2002 in the rear-view, I could forget we were pulling anything.”
Part of the X5’s road-trip virtue can be credited to our vehicle’s heavy content and hefty price. The $1200 sixteen-way front seats were worth every penny, coddling our road-weary bones. The $500 high-intensity-discharge headlights eased the strain of night driving, and the $200 in-dash CD player made crossing radio-free Wyoming a bit easier. Incredibly, our $54,500 test vehicle still didn’t have heated seats, much less other options such as a heated steering wheel, rear-window sunshades, a rear parking aid, or a navigation system.
Although the X5 also lacked a low range, it performed admirably off-road. After some off-road testing, Lorio grudgingly admitted that the X5 really does work off the pavement. However, we spent far more time navigating snow squalls than off-road parks. The full-time four-wheel-drive system and brake-based four-wheel traction control pulled the X5 through even the foulest storms. Driving in near white-out conditions, Skogstrom watched other vehicles skate off the pavement, yet the X5 proved to be “perfectly stable, with no slipping or sliding.”
The X5 also proved to be well built. Even after 36,966 miles, the interior showed little wear or tear, and nary a creak or rattle was heard. The service indicator called for fresh oil only twice, at 15,532 miles and at 28,854 miles, both times covered by warranty. There were only two mechanical problems. One was a mysterious gremlin that occasionally caused the fuel tank to read a false empty or, more worrisome, a false full tank. Inevitably, the problem rectified itself just before we took the X5 in for repair.
The other mechanical problem was less amusing. During a holiday shopping frenzy, art director Molly Jean parked the X5 in a mall lot. Upon her return, it obstinately refused to start. Friends were called for advice. Mall security was contacted for a jump start. Finally, BMW’s roadside assistance was enlisted. They suspected the engine immobilizer had been triggered and had Jean perform Candid Camera antics in the snow-covered lot: “Open all doors, and then close them counterclockwise, starting with the driver’s door.” This may have entertained passersby, but it failed to awaken the X5. Three hours after the trauma began, the X5 was finally carted off to a nearby dealership. A bad battery and a faulty hatch release were replaced under warranty.
That episode was an exception in a year ruled by the X5’s competence and performance. It’s clear from twelve months with our X5–and the 64,354 other X5s sold–that BMW has a tremendous hit in its showrooms. BMW executives must agree, for they are expanding the X line into its own category of mini-minivans, tall wagons, and odd fish. For 2002, they introduced the X5 4.6is, with 340 horsepower and 350 pound-feet of torque, answering a request for more power that none of our staff ever voiced. We’d rather see BMW introduce a stretched X5 with more cargo space. That would be perfect, whatever you might care to call it.