Three-row crossovers present a dicey challenge for luxury brands, particularly those that have built their name on sporty sedans. Should they prioritize comfort over cachet, or do they stay true to their mission at the expense of practicality? BMW does the best job of any automaker offering crossover practicality while still meeting the brand's promise. The X5 may not be the most powerful or the quickest crossover you can by, but it does have the best powertrain. That's thanks to skillful calibration of the best hardware in the business: a responsive, energetic, turbocharged in-line six-cylinder and a snappy eight-speed automatic transmission. BMW's expertise in suspension tuning is obvious as well. The BMW's ride is comfortable and the handling is impressive even without air springs or adaptive dampers.
There is room for improvement, though. At parking-lot speeds, the steering is unbearably heavy, and I repeatedly hunted for a "comfort" button to increase the power assist as I wended through parking lots. The X5 also has a peculiar seating position that makes the driver feel like he's sitting quite high in an almost bus-like vantage point. It compromises the sporty feeling and dilutes the X5's actual handling capabilities. At the very least, BMW should fit a power seat that can be lowered another inch or two.
Eric Tingwall, Associate Editor
Oh, yes. Get behind the wheel, put it in drive, and in less than a second, it's immediately obvious that you're in a BMW; there is a feeling of weight and solidity to the entire vehicle. Heavy steering is communicative and precise but, quite frankly, is probably a turnoff to some buyers, who might prefer the light-and-easy movement of the Infiniti JX35.
The powertrain performance is superb, with none of the off-the-line hesitation that has plagued some iterations of the 5- and 7-series sedans.
Really, one might argue that this vehicle hardly belongs in the category of three-row crossovers, since it appears that X5s with third-row seats are thin on the ground and that BMW has only begrudgingly even offered such a feature.
What the X5 has is an extraordinary pedigree - it is by far the most blue-chip member of its class - and plenty of high-cost, high-value German engineering. That also means that it is expensive. Also, the X5 feels heavy; perhaps too heavy for some female buyers.
Joe DeMatio, Deputy Editor
Like all BMWs, this X5 is dynamically excellent. Its powertrain is first-rate, with a 300-hp turbocharged in-line six-cylinder engine mated to a smooth-shifting eight-speed automatic transmission that can alternatively be shifted manually or set in sport mode for more aggressive driving. The suspension is also tuned for enthusiastic driving, as it shines when the vehicle is moving quickly on undulating or curvy smoothly surfaced roads. Having said that, I drove it on the bumpy surfaces we call roads here in Michigan. And they're even more bumpy than usual during pothole season (otherwise known as springtime). That's when the rather stiff suspension tuning and nineteen-inch wheels make the ride unduly harsh for a luxury SUV. Unlike some of my colleagues, I don't have a problem with the heavy steering - perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I learned to drive in a car without power steering and I remember what truly heavy steering really feels like.
The design of the X5 holds no surprises, either inside or out. It's unmistakably a BMW, hewing consistently to the current BMW design aesthetic. Anyone who has previously driven a BMW - any BMW - will not have a learning curve when getting into the X5. The climate controls are simple and well labeled, and the iDrive controller, whether through familiarity or continued improvements, is much more intuitive than earlier iterations. Anyone who has owned a smaller BMW and is looking to move up in size could do much worse than the X5.
Amy Skogstrom, Managing Editor
The 3.0-liter twin-turbo six-cylinder is the base engine in the X5, but it by no means feels sluggish. Personally, I'd prefer surfing the torque surges of the diesel engine in the xDrive35d (which is EPA-rated at 22 mpg combined versus the 35i's 19 mpg). The V-8-powered 50i (which has a 16-mpg EPA combined rating) seems like a status symbol rather than a wise purchase decision, particularly since all three powertrains have the same 6000-pound towing capacity.
Speaking of the X5's versatility, I was able to haul eight eight-foot-long two-by-fours with the hatch closed and the second-row seats in place and two child seats still hooked in. How? Open that handy pass-through in the middle of the back seats, put down a blanket to protect the car, and butt the boards against the small but useful lower tailgate. The boards extended to the shifter, but they were elevated so that all controls were still accessible.
Other things I noticed: Kids love the huge sunroof. The HVAC blower is quite loud, even on its lowest setting. The running boards are at the perfect height to dirty your pantlegs but too high to conveniently step onto, at least for me. And like Amy Skogstrom, I was not bothered by the heavy steering.
Rusty Blackwell, Copy Editor
Might we be approaching the day when the X5 is the purest BMW? As one of the oldest vehicles in the company's lineup, it lacks many of the compromises you'll now find even in the 3-series. The dash is simple, nearly monochrome. The steering is heavy -- too heavy. The engine note is unmistakable for its smooth baritone. It is, as Joe DeMatio notes, a vehicle you can instantly identify with its Bavarian maker, never mind the fact that it's a big crossover. And that impression doesn't fade when you chuck it through some tight corners. If you're first priority when buying a crossover is an engaging driving experience, the X5 remains the obvious choice. Then again, if the driving experience really is your priority, you'd do better to skip the crossover segment altogether, or at least spend less than $60,000 on one (you can use the left over cash on a used Mazda Miata).
David Zenlea, Assistant Editor
I found myself in a BMW dealer last week, looking at two pre-owned X5s that were equipped with the optional third-row seat. The sales advisor peeked his head in the back door and looked around: "yeah, we get most of these off of corporate loan." Roughly translated: the BMW X5 only really makes sense as a three-row SUV when you're paid to drive BMWs.
It's a dark mark on an otherwise spectacular car. I'd gladly own an X5 if I needed a car to hold kids and a dog, and blast all of them down the local back roads on the way to school or the park. The X5 is a dynamic god on back roads, and it takes all of ten seconds behind the wheel to discern that.
But the X5's convenience is limited relative to many of its competitors. It's not as comfortable as an Acura MDX, and unlike the Audi Q7, the third-row seat is an extra-cost option. If you've got two children and a lead foot, go for it. If not, you might want to keep looking.
Ben Timmins, Associate Web Editor