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 Jeep Grand Cherokee (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.