A Country Club Suv From Bimmer

The elan of a sport sedan and real off-road credentials

The BMW races through Turn 5 at the Road Atlanta track, a wicked left hook at the end of a series of S-curves. It hugs the road with assurance. I ease my sweaty grip on the steering wheel and prepare for the next treacherous curve. That's when I remember I'm not in a sporty 540i sedan, but in something that gives every appearance of being a sport-utility vehicle. In fact, it's the same BMW X5 in which, a few hours earlier, I was slithering down the red-clay banks of creek beds and jolting along heavily rutted tracks where no self-respecting Bimmer would dare to trek.

Welcome to the brave new world of crossover vehicles. The X5, built in Spartanburg, S.C., is one of a hybridized breed that combines the off-road appeal of the SUV with the luxury of an import sedan. Mercedes was first in 1997 with the V6-powered ML320, followed a year later by its V8 ML430. Their sticker prices now start at $35,875 and $44,325, respectively. Lexus came alongside in 1998 with the Japanese-made RX 300, based on the Camry and selling for $34,400. Now it's BMW's turn.

Although the German carmaker is late to the party, it has put the extra time to good advantage. The X5, arriving in dealer showrooms in early December, is the most satisfying--and expensive--solution yet to Baby Boomers' seemingly conflicting desires for rugged outdoorsiness, creature comfort, and high-performance handling. With more refined road manners than the Alabama-built M class and better off-road skills than the RX 300, the $49,970 X5 handles roads and ruts with equal aplomb. Indeed, analysts say BMW hopes to sell at least 35,000 X5s annually by 2001, and early signs hint that demand will be intense. An X5 scheduled to be the first delivered in the U.S. sold on Nov. 7 at an eBay auction benefiting the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation for $159,100.

BMW, of course, already sells SUVs made by its Land Rover unit in Britain. But it was leery of tarnishing the image of its BMW brand as "the ultimate driving machine" with a harsh-riding SUV. That's why BMW officials insist on calling the X5 a "sports activity vehicle," to distinguish it from its truck-based rivals. Those include upscale SUVs such as the Lexus LX470, Lincoln Navigator, and Cadillac Escalade, which are built on traditional truck chassis. Mercedes itself makes the huge and ultra-expensive Gelandewagen SUV.

NEAT GADGET. The X5 rides on a new, car-style chassis that permits nimble handling and a smooth ride. But BMW engineers have given the X5 serious off-road credentials that image-conscious Americans demand--though the carmaker estimates that only 4% of luxury SUVs ever leave the pavement. The X5 boasts full-time four-wheel-drive, plus traction control to keep wheels from spinning in mud or snow. Perhaps the neatest gadget is the descent control. Push a dashboard button as you approach a steep downhill slope and the vehicle automatically controls brakes and throttle to maintain full traction at 5 mph.

The X5's styling is on the mark: Sleek, yet muscular, with a rakish spoiler tilting over the rear window. Like the best of the luxury SUVs, the BMW combines easy step-in access with a road-commanding perch nine inches higher than most sedans. The interior features the usual acres of wood and leather. With the rear seat folded down, it's spacious enough to hold a couple mountain bikes. But the best stuff is tucked out of sight. Step on the gas, and the X5's 4.4-liter V8 accelerates smoothly from zero to 60 mph in 7.5 seconds. To smooth the X5's ride, BMW gave it a double-pivot front suspension, like the top-of-the-line 7-series sedans, as well as big stabilizer bars and self-leveling air suspension. To provide a lower center of gravity and improve stability, the drive train is about four inches lower than on a conventional SUV.

Safety was a big focus in the X5 design. Although government and insurance industry crash testing in the U.S. and Europe isn't complete, BMW says its simulation of those tests suggests the X5 will rate at the highest levels, thanks to reinforced body structures that dissipate crash forces more effectively than standard trucks.

The X5's polished performance on and off the road could spell trouble for its competition. Mercedes' M class is surefooted on rocky back roads or snowy streets. But take a curving freeway ramp at a good clip and you get a sharp reminder you're driving a truck from the slightly tippy sensation resulting from its high center of gravity. Nonetheless, Mercedes officials say the luxury SUV segment can easily accommodate new players. In fact, Mercedes plans to roll out a limited-edition ML55 by January. Its 5.5-liter V8 kicks out 342 horsepower and it can rocket from zero to 60 mph in 6.4 seconds--not bad for a 5,000-pound vehicle. Lexus, meanwhile, never claimed serious off-roading capability for its RX 300, leaving that to its $59,500 LX 470, an upscale version of the truck-based Toyota Land Cruiser. Where the RX 300 excels is in its silky handling and quiet ride on city streets and highways.

Any vehicle that attempts to straddle two totally different segments is destined to disappoint some dedicated enthusiasts of one or the other. If you're intent on tackling trails, a Jeep or Land Rover will remain your first choice. For high-speed performance, stick to a sports car. But if you're a well-heeled suburbanite who spends most of your time commuting and also wants to be able to reach that snowed-in cabin from time to time, the X5 could surge ahead of the M-Class and the RX 300 as the luxury sport-ute to own.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.