BMW's Exceptional X5

The X5 was always one of the most fun SUVs to drive. Now, with a new third-row seat, it's also one of the most practical

Editor's Rating:

The Good: Improved handling and interior, third row of seats, lots of high-tech features

The Bad: High base price, expensive options

The Bottom Line: A great performance SUV—if money is no object

Up Front

The BMW X5 has always been a wolf in sheep's clothing, a quick, sporty, driver's vehicle with the tall, relatively roomy body of a family SUV. So when the German company gave the X5 its first total makeover since its introduction in 2000, designers emphasized both aspects of the vehicle's character.

The new '07 version of the X5 SUV—or "SAV," for Sports Activity Vehicle, as BMW likes to call it—looks a lot like the old one. But it's actually more than seven inches longer, and two-and-a-half inches wider. The extra room went to adding cargo space and an optional third row of seats in back, making the X5 more practical and family-friendly.

However, the new X5 has lost none of the previous model's edge. To the contrary, BMW has gone all-out to make the X5 sportier than ever.

The chassis has been stiffened and—as with a sportscar—the front/rear weight distribution is almost exactly 50/50 if you go with a V8 engine. The X5 also now comes with double-wishbone, multi-link front suspension, and a redesigned rear suspension—a setup that, combined with a longer, 115.5 inch wheelbase and a wider track, gives it better handling on dry pavement while maintaining its off-road capabilities.

In practical terms, that means the '07 X5 has a muscular, athletic feel to it, without the too-hard ride that might upset suburban car-poolers.

As you would expect with a higher-end BMW, the X5 comes packed to the roof racks with high-tech safety and performance enhancements, many of them available as pricey options (more on that later). These include available active steering, active roll stabilization, electronic damping control, and a rear-view backup camera. Electronically controlled all-wheel drive is standard. Standard safety gear includes antilock brakes, stability control, traction control, and hill descent control, as well as front, side, and head airbags.

There are two powerplants to choose from. The 3.0si (the model I test-drove) comes with a 3-liter, 260-horsepower aluminum/magnesium inline six-cylinder engine, while the 4.8i comes with a powerful, 4.8 liter, 360-horsepower all-aluminum V-8. (A previously available 4.4 liter engine has been dropped).

The X5 starts out pricey and, like other BMWs, rises rapidly in price as you add options. The 3.0si and 4.8i have base prices of $46,595 and $55,195, respectively, and while Japanese rival models such as Honda's (HMC) Acura MDX have relatively few pricey add-ons, I count more than two dozen possible a la carte options on the X5.

Among the main ones are a navigation system ($1,900), a rear seat entertainment system ($1,800), the third row of seats ($1,700), active steering ($1,250), a panoramic moonroof ($1,350), a heads up display ($1,000), Sirius satellite radio ($595), and an automatically opening and closing tailgate ($500).

In addition, there are a bunch of option packages to choose from. Some cost less if you go with the bigger engine. For instance, the premium package, which includes a garage door opener, Bluetooth capability, a moonroof, auto-dimming mirrors and some other stuff, costs $2,250 on the 4.8i and $3,950 on the 3.0si. The difference is that with the smaller engine, the package includes leather upholstery and wood trim, which come standard with the V8 version of the X5.

Packages that cost the same on either model include premium sound system ($1,800), ventilated front seats ($2,100), a technology package that includes a rearview camera, navigation system and real-time traffic alerts ($2,600), and a sport package that includes special tires, wheels, seats, and a three-spoke steering wheel, as well as active roll stabilization and active damping control ($3,600).

Last year was a transition year for the X5—and not a strong one. The model's U.S. sales fell by a painful (for BMW) 28.7%, to 26,798. By contrast, BMW's overall U.S sales were up slightly. And in sharp contrast to the X5's dismal year, sales of the smaller, less expensive BMW X3 were up 1.7% last year, to 31,291.

I suspect that the X5's sales were hurt by gasoline-price jitters, as well as the changeover to the new model. With the V8 engine, the X5 is rated to get 15 miles per gallon in the city and 21 on the highway. With the smaller inline six it's rated at 17/23 mpg. However, in 376 miles of largely highway driving of an X5 with the smaller engine, I only got 17.8.

Behind the Wheel

The new X5 has a wonderful feel to it. The steering wheel is chunky and solid-feeling in your hand. The vehicle's height (the new X5 is two inches taller than the old one) means you're sitting up high and looking down on the world, which is how you should feel in an SUV.

The steering is precise, and all the electronic gizmos keep roll to a minimum, even when you drive hard into a curve. The ride is a bit harder than Americans typically prefer, but you want road feel in a BMW.

However, the new X5 is a bit of a hog. With the smaller engine, it weighs in at just shy of 5,000 lbs, and hits 5,335 when powered by the V8. That's more than the old X5s by nearly 300 lbs and more than 400 lbs, respectively.

So acceleration is sluggish, unless you pay up for the V8, which can power the heavy X5 from 0 to 60 mph in a respectable 6.4 seconds. With the smaller engine, I got times of under 8 seconds a couple times, but I couldn't consistently match the 7.8 seconds BMW says the 3.0si will do. Usually I got around 8.2 seconds.

Both engines are mated with a lightning quick, six-speed automatic transmission, which BMW says shifts gears 50% faster than a conventional automatic. When you put the transmission in manual mode, there's virtually no lag time between when you push the lever and the shift occurs. However, the transmission isn't as smooth as the Acura MDX's. The shifts are harder and louder, and X5 seems to search more for the right gear going up hills.

Many of the important functions in the X5 are now electronic. The "key" is a rectangular plug-like device that you stick in the dash, and you start the engine by pushing a button. (This seems odd to me. Why not a key you can keep in your pocket that activates the push-button starter, like the ones other luxury models have?)

The X5's shift lever is also electronic. You push a button on top of the shifter for park. Push forward for reverse, back for drive. Ditto for the parking brake, which is set and unset by the push of a button. There's no cable.

The interior is well-made and designed. Leatherette upholstery is standard in the 3.0si, but you can upgrade to real leather for an extra $1,450. Leather is standard on the 4.8i. The front cupholders are big enough to hold a half-liter bottle of Coke. There is adequate leg, shoulder, and head room in both the front and back seats. My test car didn't have third-row seats, but you can bet that they're way too cramped for adults (the ones in the MDX are, and it's the same length as the X5).

Both the second- and third-row seats fold down flat to create a huge hauling space. BMW's designers made space for this by dispensing with the spare tire: If you go with the third-row seat option, you get run-flat tires instead. But you can get a real spare if you don't get the extra seats.

The controls are far from intuitive to use, but work wonderfully once you figure them out. Mercifully, a lot of functions have been pulled out of BMW's notoriously complicated iDrive system. For instance, you can tune the radio by going into the system and manipulating a control on the screen, but you can also do it with old-fashioned buttons on the steering wheel. It helps to have a "menu" button you can push any time you have trouble.

But you may have to consult the owner's manual to learn how to do even simple tasks, like operate the trip computer and lock all the doors at once (which is done via a single switch in the middle of the dash).

Buy it or Bag It?

The X5's relatively high base price and expensive optional equipment make it one of the most expensive SUVs in the premium mid-size segment. According to Power Information Group, the '07 X5's recent average selling price is $60,094, an indication that a lot of buyers are going with the V8 engine and a fair number of options. Also, strikingly, half of all buyers pay cash for their X5, while only 27.5% finance their purchase and 23.2% lease. (Power Information Group, like, is a unit of The McGraw-Hill Cos. (MHP).)

That's not the profile of a buyer struggling to make ends meet, and if you're in that what-me-worry-about-money category, the obvious competing models to consider are the pricey Audi Q7 (see, 12/8/06, "Audi's Q Factor") and the even pricier Porsche Cayenne. The Q7, which is based on the same platform as the Cayenne and Volkswagen Touareg, goes for $41,000-plus with a V6 and $51,000-plus with a V8. The Cayenne starts at around $44,000 and shoots up to over $90,000 with a turbo-charged engine.

However, if money is a concern, or you're considering going with the smaller engine on the X5 to save on gas, there are numerous less-expensive competing models to consider. According to Power, the average selling price of DaimlerChrysler's (DCX) Mercedes M-Class is $49,330, the Acura MDX $44,866, the Infiniti FX $42,433 (see, 6/23/06, "Complex FX"), Ford's (F) Volvo XC90 $42,325 (see, 1/10/07, "Volvo's Exceptional XC90"), and General Motors' (GM) Cadillac SRX $42,072 (see, 1/20/06, "Cadillac's Crossover").

Within that group, I'm now a huge fan of the '07 Acura MDX, which I test-drove the same week as the X5. The BMW is about four inches taller than the Acura, giving it a bigger, bulkier profile, but the two models are almost exactly the same length. The Acura is also slightly quicker than the X5 3.0si and has sporty handling that will appeal to people who like to drive, as well as third-row seats that make it practical for carpoolers. Loaded to the max, the MDX tops out at $48,465, only slightly more than the base price of an X5 with a six-cylinder engine.

Look for a review of the MDX in the near future. In the meantime, be sure to test-drive an MDX if you're considering buying an X5. Unless, of course, money is no object. In that case, there's nothing quite like a Bimmer.

Click here to see more of the 2007 BMW X5.

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