This is the Munich company's spin on luxury 4x4 motoring - and to be honest, this sector had long been in need of it. Before this BMW arrived, a Range Rover was always the most car-like all-rounder you could buy in this class, but if you were used to the responses of a sharp sports saloon, that wasn't saying much. In contrast, the X5 moves the game to a different level.
Owners of other luxury 4x4s may have a different view on this of course. They will point out that unlike its opposition, the X5 isn't built on the kind of separate ladder-framed chassis previously deemed necessary for heavy-duty work. They will point out its lack of a low ratio gearbox and the fact that its ground clearance (just 180mm) is less not only than off road rivals but also of some car-based 4x4s. In short, they will suggest it to be a 5 Series in a trendy new suit.
Even if that were true - and it isn't - the X5 would be a truly excellent car. The cabin is so car-like that it makes other rivals' efforts seem positively utilitarian. You sit in the required lofty position (180mm higher than you would in a 5 Series) but somehow the feeling is more of being in a sports saloon than in a 4x4. The all-round visibility helps too, making this car feel smaller than a 5 Series Touring, despite its much greater luggage space (465 as opposed to 410 litres). That space is accessible too, thanks to a horizontally split rear hatch split in electronically operated sections. You can open the upper window to put in smaller items or fold down the bottom to extend the floor for longer objects or to facilitate tailgate picnics. Unless you're into serious off roading - or pale at the asking price - it's hard to think of many reasons not to buy one.
The BMW X5 has no known faults although it would be wise3 to check the underbody, exhaust and suspension for signs of damage from overenthusiastic off-roading. Over enthusiastic on-roading may well have taken its toll on the car too. The sports models fitted with 19-inch wheels are prone to kerbing damage and an enthusiastically driven example can soon make mincemeat of its front tyres which, at around £200 per corner that could be a bill you don't want to be saddled with. The 4.6-litre version runs on 20-inch tyres that may be difficult to source. Try not to get tucked up by paying over the odds for an imported car.
(approx. based on a 2001 X5 3.0i) A replacement clutch is around £130, while front brake pads weigh in around £50 and an alternator (exchange) roughly £230.
Pre-launch publicity for the X5 had trumpeted its ability to lap the Nurburgring within seconds of a 328Ci coupe, whilst offering 'extended capabilities', and the class leading safety of a monocoque chassis. This last point is important. Until recently, most 4x4s utilised a primitive separate, or ladder, chassis arrangement that offered flexibility and an agricultural articulation to their off road capabilities, but led to correspondingly crude handling on road, whereas the X5 has the skeleton of a road car. The pandering to the US market doesn't promise much, the US market being the key destination for high specification Sports Activity Vehicles, as BMW dubs the X5. The SAV, or Schoolrun And Vacation as one wag dubbed it, is a more urbane offshoot of the huge American 'truck' market, and the X5 was styled in a Californian design studio.
Packing a 4.4 litre V8 engine under its clamshell hood sorry, bonnet, the X5 generates 286 bhp in standard trim, and will accelerate to 60 mph in around seven seconds. The 3.0-litre cars probably make more sense, and early signs show the X5 3.0d to be the most popular with UK buyers. The V8 is the one that's' genuinely inspiring to drive, however. Knowing that you're packing that much power, it becomes slightly disquieting to climb up into the superbly finished interior and realise you're perched up on stilts. The engine generates a reassuringly proper V8 burble, albeit muted somewhat by its water-cooled alternator and several thick, American inches of down-home quality. Though the throttle and brakes are pretty abrupt, the first corner is telling. The X5 rolls initially but not alarmingly, and as several corners are stitched together, confidence grows. The ride is supple and the speed sensitive power steering requires little effort to place the car accurately into a corner, although the rather high gearing facilitates a fair degree of twirling and a flaccid feel when driving straight ahead. The 5 speed automatic gearbox does little to blunt the impact of that power, and although the X5 weighs in at a big-boned 280kg heavier and sits 272mm higher than the equivalent 5 series estate, acceleration is always tight and punchy.
The handling off road is better than you'd think. BMW fought shy of labelling the X5 an off road vehicle, because it clearly is not. Imaginative euphemisms are utilised at every opportunity. Other roads. Extended capabilities. Trail and track. Steep downhill sections will demonstrate the Hill Descent Control system purloined from Land Rover. Unsurprisingly, the X5's lack of wheel articulation and reduced ratio gearbox coupled with its reliance on wide road tyres limits its ultimate capabilities.
Taken onto a test track, the X5 is great fun. With its Dynamic Stability Control switched off, the X5 will perform a graceless, understeering lurch through tighter corners, its tall tyres generating the sorts of tortured rending sounds most often associated with the destruction of a Bond villain's lair. With the DSC switched in, the X5 can be hustled around in a smooth, tidy, vaguely humbling manner and it's only when you see how hard drivers of conventional tackle have to try to keep a well-driven X5 in sight that you realise the sum of BMW's achievement. The 3.0-litre cars make more sense financially, either due to their significantly less intimidating up-front price, the fact that they'll depreciate less and the fact that in this land of crippling fuel bills, the 3.0d returns an average of 29mpg compared to the 3.0i's 22 and the 4.4i's dismal 20.
The BMW X5 is so far ahead of the rest of the pack it's scarcely credible. If you can afford one, buy one. A silver 4.4 Sport would sit alongside a blue Skyline GT-R in my fantasy garage.