2003 BMW X5 Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
On-road performance, BMW panache.
BMW X5 is fast, comfortable, and prestigious. It delivers superb handling and excellent performance. X5's straight-line and freeway manners are great. It feels stable, the steering is precise, and the ride is smooth. The V8 engines provide plenty of power, making the X5 faster in the race away from traffic lights than most cars. For 2003, X5 is more luxurious and better-equipped.
Last year's new 4.6is model took SUV performance to new heights, with a powerful V8 that delivered 0 to 60 mph times in the 6.5-second range. That's quick, but 4.6is is also fast: On paper, it's capable of nearly 150 mph, though we don't recommend driving a vehicle this tall that fast. Massive tires contribute to impressive cornering grip and stopping power.
Logically, the X5 makes little sense. It is not highly capable off road, at least not when measured against other sport-utilities. X5 offers less cargo capacity than a BMW 5 Series wagon and its high floor makes loading cargo more challenging. Though it handles well for an SUV, its weight means it does not offer the quick transient response of a sport sedan or sport wagon in the same price range. As compared to other BMWs, X5 is not the ultimate driving machine.
Logic may not be a factor at here, however. X5 is sporty, stylish and upscale. That twin-kidney grille indicates a successful owner. It also indicates BMW's reputation for quality and driving excitement. It works well in foul weather, and easily negotiates muddy trails. Inside, it's luxurious and comfortable. It also offers the command seating position many people like. Perhaps those are among the reasons X5 sales are so strong. BMW sold 42,742 X5s in 2002, up from 2001.
For 2003, all X5 models feature brake lights that illuminate quickly and more intensely under hard braking. Adjustable ride height is now available on 3.0i and 4.4i models with the Sport Package. The tires that come with the 4.4i Sport Package have been upgraded from H-rated to V-rated, and the electronic speed limiter is now deleted with this package, lifting top speed from 128 to 143 mph (though, again, we don't recommend traveling at those velocities).
Interior leather is smoother for 2003. Onboard navigation is functionally improved and now features a DVD database. And the rear-seat Head Protection System (HPS) is now standard, a very important feature.
BMW X5 comes as three models, with increasing horsepower and standard equipment: 3.0i ($39,500); 4.4i ($49,950); and 4.6is ($66,800).
BMW launched the X5 (for 2000) as a single, upscale model, powered by a 4.4-liter V8 engine mated to a five-speed Steptronic transmission. For 2001, BMW added the lower-priced 3.0i model, powered by a 2.8-liter inline-six driving through a five-speed manual gearbox, with the Steptronic automatic as an option. The six-cylinder engine produces 225 horsepower, compared to 290 for the 4.4-liter V8. And the 3.0i rolls on 17-inch wheels, rather than the 18-inch rims found under the 4.4i.
The super-high-performance 4.6is joined the model line for 2002, pumped up by a 4.6-liter V8 rated 340 horsepower and 350 pounds-feet of torque. That's mega-power, by any standard. The 4.6is comes with a five-speed Steptronic transmission similar to the one found on the 4.4i, but programmed and geared differently for a more sporting character. Its 20-inch wheels and W-rated tires (275/40 in front and 315/35 in the rear) are wide enough to impress Fred Flintstone. Unique trim cues distinguish this model, including a rear air diffusor, wind splitters at the sides of front and rear bumpers, a titanium-finish bumper grille, and Shadowline trim with clear turn signal and side marker lenses. Two big, chromed oval exhaust outlets finish off the rear. 4.6is comes with a comprehensive list of luxury equipment, including xenon high-intensity discharge (HID) low-beam headlamps, rain-sensing windshield wipers, and a powered glass moonroof.
3.0i and 4.4i are well-equipped, and can be fitted with a short list of stand-alone options and four popular option packages. The moonroof, for example lists for $1,099 by itself, but is also included the Premium Package for both models. A Sport Package ($2100 on 3.0i, $1600 on 4.4i), which tightens the suspension and upgrades interior and exterior trim; and an adjustable ride-height system ($1200 for 3.0i and $500 on 4.4i) used to be mutually exclusive but are now available in combination.
Rear-mounted side-impact air bags ($385), a retractable load floor ($380), and satellite navigation ($1800) are extra-cost options on all X5 models, including the 4.6is.
To help keep drivers on the road and in control, all X5s come with full-time all-wheel drive and Dynamic Stability Control, which includes traction control, electronic brake proportioning, Dynamic Brake Control, an electronic stability program, and Hill Descent Control. Additionally, all X5s benefit from a four-wheel independent suspension, four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, and rack-and-pinion steering.
There's no question who builds this vehicle. X5 is immediately recognizable as a BMW. It looks like a 5 Series wagon on steroids, and is remarkably close to the wagon in overall size. From its kidney-shaped grille to its multi-segmented tail lights, the curvy X5 is all BMW. The slope of the tailgate looks almost identical to that of the 5 Series wagon. The major difference is that the X5 is 10 inches taller than the 5 Series wagon, this taller stance being key to its sport-utility character. Large-diameter wheels with low-profile tires enhance its aggressive appearance.
Surprisingly, the X5 is classed as a light-duty truck by the U.S. government. Most truck-based SUVs, including the Mercedes-Benz M-Class, are built with a separate body bolted onto a frame. X5, however, uses a monocoque body shell like that of a regular sedan. This unit-body construction provides a much stiffer structure, which improves handling, reduces noise and allows better fit and finish. The X5 is not the first monocoque SUV; Jeep pioneered the concept two decades ago with its Cherokee, a concept carried forward with the current Grand Cherokee. Lexus RX 330, Nissan Pathfinder, and the 2003 Range Rover, which BMW helped develop, all use a unit-body design as well. Because of the unit-body construction they share, the Lexus RX is the X5's closest competitor in terms of ride comfort and handling.
BMW X5 has a great interior. Typically BMW, it's all business and no nonsense. But it's also very luxurious. The 3.0i comes standard with leatherette upholstery, but leather is an option.
The 4.4i comes with the Dakota leather as standard equipment, and a choice of light or dark poplar wood trim. New for 2003 are Dakota hides, which are supposed to be better than last year's Montana skins.
4.6is comes with Nappa leather, or with a combination of Nappa and Alcantara. We prefer Alcantara for its suede-like look and feel, but it may not be as easy to clean as smooth leather. Buyers can choose among black piano wood, Imola Red or Titanium trim, all for no extra cost. An oil temperature gauge and a tachometer with a variable warning segment help monitor the high-performance V8. All gauges in the 4.6is are unique, with italic figures on gray dials.
The simple, uncluttered layout, accented with touches of wood, lends an air of elegance. The door handles have a nice brushed-aluminum finish, and the soft plastic surfaces feel more like leather. The switchgear is ergonomically well designed.
The front seats are excellent, firm, supportive, with lots of adjustments. The rear seats are also comfortable. The rear seatback can be reclined. Despite the X5's greater exterior height, however, headroom is nearly identical to that of the 5 Series wagon.
X5's cargo capacity is no better than that of a 5 Series wagon's. The moment we opened the rear hatch, we were struck by the lack of cargo space. Power switches in the cargo area move the reclining seatbacks forward for some additional carrying capacity, but the seats move slowly, and the gain in space is small. The rear seats are split 40/60 and can be folded down to provide a fairly flat, though not perfectly flat, surface.
The height of the load floor makes it difficult to load cargo. X5's cargo deck stands about 35 inches off the ground. That's five inches higher than in the Land Rover Discovery, a highly capable off-road vehicle with a high ground clearance and a live rear axle. Caesar the English mastiff, who has climbed up his dog ramp into dozens of different SUVs, found the pitch too steep to climb into the BMW. (Add the choppy ride quality and he gave X5 the big paws down.)
X5's rear hatch is split, with a flip-up window and a tailgate similar in design to the old Range Rover's. The rear window can be opened independently of the tailgate, convenient for quickly loading small items. A remote hatch release opens the rear window, but this only led to a frustrating sequence of events: We'd press the release, climb out, and close the driver's side door. Closing the door would increase air pressure inside the cabin just enough to lift the open rear window, which would then flop down and latch itself again. So we'd arrive at the back of the vehicle only to find that we had to walk back to the driver's seat and re-release the hatch. Do this a few times and you begin to feel like an idiot. This can also make the X5 a bit inconvenient when dropping passengers at the airport. Armed with groceries, you'll more likely open the rear hatch with the keyless remote control, which works well.
Reflectors on the top of the tailgate's door jamb enhance safety when accessing gear at night. A sturdy rollaway cargo cover can be removed for carrying larger items.
Passive safety has been a major goal in the development of the X5, which can be ordered with no fewer than eight airbags. Each front-seat occupant gets a front airbag, a side thorax airbag and a side head bag. Optional side thorax bags are available for the two rear-seat occupants. BMW's Head Protection System for front and rear passengers is standard. The airbag system is essentially the same as in the advanced 7 Series. According to BMW, the X5 performed better than any vehicle ever tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) in its brutal.
BMW X5 performs impressively well when equipped with one of the V8 engines. Power from the 4.4-liter V8 is seamless, with the redline arriving at 5800 rpm. The six-cylinder 3.0i isn't in quite the same league and works best when paired with the automatic transmission.
According to BMW, the 3.0i automatic accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in a quick 8.6 seconds, the 4.4i in a very quick 7.4 seconds, and the 4.6is in a startling 6.5 seconds.
The performance of the 4.6is would be quick for a sports sedan. For an SUV, it's amazing. Its performance allows the 4.6is to compete comfortably against the Mercedes-Benz ML55 AMG. ML55 comes with an AMG-tuned V8 rated 342 horsepower and 376 pounds-feet of torque, giving the M-Class Mercedes nearly identical 0-60 performance. We doubt that many X5 owners will drag race their neighbors. But they will notice how the 4.6-liter V8 makes terrific sounds when they step hard on the gas. And how smooth, responsive, and quiet it is when driven around town.
Shifting is silky smooth in normal driving situations. The automatic transmission offers the Steptronic mode, allows a choice of automatic or semi-manual control. Notching the lever to the left puts the transmission into Sport mode and enables the manual override; then a simple quick nudge forward or backward ratchets the transmission up or down one gear. X5's Steptronic is executed perfectly. A quick downshift makes passing on two-lanes safer and smoother.
Handling is stable and comfortable, with less twitching and head toss than in the Mercedes M-Class. (Compared to the Mercedes-Benz ML430, the X5's track is one inch wider, and the BMW rides 2.2 inches lower.) That's not to say the X5 is soft. It feels firm in the twisties and at high speeds. It can be driven like a sports car. On the freeway, the X5 changes lanes with the lightest of touch and with total precision. X5 can feel choppy, particularly when trundling at low speeds over a bumpy road while holding on to a hot cup of coffee. The choppy ride is pronounced with the sports suspension that comes with the optional Sport Package.
Overall, X5 is among the best-handling SUVs, although whatever else you drive will likely prejudice your opinion. If you get out of a regular truck-based SUV and into an X5, you'll be amazed at its handling. If you get out of a BMW sedan, however, you'll find that the X5 does not inspire the same confidence. BMW claims that its test drivers have circled race courses in the X5 nearly as fast as they can in a 328i sedan. This is probably true for experienced drivers who know their own limits as well as those of the vehicle they are driving. But most of us find the X5 is a tall vehicle that leans more than a sedan when going through corners.
Huge four-wheel disc brakes (ventilated in front) incorporate every electronic trick known to man. They are easy to modulate, and, they enable the X5 to stop as quickly and securely as the BMW 7 Series luxury cars. The 4.6is model gets bigger brakes and the rear brakes are ventilated; add the steamroller tires and the 4.6is really stops.
3.0i comes standard with a manual transmission. That sounds sporty, but we didn't like it. Clutch engagement is quick, and the torque characteristics of the engine (a bit abrupt at throttle tip-in) make smooth, brisk takeoffs a challenge. Lose concentration for a moment, or hurry the process a bit, and it's easy to stall at intersections, which is particularly annoying because the power-adjustable steering column starts moving while you're trying to restart the engine. We also found the manual transmission awkward when braking and downshifting for a turn, and then accelerating away. Attaining a smooth driving technique is challenging. A good driver may find it challenging to drive the 3.0i smoothly. A poor driver, one who moves the steering wheel about unnecessarily, will make his passengers uncomfortable with head toss. Also, the performance.
BMW X5 may be the best-handling SUV on the road. It may not haul much cargo, but the V8 models sure haul themselves. They are big, high-performance machines that can hold their own in any on-road situation.
X5 leaves us with mixed feelings, however. Its cargo capacity is no better than a BMW 5 Series wagon's, and the height of its cargo area makes loading difficult. Getting yourself in or out is more difficult as well. The 5 Series wagon is more practical. On the road, the X5 does not ride, handle, or accelerate as well as the 5 Series wagon, while off-road, it falls behind any serious 4x4 sport-utility.
X5 buyers don't seem to care about any of that, however. They like the X5 because it is prestigious, fast, and luxurious, roughly in that order. It shouts success, it goes like stink, and it coddles driver and occupants in sporty, upscale accommodations. Undeniably, the X5 offers BMW luxury, character and panache. And it is fun to drive.
3.0i ($39,500); 4.4i ($49,950); 4.6is ($66,800).
Options As Tested
rear door-mounted side-impact airbags ($385); navigation system ($1,800).
BMW X5 4.6is ($66,800).
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