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2011 BMW X5 xDrive35i – Click above for high-res image gallery

If the new 2011 BMW X5 looks familiar, it's because it is. Autoblog has already shown you under the hood, running in the snow, and even on the assembly line.

Beyond this early exposure to the 2011 model that is set to go on sale in May with a starting price around $47,000, the reality is that there's not much that visually differentiates the 2011 model from the 2010. The revised styling of the "new" X5 is so subtle that from the profile view, the two are nearly indistinguishable.

The real changes for 2011 come under the hood, where the X5 now gets BMW's most current gasoline-fired engines and the company's eight-speed automatic transmission. Additionally, the 2011 X5 (we have a hard time referencing it as new) will now be offered with technologies already available on many other BMW models. Get the details and our driving impressions after the jump...

Photos by Rex Roy / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.

BMW chose to introduce the new (darn, wrote 'new' again) X5 in Miami. Why? We're not quite sure. It certainly wasn't because of its challenging roads or the dramatic off-roading opportunities. Florida's elevation changes make the plains of Nebraska look mountainous, and the only paved curves you'll find to entertain yourself with lateral acceleration are interstate clover leafs. Furthermore, if you're off the road in southern Florida, you'll need a fan boat. Luxury SUVs and the Everglades don't mix except in instances of insurance fraud.

But in Miami we were, so in Miami we would drive.

Our evaluation vehicle was the entry-level X5, the xDrive35i. Regarding exterior styling, the changes are so subtle that it takes a sharp eye to note the differences. Up front, the fog lamps are repositioned within a new fascia. While the optional Xenon Adaptive Headlamps with the cool corona rings are also new, the exterior perimeter of the lens is identical to 2010, making the change so minute it's hardly worth pointing out.

Badging changes sum up the difference as seen from the profile, while a new rear fascia and taillamp design mildly freshen the aft. The rear lamps, now with two banks of LEDs, illuminate in a handsome manner that matches the majority of other BMW newer models. Overall, the changes don't hurt or help the X5's aesthetics. The crossover (or Sports Activity Vehicle, as BMW prefers) remains a conservatively styled machine that is beginning to look a little dowdy, especially when compared to the sportier X6 SAV and the segment-splitting 5 Series GT.

Inside, there are no styling updates to speak of. The changes are limited to the incorporation of (again) technology BMW already uses in other series; Active Cruise Control with full stop/start capabilities, a lane departure warning system and side-view camera system.

Alterations or no, the interior looks fine in a vacuum and functions well. We especially like the optional HUD with integrated navigation directions. After a few hours behind the wheel, we even shined up to the next-generation iDrive and the Rube Goldberg e-shifter lever. However, newer crossovers like the 2011 Lincoln MKX feature more innovative interior designs that will cause the arguably traditional and straightforward design of the X5 to look dated and behind the curve.

The curiously distinctly European vocabulary and British accent of our EU-spec NAV system added a bit of humor to our time the 2011 X5. At various points, she instructed us to "move off with a half right" or "take the second turning of the roundabout." How charming.

Specific nicks include the parking assist feature that insisted on warning us of things in front of the vehicle when we were in Reverse; an A/C system that seemed to struggle to keep the cabin comfortable in humid 80° weather, and the plain painted door sills. The latter item stood out as a peculiar detailing miss when even inexpensive vehicles are now fitted with aluminum-look sill plates with inlaid LEDs. Painted metal sills on a $50,000-65,000 vehicle?

The significant changes for 2011 X5 are only visible when you open the hood or hit the throttle. The xDrive35i is powered by BMW's newish 300-horsepower, twin scroll turbocharged 3.0-liter in-line six-cylinder. This engine replaces the 260-horsepower six available since the second-generation X5 and shouldn't be confused with the twin-turbo inline-six that used to back up the -35i moniker in many BMWs. The xDrive35i will also soon share showroom space with the xDrive50i (using the twin-turbo 4.4-liter V8 with 400 hp) and the xDrive35d (using BMW's corporate 3.0-liter turbo diesel with 265 hp.

These engines will be familiar to many. The diesel is a carryover powerplant from the previous X5 and used in any number of BMW platforms. The V8 is shared with multiple 5, 6, and 7 Series vehicles. The gasoline six is now used in nearly every BMW line from the One on up. In other words, the engines in the 2011 X5 aren't new, they're just new to the X5. Ditto for the eight-speed automatic gearbox we first saw in the new 5 Series Gran Turismo and 7 Series.

The news value is that while power levels were maintained or dramatically increased as compared to the '10 X5, fuel economy has also improved. The xDrive35i gets 11-percent better combined mileage coming in at 17 mpg city, 25 mpg highway and 20 mpg combined. (Final EPA numbers are coming, so consider these solid preliminary numbers.) Realizing that this improvement comes along with a 15-percent increase in horsepower and a 35-percent increase in torque makes the mpg figures all the more meaningful. The fuel economy for the twin-turbo X5 turbo V8 will be comparable to the non-turbo 2010 V8 model in spite of an 11-percent increase in horsepower and a 25-percent improvement in torque. The xDrive50i comes in at 14 city/20 highway/17 combined.

Looking at other components of the X5's drivetrain, the xDrive system remains largely unchanged. This is good news because it does an excellent job of reading the road, evaluating traction at the corners, and distributing the power thusly. Of course, ABS and stability control are standard.

To evaluate the 2011 X5, BMW offered us three driving routes. Appropriately, one was to the expansive and tony Bal Harbour and Aventura Malls. This route would most clearly replicate the likely duty cycle of a typical X5 buyer. Because this experience would have made for a rather dull review for you, our valued Autoblog readers, we chose the drive route that took us along A1A and the beaches of the Atlantic and then inland to the Everglades.

Running north out of Miami in slow traffic, we had plenty of time to experience the legendary smoothness of BMW's inline-six working through its new gearbox. Thinking that eight gears might be one or two too many, your author was surprised at the transmission's smoothness in city driving. Moving off from a stop proved easy, thanks to well mapped light-throttle tip in ECU programming and silky shifts.

On higher speed roads, the gearbox delivered downshifts as needed and without missteps such as, "Oh, you really wanted THAT much power? Wait a second while I downshift again." Sometimes the gearbox would just let the turbo six build boost to provide the added umph the driver called for. Other times, single, double or triple downshift would promptly deliver the requested power.

Simple evidence of the eight-speed's impact on the 2011 X5 xDrive35i could be found on the tachometer. At 75 mph, its needle pointed to about 1,750 rpm, an impressively low speed that significantly aids highway fuel economy numbers. Important for good drivability, this rpm range is high enough to already be in the engine's 300 pound-feet of torque plateau (that runs from 1,200-5,000 rpm). The benefit is when you step gently into the throttle at highway speeds the engine has enough power to respond without requiring a downshift, further enhancing economy and comfort/smoothness.

Run hard, the transmission shifts just shy of 7,000 rpm. Horsepower peaks in a computer-controlled range from 5,800-6,250 rpm. The shifts are crisp, and at those speeds the engine sounds like a premium inline six should – aggressively strong with a little rasp. BMW claims 0-60 mph comes up in 6.4 seconds. The top speed of 130 mph seems reasonable, but as the X5 crests 100 mph, the aerodynamic drag reminds you that this SUV is pushing aside a lot of air and that hitting the speed limiter will require miles of road.

The X5's chassis utilizes a double wishbone front and multi-link rear suspension that controls P255/55R18 rubber. The ride is on the sporty side. Lexus RX owners won't like it, but those moving up from a 3 Series will feel right at home. The 4,960-pound(!) CUV/SAV responds quickly to the commands of the electrically boosted power steering. The optional Active Steering felt good nearly all the time, but occasionally felt strangely artificial and non-linear. At these moments we suspect the system was caught changing ratios and assist levels.

Regarding handling, we'd like to report on what it was like to whip the X5 down endless stretches of empty sinewy roads. Unfortunately, our route had exactly one curve that allowed for some build up of cornering forces. It was an off ramp. To the right. Yahoo! The X5 felt magnetized to the asphalt for all eight seconds of the experience. (When we learn more by having an X5 in our test fleet, we'll report ASAP). We did have ample empty and straight roads to test the brakes that repeatedly burned off velocity from triple-digit speeds with complete stability, however.

In an effort to show the broader rage of the X5's capabilities, BMW even provided a meager bit of off-road driving. It was really just a stretch dirt road with a couple of shallow water hazards. (The X5 can safely ford 27-inches of wave-free H20. More than that leads to serious problems due to the location of the engine's air intake). Like the vehicle's dynamic handling, we would not be pushing the limits of the X5's off-road capabilities at this intro event.

This kind of limited driving left us wanting to take the 2011 X5 anywhere other than where we were. However, even in South Florida, the SUV's sporty character could be felt, if not exercised.

As for why BMW introduced the 2011 X5 in Miami, we're assuming it's because of the event's international focus. Many dozens of international journalists were invited, and Miami is a prized destination for most. It offers sights and geography unlike anything they're likely to have back home ... which makes traveling all those miles to drive one variant of a mildly freshened, not really new SUV worth the effort.

BMW's explanation as for "Why Miami?" included the fact that the city is one of the X5's strongest markets. What a sad statement that makes ... that so capable a vehicle is driven by so many people who don't have the geography or the desire to enjoy all it offers.

We, on the other hand, can't wait for our turn behind the wheel of the X5 xDrive50i! Well, so long as it isn't restricted to Miami.

Photos by Rex Roy / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.

Autoblog accepts vehicle loans from auto manufacturers with a tank of gas and sometimes insurance for the purpose of evaluation and editorial content. Like most of the auto news industry, we also sometimes accept travel, lodging and event access for vehicle drive and news coverage opportunities. Our opinions and criticism remain our own — we do not accept sponsored editorial.

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