Review: 2010 BMW X5 M is illogically sound

2010 BMW X5 M - Click above for high-res image gallery

No one ever said that evolution is pretty. Take the best-of-breed BMW M Division product: the E30 M3. Little more than a homologated race car, the first generation M3 was potent, nimble, and with its small displacement 2.3-liter inline-four fed by a retweaked M1 intake, it was light, too. Long story short, the OG M3 remains an ideal performance car.

Today, we have the X5 M. Looking at the bright blue truckish thing parked in the driveway, it's difficult – if not impossible – to see any sort of relation to BMW's vaunted and aforementioned M3 beyond its badges. You can't imagine what the missing link between the two might be. However, perhaps even mentioning the E30 M3 is being too puritanical. After all, very few vehicles could compare – let alone compete – with the street version of history's most winning road-race car. And you can bet your Roundel subscription that BMW will never competitively race an X5 M.

What then? It's not a newsflash, but the 2010 BMW X5 M doesn't remind you of sporty BMW products of yore. Of course, going back almost 25 years and looking at the first M3 through 1986-eyes, you would notice the hopped-up street car bears basically no resemblance whatsoever to BMW's hottie 1961 product, the Isetta 600. For those of you not up-to-date on your bubble car history, the Isetta 600 was a stretched, four-seat version of the 297cc, one-cylinder Iso-derived Isetta 300. The 600 featured a two-cylinder 0.6-liter moto engine and semi-trailing arm rear independent suspension. Actually come to think of it, the Isetta 600 and the E30 M3 at least shared a rear-suspension design. The X5 M then, in terms of BMW's history, is truly an alien from another world. A world where family haulers thrash muscle cars for pinks. But does any of that matter? Are companies not free to reinvent themselves, especially here in America, where the X5 M is built? Perhaps most importantly, is the X5 M any good, let alone worthy of the vaunted M badge? Make the jump to find out.

Photos by Drew Phillips / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.

You could argue that BMW's gone a little goofy. In fact, you could make that argument just by staring at their X6 through a pair of binoculars across a football field. But after reading over the X5 M's window sticker, one could argue that BMW is officially mental.

The X5 M scores a two out of a possible ten on its sticker's Global Warming Score. What's interesting is that there are actually passenger cars running around that are somehow worse for the environment than this colossus. We'd guess a Lamborghini Murcielago and... a Hummer H2 limo. Maybe. Moreover, the X5 M's combined fuel economy is 14 mpg. And that's if you drive it all wimpy like the EPA does, not in near-constant frothing anger like we did. Just under 13 mpg seemed to be our combined score (you can eek out around 17 mpg on cruise-controlled freeway outings), though at certain times on twisting, undulating stretches of asphalt, we saw an average of 6 miles per gallon.

Therefore it's logical to assume that a polar bear dies every time you press the start button, and by allowing the engine to idle during the photo shoot, we personally placed two new species on the endangered list. Maker's Mark has a promotion going where they'll place your name on one of their whisky barrels, and we figure BMW ought to do the same thing by putting an X5 M owner's name on a deep water oil rig. (What? Too soon?) Coasting downhill behind a firetruck in sixth gear going 40 mph with the engine barely spinning at 1,200 rpm, we watched in wide-eyed disbelief as our average fuel economy slipped from 10.6 to 10.5 mpg. Also, BMW has the gall to stick an "Efficiency Dynamics" sticker on the side window because the brakes are able to charge the battery. The starter battery. But hey, the corn industry's been running those ads claiming high fructose corn syrup is totally benign, so why not?

How is this possible? How could a vehicle be so environmentally reckless? For one thing, at 5,368 pounds the X5 M is horribly obese. That's over 500 pounds more than a Ford F-150. And it's not just fat, the X5 M is also enormous. We parked it next to a Chevrolet Astro Van and the BMW utterly dwarfed it. You're totally That Guy (or Gal) in tight parking lots, forced to do three-, five- or seven-point turns into normal-sized spots. And forget all about gracefully backing up anywhere, even with the four, always-beeping rear-facing sensors, an optional rear-view camera and a fairly large (for 2010, at any rate) greenhouse. You simply can't tell where this cetacean's corners are. Did we mention our tester stickers at $89,875? For that kind of money, you could get yourself into the relatively middle weight X6 M. Just kidding! The four-seater X6 M only weighs 40 pounds less, and barring a different backlight, it's basically the same vehicle. Look, I'm all for automakers going a little loopy every now and again, but for the first 24 hours in the X5 M, I was under the impression that BMW had gone stark raving mad. And not in the good way – I just didn't get the point behind the X5 M.

Saturday morning I decided to take Baby Huey here down to Cars and Coffee in Irvine, about 45 minutes from home. I don't know Orange County very well and can never remember the exit. However, as I passed Disneyland I spied a bright yellow Caterham Superlight R, which could only be going to one place at 6:20 in the morning. Determined to get there, I just followed the Se7en.

As we exited the freeway, the Caterham's pilot gunned it around a sharp corner. Figuring, "Let's just see," I followed suit, one-handing the X5 M's tiller sharply to the right. What transpired is one of the most eye-popping and perplexing few seconds of my auto-reviewing career. The X5 M stayed with the Caterham. Inch for inch, line for line, apex to apex, the giant blue hulk perfectly mimicked the Se7en's nimble flight path. Not only that, but when we straightened out, the 5,386 pound lard-ass was able to out accelerate the 1,200 pound British bantamweight. I burst out in laughter, a long, heartfelt, sustained thirty-second belly-laugh. No way man. There's absolutely no way that just happened. Couldn't have. But, much to my extreme disbelief (not to mention whatever was going through the Caterham driver's mind), the X5 M totally, fully 100-percent opened up a can of 9,000 calorie whoop-ass on Colin Chapman's lightweight ideal. And just then, all 90,000 of the X5 M's ridiculous dollars suddenly made complete sense.

Also, the rear end rotates.

I've experienced the DPC (Dynamic Performance Control) before on the X6 (both straight-six and 400-horsepower V8), but never in such a powerful vehicle. DPC means that the rear axle employs torque vectoring technology and works like so: When you're at speed and turn the wheel to the left, the rear right wheel gets the bulk of the power, allowing you to largely leave the throttle in while cornering. Vice-versa when you turn to the right. I'll be damned if the rear end doesn't feel as if it's pivoting around a point. It's a wonderful feeling, albeit a wonderfully comical feeling as you're sitting six-feet off the ground and breaking many of nature's laws. But wonderful nonetheless. Every time I put my foot in it and murdered a corner, I found myself realizing that it's as easy to play back road hero in the X5 M as it is in a Mazda Miata. A 2.7 ton Miata with a lampshade on its head and a serious coke habit. But again, the damn thing can dance the dance. It's all totally ridiculous, and I'm still shaking my head in disbelief.

Let's talk specs. Under the X5 M's hood lurks one of the most teeth-smashing motors sold to the general public. Displacing just 262 cubic inches (4.4-liters) the twin-turbo bazooka serves up 555 loco horsepower and 501 tire-popping pound-feet of torque. And it feels underrated. Reflect on these numbers for a moment, because they are just that stupefying. Now meditate on this: all 501 of those wonderful pound-feet of torque show up at 1,500 rpm – essentially off idle. In 2010, lag-free turbos aren't new, but lag-free rocket launchers are. Case in point: the X5 M hits 60 mph in 4.5 seconds and runs through the quarter-mile in 12.8 seconds at 109 mph. All this is possible not only because of the ludicrous engine, but because of the X5 M's advanced all-wheel drive system, prodigious grip from the 275/40R/20 front and 315/35R/20 rear tires, as well as launch control. Actually, the launch control deserves its own paragraph. Why? because photographer Drew Phillips and I were rolling around the front seats laughing as we read how to engage it. To quote the supplementary owner's manual (italics are ours):

  1. When the vehicle is stationary with the engine running, step on the brake pedal.
  2. With the transmission in M/S mode, shift into M1
  3. Activate MDM mode or deactivate DSC Dynamic Stability Control, refer to page 21.
  4. Select the "Sport" program for the M Engine dynamics control.
  5. Floor the accelerator pedal completely. The engine speed is controlled for starting off. The flag symbol appears in the instrument panel.
  6. When the brake pedal is released, the vehicle accelerates. Continue flooring the accelerator pedal.
  7. Upshifting occurs automatically as long as the accelerator pedal remains completely floored.

Again, the whole process is equal parts totally exhilarating and utterly preposterous. As the computer automatically bangs off shifts for you, each one is accompanied by what sounds like a loud thump of an E-string on an upright bass. The cabin is conjointly filled with dual-turbo whir. The full effect is, "Whirrrr THWACK! Whirrrr THWACK! Whirrr THWACK!" Before you can think, "That sounds funny," you're going over 100 mph, sweating profusely and getting quite deep into the X5 M's large-pizza-sized brakes. But mostly laughing. All of this forward fury does come with a couple more jewels from the owner's manual like, "Do not use launch control too often; otherwise, the high stress on the vehicle will lead to premature component wear." Though, our favorite has to be, "Do not use launch control when towing a trailer." Of course the mentality that looks at an XM 5 and thinks, "Gotta have it!" is obviously the same sort of person that would engage launch control while towing their yacht. For reals people, this is the car Candide and Dr. Pangloss would use to pick up Cunégonde after she finished the late shift at Hooters.

As you just learned from the launch control instructions, the X5 M has about fifty thousand ways to customize every vehicle trait. Like all modern BMW M cars, there's a little tiny button at the bottom of the steering wheel alluringly labeled "M." The kind journalists that had the X5 M before us were nice enough to program the M button so that one press turned the car from just kinda fast to raging full-on psychopath. Being hoons at heart, that's how we left things, and that's how we rolled. To summarize what's different: The already stiff suspension gets even stiffer when the EDC (Electronic Damping Control) is set to sport, effectively banishing body roll. M Drive remaps the throttle from kinda squishy ("Efficient") to direct-drive/full-frontal assault ("Sport"). The stability control (called "Dynamic Stability Control," or DSC in BMW-speak) loosens up and permits that awesome rotating rear-end to boogie even harder. The car also goes into MDM, or M Dynamic Mode, which allows for even higher limits before the nannies kick in to preserve your about-to-be-fried bacon. Of course, if you're as crazy as the X5 M is, you can shut DSC and MDM completely off. But seriously, that's for total lunatics only. Finally, the transmission shifts a whole lot faster in M/S mode, especially when you tug the paddles. Of course, via iDrive, all of the above can be individually tailored to your liking.

Another noteworthy bit of tech is the (optional) head-up display, especially what's known as "M View." When in regular mode, the HUD shows the car's speed and other assorted info, but as you're not in M Mode, you're not going that fast (relatively speaking) and you're in no real danger if you take your eyes off the road to glance down at the gauges. However, in full-blown M Mode, all that changes, as one errant move will launch you into space/canyon. As such, M View shows you what you need to know to effectively drive fast. Obviously, speed is shown, but it's relegated to the bottom right corner of the display, and the font is pretty tiny. What's really big, front and center is the gear you're currently in. As paddle shifters can't provide any physical indication of where the transmission is, this info is completely essential so that you don't errantly downshift into the wrong gear. While knowing what gear you're in is good, it's not as useful as the head-up tachometer, which goes from green to yellow to orange to (finally) red as you approach the engine's maximum revs. In fact, when you hit the point just before fuel cutoff, the entire tach begins to flash.

All that said, I have to admit I'm a bit torn. If a car is – taken as a whole – the most complex consumer product you can buy, the X5 M then represents an engineering triumph, as its combination of mechanical supremacy and computational wizardry is second to none. It's upsettingly fast, brutally athletic and the glorious brakes are most likely banned F1 technology. Swathed in many gallons of Monte Carlo Blue Metallic paint, its bulgy looks have even grown on me. Moreover, it delivers a mule-kick upside the head of Newtonian physics. The M might as well stand for Magic. And therein lies the conflict. As in so what? Who cares? Does the man that has everything really need a $90,000 SUV that can upstage and outperform all but top shelf sports cars? Probably not. Actually, most definitely not. Though, of course, the last time we checked, the market place is still open to most ideas, no matter how unhinged. Besides, while obnoxious on multiple levels (both us and the car), we had an absolute blast during our seven reality-defying days with the BMW X5 M. In the end, laughter may prove to not only be the best medicine, but the best sales tool as well.

Photos by Drew Phillips / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.

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