BMW's impressive new X5 SUV is improved in almost every way compared to the outgoing model, but still can't (quite) match the 1999 original for driver appeal. Not that many will care...
In the Metal:
This is a much, much better looking car than the outgoing X5. BMW's stylists have worked wonders at the front in particular, where the nose seems far sleeker and more shark-like than the prow of any big 4x4 has any right to be. It's a little wider (5mm) and longer (32mm) than before, but it's also a few kilos lighter - and looks it. The only stylistic downfall to these eyes is at the back, where there's just too much metal for aesthetic comfort. You can see the efforts BMW has undertaken to try and reduce the visual height of the rear, but there's no getting away from the bulk. Still, that at least has some payoff in the shape of a massive 650-litre boot and the option of third-row seats to turn the X5 (as with the last version) into a seven-seater.
The rest of the cabin is, to be honest, the X5's ultimate trump card. It has an utterly gorgeous interior, with beautifully crisp, clear displays and dials. The (optional) big 10.2-inch colour screen looks properly hi-def and the graphics swoosh and swoop around as if the operating system was designed by the Mission:Impossible people. Throw in some seriously comfy seats, excellent all-round visibility and decent standard equipment and you have a cabin that's better than anything even Range Rover can currently offer.
That the new BMW X5 is a massive improvement, dynamically, on the outgoing car seems like a pretty good place to start. All new X5s come as standard with BMW's Drive Select Control, which we've already seen on pretty much every other current model from Munich. Using the little switch on the console, you can choose from four modes. Eco Pro reins in the throttle and other systems to maximise economy, Comfort and Sport do what they say on the tin and Sport + does Sport but with reduced intervention from the ESP and traction control systems. And it works really, really well. Leave it in Comfort (the default setting) and the X5 positively glides along in a manner that would have been entirely alien to its stiff-kneed predecessor. Lumps and scars in the tarmac are simply wiped away with a gentle and distant whump. Even more impressively, when you select Sport, even though the steering weights up and the dampers stiffen up, you don't actually lose much of the comfort. Yes, you'll notice the road a touch more but it never gets uncomfortable or feels harsh. Far from it in fact.
The only weak point here is the steering. Although the weighting is pretty much spot-on, there's a sense of the whole thing being a bit artificial in the way it responds. It is, like almost all current power steering systems, electrically boosted, and at times you can just feel it going a touch light and vague as you turn into a corner. It's a feeling that lasts no more than a millisecond, and once the tyres are biting properly and the forces within the suspension and rack start to build, it goes away but it's just enough to take the edge off your enjoyment. Really commit to a corner though and the X5 responds with true BMW pedigree, clinging on impressively and shrugging off high-speed direction changes in a manner that belies its size and weight. It really is quite astonishing just how agile you can make a big 4x4 feel. It's vastly better than the outgoing X5, but sadly, still can't quite match the sheer driving pleasure than one could get from the first-generation X5 in 1999. That was a truly landmark car, this one is just extremely impressive.
Those 4x4 credentials are surprisingly well earned too. BMW launched the car in Vancouver, on Canada's west coast, and just up the road is the town of Whistler, where many of the 2010 Winter Olympic events were held. There's no snow on the ground at this time of year, but a nice leftover from the Olympics are a wealth of access roads cut into the deep forests that cover this part of the world. BMW let us loose with the cars on one such trail, and it proved surprising; both surprisingly tricky in places (proper mud, proper axle articulation needed at times, proper rock-and-stone tracks) and surprising just how easily the X5 on its big wheels and low profile tyres coped. It's not just a school run special, this one. It's got proper off-road skills.
A word on those wheels. Stick with the standard-fit 19-inch rims and everything I said above about ride quality is true. Go for optional 20-inch wheels and, while it's hardly bad, there is a noticeable amount of extra fidgeting and bumpiness.
The engine, a development of BMW's long-serving 3.0-litre straight-six diesel, is an utter gem. It's more powerful than before now (with 254hp) but more frugal (if you can resist stretching its legs) and emits 164g/km of CO2 - 33g/km less than before. It's also impressively refined and growls nicely when you push it hard. The standard fit eight-speed ZF automatic gearbox is also brilliant, so much so that you pretty much forget entirely to take manual control with the steering wheel paddles.
While the 3.0d will be the mainstay of the range for now (it's also joined at launch by the minority interest 4.4-litre turbo petrol V8 and triple-turbo 3.0-litre diesel M50d) there will also be a twin-turbo xDrive40d diesel and a new entry-level 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine, the first four-pot X5 ever. Dubbed sDrive25d, it will also be the first rear-drive X5 (although four-wheel drive will of course be available) and it could be the canniest buy in the range, as it matches the old 3.0d for power. We'll have to wait until later in the year to drive it though.
What you get for your Money:
Well, German cars are never cheap and big German premium SUVs doubly not so, but still, if you take into account the breadth of the X5's ability, it does start to make a sort of financial sense. You do get an automatic gearbox, four-wheel drive, the Drive Select Control, iDrive infotainment, Bluetooth, media streaming, leather seats and quite a lot more for your money. The boot is huge and practical, the styling slick and the X5 can switch in an instant from quiet and refined motorway cruiser to surprisingly entertaining back road weapon. Not cheap then, but you are getting a heck of a lot of car for what you pay.
The X5 gets a raft of new very high-tech options, including a lane keeping assistant that vibrates the wheel if you start to drift across the white line, a brilliant heads-up display that now includes fully animated satnav directions, an infra-red night-vision system that can detect objects in the road ahead and even tell whether they are animals or people and a collision avoidance system that can tell if you're going to have a shunt or hit a pedestrian and slams on the brakes at up to 60km/h. That system also includes a useful little tell-tale in the heads-up display that tells you if you're following the car in front too closely.
BMW has done nothing short of a fantastic job with the new X5. It's both slicker looking and slicker to drive, and now has a cabin that is by far and away the nicest in its class. It deftly balances the divergent needs of comfort and agility, and that 3.0-litre diesel engine is as impressive and entertaining as ever it was. The reduced emissions and fuel consumption make it more socially acceptable than it used to be (although you'd better be prepared for plenty of envious, begrudging looks from the pavement) and it hits a sweet spot between practicality, luxury and driver entertainment.