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BMW's X5 gets a boost

10/21/2006
SPARTANBURG, S.C.—The challenge for BMW to redesign the
tremendously successful X5 was to adapt it to suit the latest
market needs, especially since the debut of several robust new
competitors from Europe. At the same time, it had to maintain the X5's on-road performance
credibility. The X5 was BMW's first foray into the SUV segment when it debuted
in 1999. The product was a huge success, with the company shipping
more than 580,000 units globally; 18,000 of those in Canada alone
(the X5's sixth largest market). Not too shabby, when you consider
that BMW's original model run target was 266,000. During that period, new competitors arrived, such as Audi (Q7),
Porsche (Cayenne) and Volvo (XC90), as well as Infiniti's FX35/45.
Having undergone recent redesigns, the Mercedes ML and Acura MDX
are both into their second generations, and pose real threats to
the X5. Whether or not owners will ever actually use them, the availability
of a third row of seats is quickly becoming an important selling
feature in this class. A physical impossibility in the original X5, the new model's third
seat is doable thanks to the 18.7 cm gain in length and 6.1 cm
greater width. BMW says that they are designed to accommodate passengers up to 5
feet, 6 inches tall; while the second row gains 80 mm of fore-aft
travel to increase rear-seat legroom and a tip/slide forward
function for easier access, it's best to consider the third row to
be for pre-teens only. The X5's larger size also means that its total cargo capacity has
increased by 8 per cent, although storage space is at a premium if
the third row is occupied; that cuts it down to just 200 litres. Models without the third row gain a large underfloor storage
compartment below the 620 litre cargo area, in what would have been
the spare tire well; there isn't a spare, since all X5s roll on
run-flat tires. The exterior styling treads the line between the more outgoing X3
and the original X5, integrating the expected BMW family cues and
offering interesting surface detailing without being over-designed.
There's nothing externally that says "seven-seater," and it remains
recognizably an X5. The inside is just as tasteful, with greatly improved materials
that are claimed to be nearly 7 Series in quality. Unlike Porsche's Cayenne, which makes a variety of tradeoffs so
that it can provide considerable off-road prowess, BMW's X5 focuses
more on its on-road talents. There's no two-speed transfer case or height-adjustable suspension
here. BMW is upfront that its customers don't want true off-road
capability, just the ability to get them where they want to go
regardless of the weather or road conditions, whether it's the
cottage trail or the ski chalet driveway. This is why BMW insists
that its two X-series lines aren't SUVs (Sport Utility Vehicles),
but "SAVs", the "A" standing for Activity. Odd, then, that Hill Descent Control — typically an off-road
feature — is standard X5 equipment. BMW's four-wheel traction solution is the latest version of its
xDrive all-wheel drive system, which in the X5 typically provides a
40/60 front/rear split, but can send as much as 100 per cent of the
available torque to either end of the vehicle. Operating as part of a networked system with the standard Dynamic
Stability Control and ABS, it can also apportion power side to side
by applying brakes to a slipping wheel, acting like a limited slip
differential. Power once again comes from your choice of an inline six (3.0si) or
a V8 (the 4.8i, which replaces the 4.4i). For now, North America
won't get the 235 hp 3.0 litre turbodiesel that's available
elsewhere. The gasoline six is the same 3.0-litre magnesium and aluminum
composite block inline engine that's found in the 328i and 530i,
and it produces 260 hp and 225 lb.-ft. of torque in the X5, gains
of 35 hp and 9 lb.-ft. over the outgoing 3.0i model. It's also the
lightest six-cylinder engine in its segment. The V8 4.8i is likewise shared with the 5-, 6- and 7-Series cars,
tallying 350 in both hp and torque in this application. That's 35
hp more than the previous 4.4i, yet both motors are expected to
return better fuel economy than those in the models that they
replace. Both of these motors utilize BMW's double-VANOS variable cam-timing
and patented Valvetronic valvetrain controls, eliminating the need
for a throttle valve, and improving power, response and efficiency. Unfortunately, there wasn't a 3.0si available to drive, so it's
hard to say how much the X5's 2,200 kg curb weight will blunt the
six's efforts in the real world. BMW claims an 8.3-second 0-to-100
km/h time with the 3.0i, and just 6.8 with the 4.8i, so test-drive
first to see whether the 1.5-second difference is worth the $11,600
higher entry price to you. Maybe it is. The 4.8i that we drove offered stout acceleration
accompanied by a lusty V8 soundtrack. The eight pulls strongly from
nearly any point in its r.p.m. range, with a torque curve that
looks like a flattened cross-section of Mt. Fuji. Ample power
reserve is a luxury unto itself; overtaking with the V-engine is
effortless. If you're really in the spending mood, you can order yourself a
veritable cornucopia of electronic aids and conveniences on top of
the X5's standard equipment: navigation with a sophisticated rear
view camera, a heads-up display, four-zone climate control, a huge
"Panorama" multi-piece sunroof, even a 16-speaker, 600-watt,
seven-channel audio system. It's a bit weird then that a six-disc CD changer is an option too,
and that it mounts in the nifty clamshell glovebox. Hyundai can put
it in the dash, why can't BMW? Probably the most noteworthy option however must be the $4,700
Dynamic Handling Package, which pairs BMW's variable ratio Active
Steering with xDrive for the first time, and also includes
AdaptiveDrive, a two-mode (normal and Sport) system of variable
shock absorber damping and active stabilizer bars that work to
minimize body motions and maximize chassis performance. Both are
tied into the DSC and xDrive systems through the industry-first use
of a new "FlexRay" high-speed data transfer network so that they
can all work together. In normal driving, I actually preferred the base steering and
suspension set-up, as I felt that it offered a more honest feel for
what the contact patches and chassis were doing —
particularly near the limits of adhesion, but the advantages of
Active Steering came to light later in a set of medium and
low-speed handling manoeuvres on the track at BMW's Performance
Center. Besides quickening emergency avoidance inputs, it
definitely makes parking and three-point turns less of a
hand-over-hand ordeal. Either way, the X5 has handling capabilities far beyond what you'd
expect from a vehicle of this type and size. You have to be pushing
it seriously hard indeed to require DSC intervention, as
demonstrated on a rain-soaked drive through some twisty, wet
leaf-covered secondary mountain roads, where it proved difficult to
provoke any sort of wheelspin or directional misbehaviour, even
powering out of low speed, uphill corners. The big, 255/55/18 Michelin Latitude tires (up to 20 inches are
available), new double wishbone front, and an evolved four-link
rear suspension all seem to work quite well together, providing
noticeably better ride quality than before in the process. Adaptive (steerable) Xenon HID headlights are no longer an unusual
feature (all X5s have them), but the X5's "Bending Lights" system
— which uses each fog light individually as an automatic
auxiliary cornering lamp — is , as is the added activation of
the (red) rear fog lamps under hard braking to provide additional
warning to trailing drivers. The trademark BMW quad-lamp corona rings ("angel eyes") now serve
as daytime running lights too. Complaints? Well, a revised version of the infamous iDrive
controller remains — less recalcitrant but still adding
unnecessary complexity to some basic operations; the rear doors
don't open very wide, restricting child-in-carseat access; and
while there's no key, unless you've got a 4.8i with the "Premium"
package, you still have to stick the fob into a dash slot before
you can push the start button. Let's not overlook the six-speed automatic's new shifter, which
takes a bit of getting used to. There's no longer a shift quadrant,
just a chrome lever on the console that looks a bit like a cross
between a video game controller and a shifter handle. A push button activates "park," holding the thumb button and
toggling it back and forth selects "drive" and "reverse." Moving it
to the left puts it in the manual gate and initiates "Drive Sport"
mode, pushing it forward initiates manual downshifts, rearward
upshifts — counter to nearly any other automatic vehicle.
There are no steering-wheel paddles either. At least the new
shifter makes space for a pair of real, Big Gulp-ready cupholders. A number of the South Carolina-built X5's optional features are
standard or cost less in some competitive vehicles. That was the
case before, and it didn't hurt X5 sales then. X5 buyers seem to value the model's specific combination of
performance, luxury and capability, and although the base prices
have climbed $2,400 (to $61,900) on the 3.0si and $1,300 (to
$73,500) on the 4.8i, so have the levels of those three hallmarks,
and it's hard to put a price on the value of having the BMW roundel
on the nose. Besides, how many seven-seater vehicles are there that are capable
of turning a nine-minute lap on Germany's famed Nurburgring?

Toronto Star









BMW's X5 gets a boost
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