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Follow-Up Test: 2004 BMW X5 4.4i


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It may not be easy coming up with a segment-leading idea, though if it's a sound one that is well executed, success should follow. BMW did just that with its X5 "SAV" (Sports Activity Vehicle) back in 2000. Up to that point, the handling of most (if not all) SUVs ranged from respectable but isolated to downright scary. Not many driving enthusiasts actually enjoyed piloting SUVs, due chiefly to handling characteristics that closely approximated those of a dump truck. With the X5, BMW offered an SUV that felt good in the driver's hands and could negotiate a winding road without feeling like a ship at the mercy of a stormy sea.

When the X5 debuted (initially only in 4.4-liter V8 form), the focus was on "on-road" performance, and it still is. Evidently BMW knows that most people buy SUVs for their foul-weather and light-duty off-road capabilities (such as getting to a mountain bike trailhead), roomy cargo areas and "up-high" driving positions, rather than for tackling rough terrain usually only seen on manufacturer's TV and print ads. A six-cylinder X5 soon appeared, and the net result was a pair of 'utes that handled like, well, BMWs.

Up until last year, BMW essentially had a lock on the performance SUV market. Yes, there were others that may have equaled an X5's straight-line acceleration, but when it came to unraveling a twisty road and providing that tight connection between driver, vehicle and road that BMW does so well, the X5 had no peers. But now Infiniti and Cadillac are going straight for the X5's market with their FX35 / FX45 and SRX models. As with the X5, the FXs and SRX prioritize road manners over boulder-bashing ability. And like the BMW, they can be had with either six- or eight-cylinder power.

In an effort to keep the X5 in the hunt, if not at the lead of that small pack, the company has made numerous refinements for 2004, most of which are beneath the familiar sheet metal. At the top of the list are a new all-wheel-drive system that BMW calls xDrive, a new V8 for the 4.4i and a pair of new transmissions — a six-speed manual for the 3.0i and a six-speed automatic for the 4.4i.

With xDrive, the X5's all-wheel-drive system is more flexible than before, aiding both foul and fair weather driving. Previously, the system operated in a permanent 38-percent front/62-percent rear torque split that could vary somewhat, but xDrive can give nearly full torque to either the front or back wheels. And up to 50 percent of the torque can go to just one wheel, making the X5 more tenacious in slippery going. Handling is optimized as well. Under certain conditions, such as when going around tight corners on dry pavement, it's better to have rear-wheel drive, as it lessens the tendency for a vehicle to understeer (running wide of the intended line) and thus provides sharper turn-in.

In practice, xDrive performed admirably on the serpentine roads of our driving loop, giving the X5 a neutral, balanced feel while winging through the picturesque roads of South Carolina on a crisp autumn day. By combining the nearly infinitely variable torque splits of xDrive with the technology of BMW's "DSC" stability control system, the X5 can more effectively correct over- and understeer. If the system detects understeer, for example, it cuts torque to the front wheels, decreasing front end "push" and allowing the nose to turn in more. All this happens instantly and is invisible to the driver. The resulting sensation is that the X5 feels even more like a 330i sport sedan than before, possessing crisper handling than a 5,000-pound truck has a right to.

There is still a choice of six- or eight-cylinder power, but this year the V8 is different. Borrowing the 4.4-liter V8 from the current 7 Series , the X5 4.4i now offers 315 horsepower (an increase of 25 ponies) and the same stout 324 pound-feet of torque. Driving through a new six-speed automatic, the new 4.4i can sprint to 60 mph in just 6.8 seconds, about a half-second quicker than before. Another benefit of the new drivetrain is markedly better fuel efficiency; the 4.4i is now rated at 16 city and 22 highway — increases of 2 and 4 mpg, respectively, over last year's 4.4i. Stab the throttle at virtually any speed and the V8 pulls hard, with a sweet exhaust growl adding to the sensory delights. The gear changes from the new six-speed automatic went virtually unnoticed, silent testament to the tranny's great efficiency and smooth operation.

Along with the mechanical refinements, both X5s receive a number of other improvements inside and out, such as more standard features — including high- and low-beam xenon headlights for the 4.4i and a power passenger seat on the 3.0i and a freshened exterior. The body tweaks are subtle and include a more aggressive front end that combines larger grilles with wider-set vanes and 3 Series-style headlamp clusters. White turn signals and new wheel designs round out the changes in the looks department.

What haven't changed are the expected virtues of premium cabin trim, solid build quality and top-notch safety scores. Unfortunately, the X5 still has a smallish cabin (especially compared to the SRX) and a somewhat stiff (especially in 4.4i form) price tag.

Although it's now in its fifth model year, it's apparent that the X5 isn't getting older, it's getting better. Is it still the best in the premium sport SUV arena? Only a comparison test against its hungry challengers will tell for sure. Stay tuned.

Edmunds.com/Inside Line

Follow-Up Test: 2004 BMW X5 4.4i
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