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(12-22) 04:00 PST Spartanburg, S.C. -- Friday night football and Sunday morning church services are taken seriously in this town of 40,000 people, located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
If you want to find local shakers and movers on most fall Friday evenings, you're likely to track them down at a football stadium hosting the Spartanburg High School Vikings. If you're looking for people on a Sunday, you'd be wise to know their religious affiliation. Spartanburg has many churches.
Ask anyone here or within a 30-mile radius of this town how to find the sprawling, $2 billion BMW global manufacturing facility and you're likely to get precise directions to the plant's doorway fronting a stretch of I-85. In these parts, BMW is family, and the people here take family seriously, too.
Perhaps that is why the 2007 BMW X5 Sports Activity Vehicle, a tall station wagon by any other definition, is the least self-absorbed, most inclusive, most family-oriented vehicle BMW has developed and built to date.
BMW executives shudder at the thought of calling the new X5, the second generation of that vehicle to be made here, a station wagon, minivan or by any other name that describes what it really is -- an all-wheel-drive hauler of affluent and affluent-aspirant families.
BMW officials also rebel at the thought of portraying the new X5 as a traditional sport-utility vehicle, although that is how it began as a 2000 model. In fact, BMW is spending millions of dollars on advertising bashing traditional SUVs and telling everyone that their new X5 is different.
After driving the in-line six-cylinder X5 3.0si and the 4.8-liter V-8 X5 4.8i here, I concluded that BMW's executives are right, but for all of the wrong reasons. They need to make their marketing people spend a month or so in Spartanburg to understand why.
People here are proud, but they aren't accepting of haughty behavior or attitudes. They like things that are attractive, but are put off by anything foppish or over the top. When they go out, they often do so in groups, and that more often than not includes grandparents and babies. And if there is anything that elicits derisive comments or laughter from them, it's a pricey vehicle that can't handle any or many of their practical needs and wants -- things like space for a couple of jumbo cup-holders.
The new X5, in a major break from traditionally snobbish BMW-think, can accommodate two "big gulp" drinks, right up there on the floor-mounted center console, which is where most Americans and South Carolinians want them.
Although BMW executives are afraid of using "family" in any description of their new X5, the vehicle itself screams the word. Now, it is offered with more interior space, enough for an optional third-row of seats suitable for small children. With the second-row and third-row seats up, enough space remains for a week's worth of groceries for a family of five. With those seats down, the X5 can carry much of the football gear of the Spartanburg Vikings.
Getting that equipment into the X5 is a cinch. The seats fold down easily to form a flat load space. The lift-gate can be opened or lowered with minimum effort. BMW executives say they will soon add a push-button, power lift-gate option in a corporate effort to keep up with the Joneses -- in this case, their rivals at Mercedes-Benz. But consumers should ignore that option -- the standard lift-gate performs quite well all by itself.
There is more evidence of family-intent in the new X5 design. Unlike the predecessor X5 or, for that matter, the smaller predecessor X3, ride and road-feel in the new X5 are quite pleasant. There is no jarring brutality over poorly maintained thoroughfares. Tired people can take a happy snooze in the second-row seat, which is what I did for a bit in the X5 4.8i. And this comfort comes in vehicles equipped with standard run-flat tires, which often contribute to harsh, bumpy rides.
But advances in run-flat tire technology coupled with BMW's decision to jettison front struts in favor of a more compliant double-wishbone setup now yield a premium sedan ride, without any compromise of handling or stability, in the new X5. I like that. Families like that. BMW's driver-centric marketing people should learn to like it, too.
2007 BMW X5 SUV
Complaint: It's time for the automobile industry, especially the high-end segment, to abandon the silliness of portraying luxury as a family-exclusive, personal reward. And it's long past time for the industry to end its long-standing aversion to calling a wagon a wagon when it is, in fact, a wagon.
Head-turning quotient: Conservative, pleasant. It is a vehicle design at home in a church parking lot, a high-school football stadium, a country club or the parking spaces of an executive garage.
Ride, acceleration and handling: Excellent in all three categories in the 3.0si and the 4.8i. The 3.0si moves from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 7.8 seconds and the 4.8i does it in 6.4 seconds.
Body style/layout: The new X5 is a luxury, midsize, tall, all-wheel-drive wagon with four side doors and a split rear lift-gate. It is a work of unitized steel construction. Two models are available: inline six 3.0si; V-8 4.8i.
Engines/transmissions: Both models come with more horsepower and torque -- and better fuel economy than their predecessors. The new 3.0si gets an inline, 24-valve, six-cylinder engine that develops 260 horsepower at 6,600 rpm and 225 foot-pounds of torque at 2,750 rpm. The V-8 4.8i gets 350 hp at 6,300 rpm and 350 foot-pounds of torque from 3,400 to 3,800 rpm. Both engines are mated to six-speed automatic transmissions that also can be shifted manually.
Mileage: The 3.0si gets 17 miles per gallon in the city and 23 miles on the highway. The 4.8i gets 15 miles in the city and 21 miles on the highway.
Capacities: There is seating for up to seven people. Maximum cargo capacity with second and third rows down is 61.8 cubic feet, and 18.5 cubic feet with those seats up. Maximum weight of what can be carried onboard is 1,345 pounds for the 3.0si and 1,200 pounds for the heavier 4.8i. Fuel capacity is 22.5 gallons of required premium unleaded gasoline.
Safety: Standard equipment includes anti-rollover stability control, traction control, antilock brakes, enhanced brake assistance, fourth-generation run-flat tire technology, head and side air bags. All-wheel-steering for easier parallel parking is available as an option.
Prices: The new X5 models go on sale this fall. The preliminary base price for the 3.0si is $46,595. It's $55,195 for the 4.8i. Both prices include a $695 transportation charge.
Purse-strings note: Compare with Mercedes-Benz M-Class, Porsche Cayenne, Cadillac SRX and Volkswagen Touareg.
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