When the BMW X5 debuted in 2000, it launched a new category in the luxury-SUV segment, that of the sport utility.
Here was a car-based SUV that thought it was a sports car, offering no more utility or seating capacity than a station wagon, but plenty of sport, thanks to superlative engines and a performance-tuned suspension.
For a few years, the X5 had this sporty SUV sub-segment to itself. Then the Infiniti FX and the Porsche Cayenne entered the fray.
In response to this double threat, all 2004 X5s received a facelift, new six-speed transmissions, and a new xDrive all-wheel-drive system that anticipates loss of traction and shuttles torque from corner to corner for optimal traction and handling.
But the 2004 X5's biggest news - the hotshot 4.8is -- didn't hit showrooms till last summer. Joining the 225-horsepower 3.0i and the 315-horsepower 4.4i, the new 355-horsepower 4.8is boasts a top speed of 155 mph and a 0-60-mph time of 5.9 seconds.
For 2005, the X5 received only modest changes, including newly standard front lumbar supports and automatic climate control on all models, and the availability of anthracite wood trim and high-gloss light wood trim at no extra charge.
My test car was a top-of-the-line 4.8is. Priced at $70,795, this luxo-ute comes with everything but a navigation system ($1,800). Standard features include a humungous glass moonroof extending over both rows of suede-and-leather seats, exterior paint-colored interior trim, Xenon headlights, obnoxious park-assist beepers, a six-disc CD changer, a handful of 12-volt power outlets, 20-inch wheels and an air-leveling rear suspension.
My daughter and her friends loved riding in the rear seats, where they jotted the following appraisals in my notebook: "Love the swade seats! Not as hot and sticky as leather." "Lots of leg room." "Like the window shades." "Love the seat warmers and tilting seat backs."
While the kids happily fiddled with the rear-seat controls, I sought inspiration in the cockpit. Having never tested the X5 3.0i ($42,395) or the 4.4i ($53,495), I had no yardstick by which to gauge the 4.8is's superiority. But I was disappointed in this flagship model, which BMW claims "elevates the X5 to new heights of performance, handling and luxury."
Sure, the sport seats are comfy, and the interior luxuries are great, but I felt like I was driving a station wagon on stilts. Much of BMW's signature handling finesse and agility was lost in the translation. The steering feels heavy and remote, due largely to the 20-inch wheels and tires, and the vehicle's 2.5-ton weight. When used in "automatic" mode, the six-speed automatic transmission hunts on hills like an old Buick; used in "manual-shift" mode, it feels a beat too slow. Hey, but the brakes work great.
One realm in which all X5s shine is safety. The X5 has earned "good" and "excellent" scores in government and insurance industry crash tests. Every X5 is equipped with 10 airbags, antilock brakes, stability control, dynamic brake control, and Hill Descent Control.
If sportiness and prestige are what you seek in an SUV, you have the Porsche Cayenne, the Infiniti FX35/45, the BMW X5 or its baby brother, the X3. All of these vehicles place sporty dynamics and comfort over practicality. The BMWs are the least goofy-looking of the three, and for Bimmer-philes, the only choice.
Based on my time in the BMW X5 4.8is, I'd wager the 4.4i, with its 18-inch wheels and 315-horsepower V8, is the more satisfying ride. Even the V6-powered 3.0i, the only X5 available with a six-speed manual, would be worth a look-see.
$70,795 (includes delivery charges)