BMW would probably claim to have put the “sport” in “sport utility vehicle” back in 1999 when it introduced the first-generation X5. Back then, the BMW bigwigs cooked up the term “sport activity vehicle,” and marketed the decidedly sporty X5 under that banner. After driving the all-new third generation X5, however, we’d like to propose a slightly different descriptor: “Luxury activity vehicle,” marking the X5’s evolution from high-riding sports SUV to a bonafide luxury chariot.
While it’s true that the second-generation grew considerably to accommodate a third-row seat, it remained a rather athletic vehicle nonetheless. The third generation X5, conversely, is closer in character to the 7-Series sedan than, say, the Porsche Cayenne (which is a “sport activity vehicle” if there ever was one).
The styling changes offer the first hints of the X5’s newfound maturity. While it clearly represents an evolution of the previous model, there is a slab-sidedness that even the numerous side swooshes and scallops cannot hide. The windows are positively huge and upright, standing in stark contrast to the narrow-windowed, gangster-chop profiles of the Range Rover Sport and aforementioned Cayenne. And the tailgate is more upright, like a minivan, boosting cargo space but eliminating style. Despite a growth spurt of two inches, BMW managed to shave roughly 200 lbs. from the X5’s overall weight.
While the shape is stoic, the design shines in the details—literally. The headlamps bling like Lil Wayne’s teeth, featuring an LED “eyebrow” to accentuate its determined, predatory scowl. Talking of grills, the X5’s remains wide and bold (if a little blunt), leading into a beautifully contoured hood.
Offered with rear-wheel-drive in the sDrive35i ($53,725), as well as all-wheel-drive xDrive35i ($56,025), xDrive35d ($57,525), and xDrive50i ($69,125) models, each can be outfitted along four distinct “lines:” Base, Luxury, xLine and MSport – delivering luxurious upgrades for a sizable price, while the MSport line comes bedecked with a subtle hint of sporting ferociousness.
Inside, the X5 stuns, featuring beautiful, sweeping lines and artfully placed wood, satin-finished metal, chrome and piano black materials – taking a nice step forward from the outgoing X5. The 10.3-inch infotainment screen now stands up separate from the dash. The rear comfort seats can be ordered with or without the optional, non-too spacious but still workable third row of seats.
We only got to sample two of the four available powertrain choices – the xDrive35d with its sensational turbo diesel inline-6, and the gusty xDrive50i, with its monstrous turbocharged V-8. Both models drive beautifully, with BMW claiming the 255-hp, 3.0-liter diesel accelerates to 60 mph in 6.9 seconds, which is about par for the class and 0.7 seconds slower than the xDrive35i, but its delicious shove of low-rpm torque (some 413 lb-ft worth of it) makes accelerating and passing particularly gratifying. BMW also promises better fuel economy than the 19 mpg city / 26 mpg highway ratings from the outgoing xDrive35d.
Amazingly, the diesel sounds fantastic, which is something we don’t often say. The smooth sound, in fact, closely emulates that of BMW’s silky gas-powered inline-6; according to one BMW engineer, this is very much by design, as he detailed many ways the team used insulation location and materials, as well as the speakers (controversially) of the sound system, to achieve the pleasant note, even at full throttle.
The xDrive50i’s 4.4-liter turbocharged V-8 is a beast with manners: 445 hp (a 45 hp increase) and a brutish 480 lb-ft of torque ensure that acceleration happens instantaneously. Sixty mph occurs in a scant 4.9 seconds, according to BMW, and we find that perfectly believable. That said, swiftness does not necessarily translate into excitement: the engine is simply too quiet to impart a sense of thrill. Rocking the Driving Dynamics Control switch from Comfort to Sport livens the throttle and transmission shifts, but you’ll never mistake this for a muscle car – even if you can outrun one. We expect that most owners won’t use Sport mode as often as ECO-PRO, which prioritizes low-rpm driving and significantly retards throttle response to increase fuel economy (14 mpg city / 22 mpg highway).
Driving enthusiasts may be advised to wait for the inevitable X5 M model to appear in a year or two, but fuel misers may be perfectly happy with the gas-powered sDrive35i/xDrive35i models, which have seen big fuel economy gains, with 19 mpg city / 27 mpg highway estimates for the sDrive35i, and 18 mpg city / 27 mpg highway for the xDrive35i (compared to 16/23 mpg for the 2013 xDrive35i). The more interesting choice may be the sDrive35i, which is the first rear-wheel-drive X5 in the model’s history, and one that weighs 110 pounds less than the all-wheel-drive model.
Where BMWs perhaps shine brightest is in its handling. True to form, the X5s we drove did a fabulous job keeping their cool – even in extreme cornering, with some credit going to the optional Dynamic Damper Control system that stiffens shocks in response to road surfaces and steering wheel angle. Furthermore, with the Driving Dynamics Control system in Sport, the X5’s precise and loyal steering becomes heavier and a bit more engaging, while the ride quality stiffens to what would probably be the firmest possible setting without inviting latte spillage or waking the kids.
All that said, while the X5 proved exceedingly capable at pretty much everything we asked it to do, it never really lit our hair on fire the way the outgoing model could. Even with its lighter body and stupendous powertrains, the sportiness of the X5 has clearly taken a back seat to its luxurious proclivities. And thus, a “luxury activity vehicle” is born.