The X5 has adequate storage space, but not as much as we'd like to see for family outings; and with only 54 cubic-feet of cargo capacity, the X carries less than a Range Rover 4.6 HSE, Mercedes-Benz ML500, or Jeep Grand Cherokee. "The X5 is long on sport, if a bit short on utility," penned one staffer after trying to load his family's bags for a weekend getaway. Other complaints centered on the accordion-style cargo cover that robs valuable space, is difficult to remove, and gets stuck on its tracks like a rusted-out sliding glass door.
There was no shortage of praise, nevertheless, for the smooth-yet-potent 4.4-liter DOHC V-8. Gear ratios are perfect, the engine is powerful, and the exhaust note is enthusiastic. From off-idle through redline, the X5 deftly pushes the small of your back into the seat in a very un-SUV way, the five-speed Steptronic transmission smoothly transitioning with each upshift. We all appreciated the Sport mode, which delays upshifts and changes cogs more authoritatively, without hinting at whiplash. Of course, you can "manually" row gears in Steptronic mode, but the lever is balky, requiring an enthusiastic yank for downshifts.
The suspension tuning is a wonderful mix of off-road prowess with traditional sport-sedan handling. Throw the X5 around a road course, and it'll stick to the shark's teeth like a 540i. Find an off-road trail, and you won't hear a whimper as the BMW climbs a hill of soft shale or crawls along a steep trail, its Hill Descent Control helping it creep down the grade.
At the 12,600-mile mark, we encountered our first glitch: the self-leveling suspension took on an aggressive front rake, a la Starsky and Hutch's '78 Gran Torino. A trip to our local BMW dealer showed the ride-height had de-faulted to off-road mode. They were recoded, and the chassis settled back down to a normal stance. Some 2200 miles later, another suspension problem surfaced: The rear sagged to the bump stops. A front-level sensor had gone south and was replaced under warranty. Since the service-indicator lamp had illuminated just prior to that event, the dealer changed the fluids and rotated the tires at the same visit. Cost: nada, courtesy BMW's three-year/36,000-mile full-maintenance program.
Fresh from service, we pressed the X5 into action as a photo chase vehicle for the "Sun, Speed & Sin" convertible test (October 2001), where it had no problem keeping up with the rest of the bunch on mountain roads or on open stretches of deserted highway. After logging 1400 miles in four days, one staffer noticed the left side of the vehicle was riding higher than the right. With our suspension actively dancing the Macarena, we pulled back into our dealer's service-bay to reset the suspension computer--again. While it was on the hoist, we had the Xenon headlamps reprogrammed (they decided to self-level to their lowest point--and stay there), a new steering shaft and transmission selector switch were installed (under factory recalls), and the rear hatch micro switch was replaced, as its protective plastic cover had gone missing.
After 12 months and over 20,000 miles on the clock, it was time to bid our X5 auf Wiedersehen. With the exception of the self-leveling suspension and demonic nav system, our tester was relatively trouble-free. Early examples (such as ours) had more recalls than we like to see, but they were all addressed by the factory by mid-year. BMW clearly has a hit on its hands, as strong sales numbers have shown (the 100,000th X5 rolled off the assembly line in August, 2001). If we had our druthers, ours would still be parked in the MT garage.