Spirited argument punctuated voting in this section. Cost is slightly less an issue, and there are a number of good vehicles. Those getting a nod included the Land Rover Discovery, because of its off-road ability, heritage, and sub-$40,000 start price; the Mercedes-Benz ML500, which offers a healthy V-8, low-range, navigation system, and can be optioned up and still stay under $50,000; the Hummer, Range Rover, and G500 for genuine 4WD profiling; and the Cadillac Escalade with your own 23-in. aftermarket wheels.
In the end, the BMW X5 3.0L won, blessed with an inline-six smoother at 5000 rpm than many V-8s idling and equipped with something no other luxury 'ute offers: a manual transmission. For the $39,000 base price, it brings full leather, power-tilt/telescope wheel and driver's seat with memory, 10-speaker CD system, stability control, and eight airbags. However, more than equipment, it offers a driving experience few can match.
At 80 mph, when the remainder of this field is starting to feel a bit uncomfortable or breathing hard, the X5 is just coming into its own. The fully independent, aluminum-intensive suspension, which felt firm at slow speeds, is now stable, and the brakes will shave chunks of speed in a short time, repeatedly. If we could turn off all the electronic save-your-butt devices we'd enjoy it even more, but this situation is not unique to the X5.
Despite being the second-heaviest truck with the second-smallest engine, the X5 was the first one to 100 mph, placing behind the twice-the-engine-size Dakota in every contest up to that point. The five-speed gearbox shifts like any BMW--quite well, and uses a short 5.09:1 first gear and direct drive fifth. Driven like a truck, using little to no throttle to engage first, and starting in second half the time, the X5 moves off smart and smooth. At Interstate speeds, it revs at 3500-3800. The engine will spend all day at that speed, never require downshifting for a grade, and return over 20 mpg doing it. Much of the flexibility comes from the engine's wide powerband, though the silky operation will catch you bouncing off the limiter if you don't pay attention to the tach.
The X5's cabin is a veritable fortress, and one of the safest places on four wheels. Subtle, two-tone gray-on-gray leather covers the seats, it's nearly as quiet at triple-digit speeds as the Wrangler or Dakota are at leaving a stop sign, and the wood (part of the Premium Package) is real poplar. Dimensions don't do justice to the comfort level, as the back seat (with power recline) is on par with the others' front seats, and the headrests and shoulder-belt anchors will fit every size rider we tried. The rear-seat's flat floor allows the middle passenger to sit without knees to chest, and the cargo area is easy to load, if not overly capacious.
The X5 shows its heritage in obvious ways with good performance from a small engine and superb high-speed manners, and in more innocuous ways with the best lamps and wiper coverage front and rear. It's quick, fun, quiet, comfortable, efficient, and our definition of the value in the luxury sport/utilities.