Ten years ago, if you were to ask any BMW enthusiast if a sport/utility could qualify for Ultimate Driving Machine status, he would've looked at you cross-eyed. Yet, BMW's clientele, dealer body, and the market itself demanded this type of product. The Bavarian automaker entered the sport/utility fray in December 1999 with its "Sport Activity Vehicle"--the X5--with the intent of demonstrating that a rugged SUV could be equally at home off-road and on the autobahn. This intriguing concept was worth a One-Year Test evaluation by our gang.

Our Jet Black X5 4.4i based at $49,400. We added the Sport Package option (suspension upgrades, 19-inch wheels, light wood trim, white turn signals, anthracite headliner, and a beefier steering wheel for $2470), a power moonroof ($1050), Xenon headlamps wheel for $2470), a power moonroof ($1050), Xenon headlamps ($500), navigation system ($1990), premium sound ($1200), and sun-protection glass ($645). With the $645 destination charge, our tester stickered at a hefty $57,910.

Since the X5 is built in Spartanburg, South Carolina, we opted for the factory delivery program, which includes track safety training, off-road instruction, the most complete vehicle walk-around imaginable, a tour of the factory, and lunch--all for the cost of standard delivery. Online-edit guru Jeff Bartlett drew the lucky straw for the trip and drove our new X to MT's Los Angeles headquarters.

Any time you spend over 2000 miles behind the wheel in three days, you get to know a new vehicle quickly, especially its seats. Editor Bartlett gave the BMW's chairs two thumbs up, due to their excellent lumbar and thigh support for the long haul. The rest of our staff later mimicked his feelings: "Most anatomically correct seats I've ever occupied" and "after 285 miles, my back doesn't ache." The navigation system we selected negated the CD player, however, leaving Bartlett with a fistful of unuseable discs--and an empty cassette player--for the schlep home.

We like the X5's familiar interior layout, with hefty gauge hump, clean center stack, rich materials, and impeccable fit and finish. Rear occupants get similar Germanic surroundings: lots of leg- and headroom for the over-six-foot set and a couch that's perfectly supportive. You can squeeze three on the rear bench in a pinch, but they won't be happy on a long trip. For those who need to tote a family of six, an extended version with three rows of seats is on the horizon.

The CD-based nav system on our unit tended to have a mind of its own and wasn't the most accurate we've used. "I hereby dub BMW's navigation aid as the 'SPAZ' system," noted one editor. "At over 80 mph, the screen doesn't refresh fast enough to stay with the vehicle's pace. And I found the vehicle icon to show us 'driving' through the center of a lake, instead of the half-mile inland road on which we were traveling."

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.

From the Logbook
"This is an SUV? The X5 is a blast to drive in the canyons, and throttle response is fantastic. I've never had more fun driving a 'ute. If you want the keys back, you're gonna have to use a crowbar to pry 'em outta my fingers!" — Scott Mead

"Great warble from the throaty V-8, and tranny sport mode makes driving fun. Wonderfully supportive seats make the miles easily roll by." — John Matthius

"The X5 is a great rig, but no bargain. I can't fathom paying this much for a vehicle that doesn't have even a single-play CD unit. For $60 grand, there ought to be one in front, one in back, and a 38-CD stacker hidden somewhere. That said, I'll never tire of the way it performs, communicates with the driver, or is built." — Matt Stone

What's New, Changed, Different
BMW finally offers a DVD-based navigation system, although you still have to give up the in-dash CD player if you opt for nav. The sports-car-quick 4.6-liter/340-horse is the hot ticket. If you prefer to select cogs manually, a five-speed is available on the 3.0i. Adjustable ride height is now available without the Sport package; rear head-protection airbags are now standard, as are the new Adaptive brake lights: Under hard braking, the brake lights illuminate more intensely, alerting following drivers of an emergency braking situation.

2001 BMW X5 4.4i
POWERTRAIN/CHASSIS
Drivetrain layoutFront-engine, awd
Engine typeV-8, DOHC, 4 valves/cyl, alum block & heads
Displacement, ci/cc268.4/4398
Hp @ rpm282 @ 5400
Torque @ rpm342 @ 3600
Transmission5-speed automatic
Suspension, f/rMacPherson struts, anti-roll bar; tubular beam axle w/multilink, upper lateral arms, air springs
Brakes, f/r13.1-in vented disc / 12.8-in solid disc, ABS
Wheels, f/r19x9.0; 19x10.0, cast alum
Tires, f/r255/50R19 103V / 285/45R19 107V Michelin 4X4 Diamaris
Traction controlYes
DIMENSIONS
Wheelbase, in111.0
Length, in183.7
Width, in73.7
Height, in67.2
Curb weight, lb4828
Seating capacity5
Cargo capacity, cu ft54.4 (2nd row folded)
Fuel capacity, gal24.6
TEST DATA
0-60 mph, sec6.6
1/4 mile, sec @ mph15.1 @ 91.0
Braking, 60-0 mph, ft125
Skidpad, g0.82
600-ft slalom, mph58.4
Total mileage20,067
Avg test mpg14.3
Problem areasRear hatch switch, self-leveling headlamps, trans selector switch, steering shaft, self-leveling suspension
Non-warr cost$105.00
CONSUMER INFO
Base price$49,400
Price as tested$57,910
Current value, $41,115/$54,185, whlse/retail per Kelley Blue Book
AirbagsDual front, front-side, front head
EPA mpg, city/hwy13/17
Range, city/hwy, miles320/418
Basic warranty4 yrs/50,000 miles
Powertrain warranty4 yrs/50,000 miles
Roadside assistance4 yrs/50,000 miles
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