It used to be the number of performance SUVs (although BMW would prefer you call the X5 a Sport Activity Vehicle) could be counted on one hand, as the X5 and Mercedes-Benz M-Class made up the entire segment. Now Porsche, Volkswagen, Infiniti, and a few others are headed this way.
BMW's mid-model-change solution is a good one: more power, better fuel economy, six speeds, smarter traction, and some interesting load-carrying options. Although the engine is the same size as the previous 4.4-liter V-8, new models will include updated variable-cam timing to more precisely control intake and exhaust valves. Add that to the variable-length air-intake runners for better off-the-line or wide-open-throttle response, and the overall feel of the 4900-pound SAV is noticeably lighter than the previous setup.
The obvious benefits are 25 more horsepower and a near 15-percent improvement in EPA fuel-economy numbers (from 14/18 to 16/22). In addition, probably the most significant upgrade is in the relatively invisible technology of the new all-wheel-drive system. With an electronically controlled wet-clutch (and several sensors scattered around the vehicle), the system can more accurately assess where the proper amounts of traction (front to rear, wheel to wheel) need to be in milliseconds. Likewise, the system can (almost) seamlessly adjust braking or power shutdown during under- or oversteer situations. We know--we tried to mess the system up. Strangely, it always seemed one step ahead of us.
The X5 will continue to offer the base 3.0-liter I-6 motor with the six-speed manual or five-speed Steptronic automatic transmissions. The new six-speed automatic transmission is standard on the more powerful V-8 models. And for those looking for even more horsepower, a new high-output 4.8-liter Valvetronic V-8 will be available in late summer, with close to 400 horsepower. If you like your SUVs hot, that ought to put a smile on your face.