Fourth Place: BMW X5 4.4i
BMW launched the X5 in the U.S. in model-year 2000. The mission of the vehicle was to offer the hallmark BMW driving experience in a sport/utility silhouette. What we found from the very first test was that it hit the bull's-eye. Yes, it drove as a BMW should, but it also offered the high seating position, load flexibility, and off-pavement abilities of an SUV--the best of both worlds. Since then, the X5 has been offered in six-cylinder and high-output 4.6is variations. No M-spec model has yet been produced. This year, the 340-horsepower X5 4.6is has been withheld, with a more powerful 4.8is looming on the horizon.

Instead, BMW has reinvigorated the 4.4i with several new features: a 4.4-liter, 315-horsepower V-8 engine, a six-speed automatic transmission, a more flexible AWD system, and new sheetmetal from the windshield forward with new exterior lighting front and rear. What was once a perfectly handsome X5 looks and sounds even better in 2004. The new engine offers the flexibility of infinitely variable intake- and exhaust-valve timing as well as a fully variable intake manifold. In concert with the six-speed, the result is a throatier presence and an amazing improvement in fuel economy from 14-city/18-highway mpg to 16/22, or the best in this test.

The X5 4.4i we tested for this comparison was fractionally slower to 60 than the X5s we've tested in the past--perhaps due to the new six-cog gearing or the 100 pounds of new weight versus previous X5s--with a 6.9-second sprint. On the flip side, it tied a higher-output 4.6is in the quarter mile (14.9 seconds at 94.5 mph), showing that horsepower does indeed rule the dragstrip. Still, in this crowd, it managed to effectively tie the 340-horse Porsche Cayenne S step for step, both having to move about 15.5 pounds of vehicle per horsepower.

Once considered in the neighborhood of sport sedans, a 61.7-mph slalom run was good enough for only third place in this crowd. In typical BMW fashion, the X5 remained poised and confident, giving up grip when thrown too hard at a cone. Its quick steering and communicative chassis gave the BMW high marks for ease in the slalom, and it felt better than the numbers suggest.

The X5 earned another third place for its brakes with stops from 100 and 60 mph taking 336 and 119 feet respectively. As with the handling tests, the feel of the X5 was better than the numbers it produced--no front-wheel stand, no swerving, and no surprises here. On our figure-eight test, which combines bursts of acceleration, braking, and cornering, the X5 once again edged ahead of the Cadillac by just 0.65 second and 0.01g on its best lap.