2019 BMW X5 First Drive: Call This Crossover the Perfectly Acceptable Driving Machine

The fourth-gen X5 is a stuffed schnitzel of luxury and tech, but the driving experience is more “adequate” than “ultimate.”

byLawrence Ulrich|
BMW X5 photo


Here’s a surprising fact, one I dug up while I was driving the all-new BMW X5 in Atlanta: For all the guff the company has taken for building SUVs, BMW remains very much a passenger car company in the United States— far more so than Mercedes-Benz or Audi. In 2017, the Bavarian automaker still sold nearly twice as many passenger cars in America as light trucks: 202,000 cars to 103,000 SUV’s. At Mercedes and Audi, it’s a virtual dead-heat, roughly a 50/50 split between cars and SUVs.

Still, the new X5 and the smaller X models underline the changing of the guard. BMW has seen sales of its 3 Series, long its most-popular car, tumble by about 30 percent over the past two years. But the X5 is thriving, even as the current model nears the end of its production life cycle. That old X5’s 29,256 sales through August are comparable to the 31,116 for the 3er. (The all-new X3 tops them all, with just over 35,000 sales). Remarkably, the X5 continues to close that sales gap despite the current model’s hefty starting price of over $58,000, versus about $36,000 for the most-affordable 3 Series.

X5 improves its off-road skills, as demonstrated on the Georgia clay, BMW

This redesigned, fourth-generation X5 seems certain to nudge those sales a bit higher, especially with Americans buying pretty much any SUV not nailed to the showroom floor. But the way BMW went about it may disappoint a fraction of luxury-SUV prospects—however small that fraction may be—who were expecting the spirit of the ferocious, 555-hp X5 M to filter down to these more-pedestrian versions. Instead, BMW has shored up the X5’s luxury and tech while adding a pleasingly robust, optional off-road package (an X5 first) to boost the “sport” in what BMW prefers to dub an SAV, or “Sport Activity Vehicle.” As a result, this X5 still feels like a softie whose main mission is deluxe family transport: The Perfectly Acceptable Driving Machine, rather than the Ultimate variety.

X5 xDrive 40i, here in striking Xline trim. That's XXX, if you're counting, BMW

My opening run from Atlanta to the Georgia countryside came in the brot und butter version, the X5 xDrive 40i, which should be responsible for roughly 85 to 90 percent of X5 sales in America. You may notice the “40i” name doesn’t line up with the size of the engine, BMW’s newly-upgraded, 3.0-liter turbocharged inline-six. But that’s forgivable, because this blue-chip powerplant remains one of the better reasons to choose an X5. The six-cylinder pumps out 335 horsepower as if it’s doling out heavy cream, with a 322-pound-foot dollop of torque. Allied with BMW’s familiar eight-speed ZF automatic transmission, the X5 eases from stoplight to 60 mph in a deceptively snappy 5.3 seconds. 

That able thrust pairs with solid fuel economy for an AWD beast that weighs more than 4,500 pounds, or nearly 4,700 with rugrat-sized third-row seats. (That optional third-row seat, including power controls for the second-row bench, will be available come December). The EPA hasn’t finalized the numbers, but the preliminary estimate is 20/26 mpg for city and highway. As with the last-gen X5, I have no doubt owners will easily match those numbers in real-world operation. 

New twin-kidney grille gets big. Not Lexus or Audi big, but big, BMW

For those less concerned with premium-fuel consumption—and we’re talking only about five percent of current X5 buyers who go this route—BMW has the X5 xDrive 50i, whose largely revamped, 4.4-liter, twin-turbo V8 brings a copious 456 horses and 479 pound-feet. That’s good for a rocketing 4.6-second dash to 60 mph, but at the cost of a preliminary economy rating of 17/22 mpg. 

Journalists at the event kept asking BMW about whether this X5 would offer a diesel engine in America, including a mega-powered, four-turbo oil-burner that’s coming to Europe. It’s a query I could have answered for them—hell no, any more dumb questions?—even as BMW officially says that no final decision has been made. With BMW looking to dramatically ramp up its electrified offerings around the world, Americans instead will see a new plug-in hybrid X5 xDrive 45e iPerformance. Count two “Xs” and one lower-case “e” and “i” in that ridiculous name—but also a twin-turbo inline-six and an electric motor that combine for roughly 50 miles of all-electric range, as well as a total output of 389 horses and 442 pound-feet. Unfortunately, America won’t see that hybrid until 2020 as a 2021 model, because America alone demands a SULEV rating (for Super Ultra-Low Emissions Vehicle) for hybrid engines to secure perks such as tax breaks or California HOV lanes.

X5's impressive cabin brings cuddly leather, sleek trims and all the toys , BMW

After tussling with some morning Atlanta traffic and coming away pleased with the X5’s quiet cabin and put-together feel, we rolled into Painted Rock Farms, a green spread in the Chattahoochee National Forest. Awaiting us—along with a surprisingly steep, rutted course for off-road testing, but more on that later—were the X5’s predecessors, the previous three generations showing the vehicle’s steady growth in size, stature, and luxury fitments. The new model has had a relatively small growth spurt; its wheelbase has been stretched by 1.6 inches, it's added 1.1 inches overall length, as well as 2.6 of width. The design telltale is a sharply-enlarged double-kidney grille, in keeping with the current design trend that says you should be able to identify any luxury SUV in your rear-view mirror from 200 yards away. Adaptive LED headlamps are standard, as are LED taillamps that sweep the flanks. The X5’s new side character line takes a sharp upwards kink as it broaches the rear doors, and looks good doing it, but you’d almost have to park the old and new versions side-by-side to note the difference. Still, this X5 hasn’t lost any of its Germanic solidity, authority, or good taste.

Snazzy off-road graphics include camera images of the X5's surroundings, including potential obstacles, Lawrence Ulrich

The spacious cabin is newly, undeniably lovely—we’re talking nearly-7 Series-lovely—and laden with features and tech. What BMW calls the Live Cockpit Professional combines an eye-flattering pair of 12.3-inch digital screens, one for the driver and one smack in the dashboard’s center. Up to 10 pages of info are displayed in a smartphone-style layout, with up to four tiles of configurable, real-time content on each page. The latest iDrive (version 7.0) manages those rich displays with notably more intuition than Mercedes-Benz's Comand unit, and with as much ease as Audi’s lauded MMI. BMW’s latest head-up display covers a huge 7.0-by-3.5-inches of viewing space, filled with sharply rendered data; it's the new industry benchmark. A range of connected services includes the ability to view a live 3-D image of your X5 on a smartphone, perhaps to keep an eye on it if you’ve parked your precious Bimmer in a sketchy location. 

X5's nerve center adjusts drive modes, ride height or hill descents, via new iDrive rotary controller, BMW

Owners can opt for massaging, heated-and-ventilated chairs up front—with extra multi-function adjustments to boot—or stick with the standard heated seats. (Both choices are excellent.) A panoramic sunroof is 30 percent larger than before, and the optional "Sky Lounge" spreads LED lights across 15,000 graphic patterns in the glass to mimic the starry sky. There’s four-zone climate control, and an optional "Ambient Air" system that freshens the cabin with a choice of eight scents. Rear occupants can be entertained by an optional Blu-Ray player and dual 10.2-inch touchscreen displays that can hook into the navigation maps and BMW ConnectedDrive services. Optional front cupholders can heat or cool drinks. There are five choices of leather colors, including ones for the upgraded Merino grades of hide. The trims all look decisively high-end, from electroplated surrounds and sleek woods to optional, translucent glass controls for the transmission lever, iDrive controller, start/stop button and audio volume knob. Luxury: present and accounted for.

On the sporty side, the X5 adds standard adjustable adaptive dampers, and such performance and/or comfort options as a two-axle air suspension, a robust rear limited-slip differential (on M Sport or Off Road package models), and an M Sport suspension with active roll stabilization and rear-wheel steering. Another brand option, BMW’s Integral Active Steering, electronically adjusts the steering ratio for low-speed maneuverability or high-speed stability. BMW’s clever Laserlight headlamps are a $1,000 option, but only for high-beam operation, and minus their most awesome feature—nixed by fussy U.S. regulators—with a moveable matrix that shrouds oncoming cars in a cone of reduced light to avoid glaring their drivers.

Driver's display is part of a pair of high-res, 12.3-inch digital screens, BMW

We sampled the $3,950 off-road package at Painted Rock Farms, including on precipitous, nearly 40-percent-grade downslopes, which the BMW’s hill descent control handled with no fuss. (That said, once I saw that descent control worked properly, I mostly ignored my guide’s walkie-talkie commands to use it on every single slope and modulated the brakes myself, which is half the fun of off-roading). Aside from the self-leveling and driver-adjustable air suspension, the package includes the differential lock, a helping of underbody armor, and an extra console button with settings for sand, rock, gravel or snow. The X5 impressed throughout the off-road exercise, including on flatter, red-clay surfaces where I floored the gas and the BMW shot forward zero detectable wheel slip, thanks to that electrically operated rear diff that BMW claims can redirect up to 1,106 pound-feet of drive force (no, not a misprint) to the wheel that’s getting more grip. 

The BMW adopts some of the flashy, largely pointless off-road displays that are familiar from Land Rovers—stuff like topography gradients and power flow charts that might get you killed if you actually stared at them instead of watching the trail. On the positive side, its camera-based features might arguably be helpful in tight quarters, with the screens automatically displaying obstacles ahead of the X5 or along its sides. And with that, by my highly unscientific measure, we accomplished more serious off-roading in one hour than a typical X5 owner will manage over several years. But that’s okay: Point is, the capability is there if you need it, including up to 7,200 pounds of towing ability.

X5 Xline edition gets unique trims inside-and-out, BMW

Among the usual luxury glut of safety and semi-autonomous features, the coolest has to be the Back-Up Assistant. Imagine you’ve nosed your way down some dark alley or narrowing woodsy trail, only to find your way blocked, or that you lack the space to easily turn around. No worries; the system stores your steering adjustments during 50 meters of forward progress to let the X5 automatically steer itself out over the exact path you took coming in, with the driver only needing to work the throttle and brakes. Even after you’ve parked the BMW for the night, you can return in the morning and the X5 will automatically mimic the course you took coming in.

The Xline's chunky wheels, backed by M Sport brakes, BMW

If only the X5 could mimic the driving spirit of, say, BMW's 2 Series coupe, or even the surprisingly fun-to-drive X4 M40i. Perhaps that’s too much to ask in such a large, luxury-minded SUV, but BMW’s own X5 M and X6 M prove it can be done. Yes, BMW is expected to bring an all-new X5 M and X6 M in 2019, with roughly 600 horsepower à la the M5 sedan, but those six-figure models are priced too high to interest your typical X5 fan. I didn’t get to sample the V8 powered X5 x50i and its lightly modified suspension tuning, but accelerative force aside, I’m not convinced it would have made much difference in my performance impressions. With the x40i version, at least, attempting to squeeze fun out of this X5 was mostly fruitless. The X5’s steering remains overboosted, the brake pedal too squishy, and the chassis a mite uninterested, despite all the tech and on-paper goodness. I had to crank the X5 all the way to its Sport Plus setting before it showed me more than languid responses and a surprising dose of body roll—and that Sport Plus is likely to harshen the ride on nasty surfaces, especially on the larger of the optional wheels that max out at 22 inches.

X5 generates a healthy 335 hp in turbo six-cylinder guise, BMW

As for what you’ll pay, the X5—already priced about $3,500 above the average in its class—sees a price jump of, coincidentally, $3,500 versus last year’s x35i base model. A six-cylinder 2019 X5 x40i now starts from $61,695, with the x50i V8 priced from $72,960. And it’s easy, oh-so-easy, to sock another $10,000–$20,000 in options onto those prices, especially if you start checking off biggies like the $5,850 M Sport package (albeit just $3,800 on the V8 model), the $4,200 Bowers & Wilkins audio, the extended Merino leather at $2,450, the third-row seat which comes with the air suspension ($2,200), 22-inch M wheels ($1,900), or a raft of bundled packages. Even several stand-alone indulgences, from special metallic paints to elegant silver-gray ash wood trim to the head-up display, will each add more than $1,000 to the price. My well-honed hunch says that typical X5 x40i examples—meaning the ones you see on showroom floors—will sticker for at least $75,000, and more than $85,000 for the whomping V8 x50i.

Welcome to the cash-green world of the modern luxury SUV, where even compact shrimps set you back $50,000, midsizes soar past 75 grand, and Range Rovers exist in another six-figure world entirely. (Let’s not even get into stuff like the Lamborghini Urus and Rolls-Royce Cullinan). Is it all enough to drive sane, financially secure owners back into the arms of luxury sedans, perhaps even downsized luxury sedans? Not a chance.

Lawrence Ulrich, The Drive’s chief auto critic, is an award-winning auto journalist and former chief auto critic for The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Detroit native and Brooklyn gentrifier owns a troubled ’93 Mazda RX-7 R1, but may want to give it a good home. Email him at Lawrence.ulrich@gmail.com

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