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Sunday, November 25, 2007

BMW X5 (2007 onwards model)

The doubts, back in ’99, over whether BMW could pull off the production of an SUV lasted, oh, all of a minute. Once you’d driven the best driver’s SUV of all, you were convinced.
The ultimate driving machine could off-road and although rivals sprouted up they never matched its single-minded focus. Inevitably though, its time came. So has BMW still differentiated wood from trees with the new one?

This car’s predecessor was the last car completed before designer Chris Bangle arrived. How to make it look new, while still seeming the same? Bangleise it. Sharpen edges, swoop where you previously were steadfast, focus on details with Kasparov intensity. The move works. We’re seeing lots of such ‘second generation’ redesigns (TT and MINI spring to mind) and, while the thrill of the fresh is missed, the X5, like those others, appeals. Perfecting what was already there, already liked: may not work a third time, but it does here. Details like the diode-rod rear lights and wrapover, 1-piece front wings add the jazz, too.

And where they’ve erred on styling, they’re revolutionised in engineering. For this is the first BMW ever to feature double-wishbone front suspension. Supposedly ‘purer’ (and as used in F1), wishbones are costlier and, such has been BMW’s mastery of struts, to date unnecessary. But the X5 is heavy, produces forces on a monumental scale, and struts simply reached the limit of their capacity. Wishbones it is then, along with optional rear air suspension, Active Steering and the active anti-roll bar device, Adaptive Drive.

Light on its feet
Unusually for a new car (if not so unusual for a BMW), it’s no heavier than its predecessor. So the enlarged V8 petrol, now 4.8-litres, is more than ample motive force. Will a V10 follow? Maybe not… but don’t rule out an M version (if they can find a name that doesn’t annoy Mazda). 90 per cent, however, will be diesel, which too has a power boost. The 3.0-litre straight six now offers 235bhp, and with 383lb/ft of torque, out-shoves the petrol by 10%. Surprised to not see the twin-turbo diesel? Don’t worry; sheer demand for engines has held it back, but the 3.5d will be here before 2007’s out.

Engines are last on your mind when you enter. Low shoulders and (joy) thinnish A-pillars combine with high seats for regality. And the cabin is fit for a king. Oozing quality, fanatical detailing makes the M-Class seem clunky, while the sweeping design antidotes the Q7’s Teutonicity. Caress the thick steering wheel, knead the metal doorhandles, hold the wacky, all-new gearshift in the palm of your hand; all feels right, feels good, works. iDrive has been improved too, with ‘favourite’ buttons on the stereo. Touch sensitive, you hover your finger over them and, in the display, it flashes up with 1 of 8 functions. Like it? Press it. Slightly genius, that.
Autos are now standard, as are part-electric seats. So prices are up 6% (but just 1%, spec-adjusted). 4.8i first, and you don’t care about increases when, jabbing the starter button, it fires with a woofling burst. Bwwwrrwomm! Greenies will hang you but they’ll have to find you first; less than 600 of you next year in the UK. This is a marvellous engine. So fast, smooth, sonorous, eager, fast; mated to the new six-speed auto, with near-instantaneous shifts and no slip or slack, it’s as eager as a Collie in a sheep farm. Go ahead, too; use the power, as the chassis can cope.

To best summarise the X5, think: car. No SUV is this agile, crisp, free from squidge, light on its feet, chuckable, biddable and taut. Equipped with active everything, the 4.8 test car turned in crisply, barely rolled, offered firm, biting feel, total confidence and none of the lofty uneasiness you should get in one so tall, with such off-road pretensions. Do the impossible, chuck it like a MINI; it not only copes, but rewards. And suspension fully bedecked with (optional) ‘Active’ monikers provides the most luscious ride. That smart anti-roll function only stiffens when necessary, so on straight roads, it’s disconnected.
Result? A smooth, even, absorbent ride that puts most other SUVs to shame, and mates with the V8 brilliantly. The deployment of 355bhp from so high a vantage point, has never felt so accomplished And the other 5,400 buyers, choosing the 3.0d? Not only does it go almost as well, with massive torque satisfyingly restraining their heads forcefully against the contoured headrests, they’ll be pleasantly surprised, too. Once warm, it sounds half-diesel, half-husky-straight-six-petrol; with near-complete smoothness, it appeals in its own right. Particularly given all that thrust, which will have you using words such as ‘mighty’, ‘immense’, ‘blimey’.

And it’s not just the shove, but the speed with which it arrives. As with the petrol, a new six-speed auto is fitted, boasting reduced slip and much faster shifts. As in, press the throttle and power near-snaps on, with no soft delay or slurry procrastination. If necessary, there’s an imperceptible downchange, then firing, warbling go. Marvellous, as is using the semi-auto function. The gearlever looks weird but fits your hand with instant familiarity, and works with tactile intuitiveness. Shove sideways, click forward to downchange, with shifts enacted almost with DSG-style speed and smoothness. It’s staggeringly good.

If you’re a 1.7m tall child, you’ll like it too, as the X5 now belies its name by offering a seven-seat option. For adults, the rear pews are tight, despite access aided by a grabhandle (demanded by the child forum BMW enlisted during development) and clever middle seats that fold even with an ISOFIX child seat in situ. Rearmost trim plastics are also, as on rivals, cynically knocked back a few steps in quality. But, on a par with the XC90, a handy family seven-seater it becomes, while the rearmost chairs fold flat into the floor to be forgotten when not needed.

Just one proviso. The standard car, without Adaptive Drive, isn’t as good. It’s still very capable indeed, still one of the best SUVs, but it rolls more and feels less confident in corners, while the ride takes a marked hit in quality. We also, unusually, would choose Active Steering here. Both systems are too light, but the Active rack is more direct and accurate, which compensates for some of the missing feel. It’s also easier in town, thanks to the variable ratio, and seems to suit the car’s character.

Better in almost every way while still remaining true to the one Chelsea loves: the new X5 is an exceptional machine that even an anti-SUVist would have to credit. The 3.0d in particular is impressive, as it’s more real world without leaving owners dreaming of what if. They don’t arrive here until April next year (£40,085 for the diesel, £49,945 for V8 – plus the cost of ‘Adaptive Drive’) but you can bet the queues will be forming, quickly depleting 2007’s allocation. That’s what happens when, conscious-straining credentials apart, you encounter a vehicle that’s so capable, been so comprehensively well-developed, is simply so damn good.

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