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BMW’s Third-generation X5 SUV

If you could have only one car, what kind would it be? The Peak heads to Vancouver to discover why the versatile sport utility vehicle could be just it.

The poetically named Sea To Sky Highway to the Canadian ski-resort town of Whistler winds its way north from Vancouver, a twisty ribbon of tarmac flanked by majestic mountains and the glistening Strait of Georgia that empties into the Pacific Ocean.

Along its meandering route on this unseasonably balmy early-autumn day, scores of sun seekers are out white-water rafting or hiking in the foothills. At one stopover, one family garbed in neoprene pull up in their sport utility vehicle (SUV) and unload their canoes – as if on cue.

Of course, this and the weather are both just happenstance, but Munich-based carmaker BMW couldn’t have choreographed a more perfect setting to show off the lifestyle aspirations of its third-generation X5 SUV.

Yet, after having spent an entire day testing this car, as a driver as well as a passenger, I have discovered that it’s no one-trick pony.

The versatile BMW X5 is as at home on twisty mountain roads as it is on city boulevards.
The versatile BMW X5 is as at home on twisty mountain roads as it is on city boulevards.

On the wide boulevards of Vancouver, it is a luxury limousine with its upmarket interior and cosseting ride. As the sweeping dual-carriage highways turn into tightly cornered mountain passes, putting the car into dynamic mode quickly stiffens the suspension and switches the X5 from grand tourer, with its copious load space, to sports sedan – although you may want to strap down those Rimowas with a cargo net first.

Its off-road capabilities are nothing to sneer at either. It may not beat a true 4×4 like a Land Rover Defender on the Dakar Rally, but it will keep you out of trouble on the average undulating, rut-filled dirt track.

In short, the perfect car for the financially astute Singaporean family man who refuses to pay $90,000 for a certificate of entitlement more than once, and who perhaps owns a plantation or two in Johor.

Formerly available only for top-end models such as the 7-series, the leather-clad dashboard makes its debut in the X5 as an option.
Formerly available only for top-end models such as the 7-series, the leather-clad dashboard makes its debut in the X5 as an option.

REWRITING THE RULE BOOK
After all, BMW did reinvent the SUV back in 1999, when the original BMW X5 made its debut.

At that time, the average SUV was merely a dolled-up truck; underneath you could still find primitive components like a leaf-spring suspension and a body-on-frame chassis.

As hardy as they were off-road, on proper pavement they rode harshly and handled like tractors. BMW bet that most SUV drivers would clock more miles on tarmac than on gravel anyway, so it proceeded to rewrite the SUV rule book.

Addressing the SUV question from the “sports” side of the equation, BMW’s X5 was the first SUV to combine the road manners of a luxury car with the reassuring ride height of an off-roader (which is why it differentiates its X Series cars from the SUV, preferring its neologism “sports activity vehicle”).

Not many, especially within the 4×4 circle, thought the idea would fly, but the car garnered an even bigger audience among the urban crowd.

And so the gamble paid off: Today, every third car sold by BMW comes from the X Series. The X5, in its first two iterations alone, found 1.3 million owners; the product was so popular that even as the outgoing model was making its swan song last year, sales actually registered a small uptick of 3.5 per cent.

The perfect vehicle for the Singaporean family man who owns a plantation or two in Johor.
The perfect vehicle for the Singaporean family man who owns a plantation or two in Johor.

SIZING THINGS UP
The outgoing X5 was an excellent car but, with the marketplace becoming increasingly crowded – competitors include the Mercedes ML, the Porsche Cayenne and the Range Rover Sport – the third-generation X5 has to be great from the get-go. The good news is that it is.

The concept remains the same but the execution has been thoroughly refined. Outwardly, the X5 largely retains the size of its predecessor, lengthened by less than 3cm; the other dimensional changes are negligible, measured in the millimetres.

The numbers, however, don’t paint the full picture. The bulbous look of the second-generation is replaced by a more muscular, athletic mien, thanks to sharper styling – such as a more upright front end with a forward-thrusting kidney grille, smarter creases and lines along the entire body of the car, and a wedge-shaped rear. The design almost harks back to the controversial blueprints by former BMW styling chief Chris Bangle, but done right this time.

Adding to the aggression of the car is a plethora of aerodynamic devices, like the vertical “air curtain” apertures in the front apron and “air breathers” on the side panels that work in tandem to minimise efficiency-robbing turbulence. Thus put together, where the old model hinted at “soccer mum”, this one positively shouts “corporate raider”.

Handy for Canadian roads but, elsewhere, apart from pedestrians, the bear-sensing night vision system also detects and warns you about imminent collision with stray dogs, cats and other animals.
Handy for Canadian roads but, elsewhere, apart from pedestrians, the bear-sensing night vision system also detects and warns you about imminent collision with stray dogs, cats and other animals.

INTERIOR MOTIVES
But truth is, the most significant upgrades are found inside. Here, you’ll find an updated cabin that oozes quality.

Look at the shift paddles on the steering wheel, for instance. Instead of coated plastic, they are milled from aluminium in consultation with high-end AV specialist Bang & Olufsen, whose products, including the 16-speaker sound system in the test car, are always trimmed with the finest metals. Beyond the usual nice BMW touches, such as a crisp heads-up display and supple Nappa leather upholstery, there’s a new leather-clad dashboard option, as well as ambient lighting in a wrap-around contour line that adds a soft glow to the interior, which won’t look out of place in an airliner’s first-class cabin.

Then, there are the driver’s aids that will make your chauffeur tremble in fear of redundancy. An active cruise-control system maintains a safe following distance at any speed up to 210kmh.

If a traffic jam prevents such rapid progress, another widget will engage the brakes for you – to a standstill, if necessary – and adjust your wheels so that the car stays within the lane.

Owners of late-model X5s probably won’t see a pressing need to trade up, but those loyal to other marques should give the X5 serious consideration.

The BMW X5 is also a serious contender in the limousine segment, against the 7-series, the Audi A8 and the Mercedes-Benz S-class.

The new X5 will arrive in Singapore in the first quarter of next year, in the guise of the xDrive50i launch model that we tested, with the xDrive35i arriving soon after.