Flashes from my time driving the 2014 BMW X5 xDrive35i: I'm cruising down the freeway wrapped in the comfortable, 20-way power adjustable leather seat while the suspension's adaptive dampers and air support scramble over bumps to keep the ride smooth. I can't really hear the engine as the revs are kept low by the eight-speed automatic transmission, making it easy to enjoy music played through the nine-speaker audio system.
On a different road, I'm looking through the turns twisting along a mountain side and keeping the gas pedal floored up to the last second, then getting on the brakes, and then twisting the wheel around. The transmission's Sport model holds the revs above 5,000, automatically downshifting for me, and the dampers do their best to keep this truck level. Tires begin to squeal with the load, but the all-wheel-drive system lends a hand, throwing torque front-to-back, as needed.
Those situations show the versatility of BMW's largest SUV. Updated for its third generation and the 2014 model year, the X5's changes are largely under the skin. At a little over 16 feet, the X5 holds five passengers and a moderate amount of cargo, and tips the scales at up to 5,150 pounds, depending on the trim. BMW engineering makes it handle well on twisty roads and ride comfortably on the highway.
For this review, I drove the X5 xDrive35i, the latter designation implying all-wheel-drive and BMW's twin scroll turbocharged 3-liter inline six-cylinder engine, using direct injection and unique valve control technology to produce 300 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque. In the U.S., BMW also offers the X5 sDrive35i, with just rear-wheel-drive, the X5 xDrive35d, sporting a diesel engine and all-wheel-drive, and the X5 xDrive50i, combining all-wheel-drive and the power of a twin turbo 4.4-liter V-8.
In the U.S., the 2014 X5 xDrive35i comes in at a base price of $55,100, while the sDrive35i, without all-wheel-drive begins at $52,800. You can't get the 3-liter gasoline-fueled X5 in the UK, but BMW offers a wide range of diesel engines, from the sDrive25d all the way up to the M50d. Australian buyers can get the X5 xDrive35i, but will pay about AU$116,000 for the privilege.
Of course, these days BMW models vary greatly depending on their included options. This X5 xDrive35i came with the M Sport and the Dynamic Handling packages, the latter which includes air suspension on the rear axle. Dynamic Handling helped make it as comfortable as a Mercedes-Benz ML-class on the freeway, but also let me push it hard through the turns. M Sport adds what BMW calls its Sport automatic transmission, which includes steering wheel-mounted paddles for manual gear selection.
Standard on the X5 is a rocker switch on the console that let me choose driving programs, from Eco Pro, Comfort, Sport, and Sport Plus. These programs affected the suspension, throttle, and steering response.
Eco Pro and Comfort offered similar ride quality, although Eco Pro detuned the throttle a little further and reduced climate control energy usage, all in the name of saving fuel. In these modes and with the X5's idle stop feature, the engine powered down when I pulled to a stop, then cranked up when I took my foot off the brake. Idle stop runs well in the X5, such that the engine restart was smooth and quiet, but it comes on just a little slow. I could easily turn off the idle-stop feature, but did not find that it seriously got in the way during normal driving.
As I pointed out above, the dynamic suspension contributed to a smooth ride, even over poorly maintained pavement. The steering program for Eco Pro and Comfort made it so I could easily turn the wheel with one hand, at speed or with the vehicle stopped. I really missed the rearview camera and surround-view camera options (both available for the X5 but not included on this example), as the sonar park distance sensors were barely adequate for urban parking.
The throttle detuning kept the X5 from accelerating too hard when I put pressure to the gas pedal. However, when I floored it for a pass or a merge, the drivetrain unleashed all its horses, the transmission letting the engine revs go high to get me through the current traffic situation before returning to economy mode.
BMW fits the X5 with impressive fuel-saving technology. The aforementioned idle-stop prevents fuel wastage at stop lights and the automatic transmission's eight gears lets the engine run at low speeds most of the time. The drivetrain decouples engine from wheels when coasting to maximize momentum use, and the navigation system even offers a routing option that avoids hills. Stealing a trick from hybrid cars, the X5 employs regenerative braking so the engine does not have to work to keep the battery charge up.
Despite these impressive measures, the X5 xDrive35i only gets 18 mpg city and 27 mpg highway in the U.S. EPA testing cycle. From those numbers, you might expect to get mid-20s fuel economy on average. However, during my testing, which involved a wide range of driving situations and use of all driving programs, I averaged only 17.5 mpg. Watching the trip computer, I noticed that slow urban driving took a particularly heavy toll on the fuel economy, dragging the average down.
On the sport side, the X5 xDrive35i makes for a lot of fun, but lacks the power for serious driving. Working the throttle down a twisty road, this X5 didn't push me back in the seat with its acceleration, merely doing an adequate job picking up speed on the turn exits. If you want to track an X5 or merely get a thrill from the acceleration, consider the 445 horsepower X5 xDrive50i. BMW built an X5 M for a few model years, but now you can only get the X6 M model, with 555 horsepower.
Tapping the rocker switch to activate Sport mode, the X5's suspension and steering tightened up, and the throttle became more responsive. I also had to pull the shifter over into its Sport position to engage the transmission's sport program. Tapping the rocker once more put the X5 into Sport Plus mode, adding BMW's Dynamic Traction Control program.
With these settings, the X5 felt more nimble, although could not entirely shed its feeling of size. I blasted up a winding road and the wide, Continental SSR run-flat tires, wrapped around 20-inch rims, dug in through the turns. With its near 50/50 weight split front to back I only felt understeer when misjudged a turn. The adaptive suspension made cornering smooth and nearly effortless. The tires weren't even noticeably squealing until it was on the ragged edge.
The Sport transmission impressed me the most. When I threw it into Sport mode it aggressively downshifted, sensing when I needed power, maintain engine speeds around 5,000 rpm. I was so satisfied with its automatic shifting, that I almost forgot to test the manual mode. However, when I tapped the paddles on the steering wheel, the transmission responded with quick gear changes, about as fast as most people could shift a manual transmission, but not as fast as BMW's Dual Clutch Transmission.
The steering program adjusted slightly when I switched to Sport mode, but the wheel heft remained too light for my tastes. The X5 uses an electric power-steering system to help save fuel, and the programming gives it point-and-shoot response with generally numb feeling. Not included on this X5 was BMW's Active Steering option, which would have tightened up the turning ratio for twisty road driving.
BMW doesn't position the X5 as an off-roader. I couldn't adjust the suspension height, lock the center differential, or choose any sort of terrain setting. The all-wheel-drive system is primarily oriented towards on-road driving in slippery conditions. That said, BMW included an xDrive status screen on the LCD which showed the X5's roll and pitch angles, and a descent control program.