With cars such as the X5 M, BMW demonstrated it could use technology to make an SUV handle like a sport car. The 2012 BMW X5 xDrive35i does not reach quite the same level, but shows that technology does not rule out responsive driving feel. The X5 is not a luxury SUV for lazy drivers; it never let me forget that I had my hands on the wheel.
Some luxury SUVs aim for effortless driving, and some people appreciate that character. But the X5's steering wheel keeps a connectedness to the road that many cars have lost. Although BMW employs some electronic components in its power steering, it still holds on to hydraulic power as the main boost. Many automakers have gone to pure electronic power-steering systems, but none have been able to crack the code of maintaining true road feel with these systems.
Not that BMW's steering technology is behind the times. The X5 can be had with BMW's Active Steering option, which varies the turning ratio, or lock-to-lock turn of the wheel, based on the speed of the car. When going slower, this system means less force is required on the steering wheel to effect more angle on the front wheels. At higher speeds, the car offers more latitude with the steering wheel.
Likewise, the suspension gives the X5 excellent contact with the road, while at the same time offering a comfortable ride. The X5 corners exceedingly well, considering its ponderous 4,563-pound curb weight. Little tricks like having a wider track at the rear wheels help in this regard, as do the ridiculously wide tires that come as part of the M package, 275 millimeters on the fronts and 315 millimeters on the rears. BMW also offers an active-suspension option to keep the car really flat when tackling tight corners.
The xDrive part of the X5's model name means it comes with BMW's all-wheel-drive system, which also contributes to the vehicle's cornering prowess. Instead of torque vectoring, BMW uses the term Automatic Differential Brake, a technology that slows a wheel that is slipping, running its torque to the wheel at the other end of the axle.
If none of these technologies and attributes sound appropriate for a rock-crawling four-wheel-drive truck, it is because the X5 feels designed much more for paved roads. It boasts 8 inches of ground clearance, which is not bad, and BMW even insists it can ford water to a depth of 1 foot 7 inches. But with the wide, low-profile tires and the body cladding, it doesn't look like a vehicle for the outback, at least not without significant aftermarket mods. It features automatic descent control to help it down steep, snow-covered roads.
The engine in the xDrive35i version of the X5 is one of my favorites from BMW, a high-tech masterpiece with 3 liters of displacement from six inline cylinders. Direct injection delivers the fuel and a twin-scroll turbocharger pushes in the air, getting output up to 306 horsepower and about 300 pound-feet of torque.
Given the X5's weight, this engine gives its all. It hits 60 mph in a reasonable 6.8 seconds. The acceleration comes on steadily, without drama or turbo lag, put to the wheels through an eight-speed automatic transmission. The engine offers enough power for just about any traffic situation, but there is not a lot of overhead.
Even with its just-adequate power, the X5 xDrive35i does not achieve particularly good fuel economy. The eight-speed transmission helps it up to 23 mpg on the highway, but its city number is only 16 mpg. During CNET's time with the car, its average came in at under 20 mpg. BMW should probably put its efforts into lightening the X5 to boost the fuel economy number further.
Any major updates to the X5, such as a lighter body, will have to wait until 2013, when the next generation of BMW's largest SUV should come out. Although the current generation has been around since 2007, BMW's interstitial refreshes included updating the cabin tech to the latest and greatest.
The middle of the dashboard holds BMW's wide-screen LCD, with two-thirds set aside for main cabin-tech functions and the other third acting as a supplementary screen, showing information such as trip data or the currently playing music. The iDrive dial, on the console, and voice command control all of the onscreen functions. The interface takes a little getting used to, and functions such as browsing need improvement.
The full-featured navigation system stores its maps on a hard drive in the car, and so can offer rich detail. These refined-looking maps include topographic imagery and 3D-rendered buildings in certain U.S. cities. With zoom at maximum, these buildings overwhelm the map when driving through a downtown area, but it is a neat detail. The maps also show traffic incidents, something the navigation system ingests through an FM radio channel for which the owner of the car pays no subscription fee.
This system's route guidance works well, with descriptive graphics for each maneuver and good voice prompts. Its dynamic routing is particularly good. When it sees a traffic jam ahead, it changes the route without bothering the driver. In my experiences using the X5's route guidance, it always picked convenient alternate routes.
BMW does not skimp on the audio sources, including everything except for an SD card slot, and only a few companies offer that. The hard drive includes space for an onboard music library and there is a USB port for iPod integration or a thumbdrive. Radio includes satellite and HD, and the car also does Bluetooth streaming audio.
It uses the same music library interface for iPods, thumbdrives, and the onboard hard drive, a consistency I appreciate. But what I have never liked about BMWs is the browsing interface, which effectively sets up filters for artist, album, genre, and tracks. It is not a very elegant way to select music, especially when driving.
The base audio system in the X5 produces solid, well-balanced sound, but is not particularly rich in tone. BMW offers a premium sound package with more speakers and a more powerful amp, which will be the choice for audiophiles.
BMW also makes its new Apps feature available on the 2012 X5, which works with iPhones. This system includes Facebook and Twitter integration, along with online search integrated with navigation. Alongside the Apps feature, BMW also offers a telematics service that includes Google local search through the iDrive interface. This search works exceptionally well and integrates with navigation, making it very easy to locate a local business and set it as the destination.
CNET's car lacked the available adaptive cruise control, but came with a versatile rearview camera and a split-view front camera, both very handy when maneuvering the big X5 around tight spaces. The front camera is particularly useful when nosing out into a blind intersection, as it shows views to either side of the front of the car. Oddly, driver assistance features such as blind-spot detection and lane departure warning are not among the available options.
Although the 2012 BMW X5 xDrive35i certainly qualifies as a luxury SUV, especially considering its price, it is unlike most of its competitors in that it emphasizes driving feel and handling. BMW brings an extraordinary amount of tech to bear in its engine, transmission, suspension, and all-wheel-drive system. Despite all of the tech, fuel economy remains mediocre.
Benefiting the new X5 is the latest round of BMW cabin tech, including very useful connected features allowing online search integrated with the navigation system. BMW does an excellent job of integrating phone, navigation, and stereo into a single interface. However, some aspects of the interface could use improvement.
|Model||2012 BMW X5|
|Trim||xDrive35i Sport Activity|
|Power train||Turbocharged direct-injection 3-liter straight 6-cylinder engine, 8-speed automatic transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||16 mpg city/23 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||19.2 mpg|
|Navigation||Optional hard-drive-based system with traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Optional, with contact list integration|
|Disc player||MP3-compatible single-CD|
|MP3 player support||iPod integration|
|Other digital audio||Onboard hard drive, Bluetooth streaming, USB drive, auxiliary input, satellite radio, HD Radio|
|Audio system||205-watt 10-speaker system|
|Driver aids||Head-up display, front split-view camera, rearview camera, adaptive cruise control, automatic high beams|
|Price as tested||$68,325|