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2015 BMW X5 M review: Engineering triumphs over physics

The M version of BMW's X5 SUV weighs over 5,000 pounds, but manages to handle very well on the track due to a clever mix of adaptive suspension and performance technologies.

Wayne Cunningham
Wayne Cunningham Managing Editor / Roadshow

Wayne Cunningham reviews cars and writes about automotive technology for CNET's Roadshow. Prior to the automotive beat, he covered spyware, Web building technologies, and computer hardware. He began covering technology and the Web in 1994 as an editor of The Net magazine.

8 min read

Popping the accelerator while executing a hard left turn, the 2015 BMW X5 M adds a little rotation, actively kicking out its back end. The firm ride and adaptive suspension means no wallow as it comes around and the 567 horsepower engine feels like it wants to put all its power to the wheels.

2015 BMW X5 M

2015 BMW X5 M

The Good

The 2015 BMW X5 M combines an extraordinarily capable suspension system with a powerful engine, leading to serious sports performance. A new detection system warns the driver of pedestrians and bicyclists on dark streets, and a surround-view camera system helps with parking lot maneuvers.

The Bad

Fuel economy averages in the mid-teens. The firm ride can take a toll even with the suspension in Comfort mode.

The Bottom Line

The 2015 BMW X5 M seems to defy physics with its performance technology, letting it take turns at tremendous speed, but the sports focus of this SUV takes away some of its practicality.

And that's with all systems set to comfort.

The all new X5 M follows BMWs recent theme of programmable cars in its M performance line. Steering, shifting, throttle and suspension all offer multiple modes, from Efficient or Comfort to Sport Plus, with combinations of settings savable to the M1 or M2 buttons on the steering wheel. The X5 M is a truly remarkable SUV, proof of BMW engineering competence and a rubber-meets-the-road demonstration of performance technology.

Although the X5 M weighs over 5,000 pounds and boasts 8.1 inches of ground clearance, it handles supremely well and will scare the pants off other drivers on a track day.

2015 BMW X5 M hides power and handling under its SUV skin (pictures)

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To prove the point, BMW gave me an opportunity to drive the new X5 M on the track at Laguna Seca, the famed circuit near Monterey, California. As I hadn't been in an M car recently, I mistook the transmission's S setting for a sport program. No, in this context S means sequential, or manual shift mode, causing me to putter through the first couple of turns in too high of a gear. Figuring it out, I got on the paddle shifters and the throttle for the sinuous turn 5, then used the massive horsepower to take the ensuing uphill straight.

In the groove now, I approached the Corkscrew, that hard-left downhill right-turn follow through, taking advantage of the six piston front brakes to shave off speed. Hard over on the wheel, the X5 M pointed its nose downhill with no drama or and minimal body roll, in a manner that something of this size should not be able to do. Through another couple of laps, taking the sweeping turn 9, powering up the main straight to well over 100 mph, and pulling a double apex on the Andretti hairpin turn 2, I found it easy to keep control of this big SUV and its tremendous power.

2015 BMW X5 M
The X5 M gets BMW's powerful 4.4-liter V-8 with two dual-scroll turbos, the modern expression of M power. Josh Miller/CNET

CNET editor Tim Stevens took the X5 M's twin-under-the-skin X6 M around the Circuit of the Americas F1 course in Austin , and had this to say about the performance:

"Slicing through the famous S-turns at the Circuit of the Americas, doing my damndest to chase down BMW pro driver Bill Auberlen, the X6 M not only changed direction quickly and capably but stayed remarkably flat while doing so, something you wouldn't expect from a thing as tall as this. It also got properly loose, even with the DSC enabled. Driven on edge the car constantly moves about, rear slowly braking away when I accelerated too early out of fast turns, front washing out when I carried too much speed into the tight ones.

"In other words, the big X6 M felt remarkably balanced, and the DSC allowed enough slip for me to feel like I was correcting my own mistakes before it stepped in and properly saved my bacon. Knowing that I had that safety blanket let me push the car harder than I normally would have on an unfamiliar track, yet it didn't ruin any of the fun."

2015 BMW X5 M
The X5 M powers through the corkscrew at Laguna Seca, doing what a heavy SUV shouldn't be able to do. Antuan Goodwin/CNET


A 4.4-liter V-8 using two twin scroll turbochargers, one for each cylinder bank, and BMW's double VANOS valve control technology sits under the X5 M's hood, good for 567 horsepower and 553 pound-feet of torque. The twin scroll turbos create spin up quickly with low pressure at lower engine speeds, then higher pressure as the rotations per minute rise, a formula that effectively eliminated turbo lag.

Although the eight-speed transmission uses a torque converter instead of the dual clutch technology found in other BMW M car transmissions, it delivers quick, hard shifts with its lock-up clutch and operates in a similar manner as BMW's dual clutch transmissions. For example, it doesn't make the X5 M creep -- put it in drive and the car will just sit there until you give it some gas. There is no Park position on the shifter. Like other BMW M cars, you leave it in drive, activate the electronic parking brake, then switch off the engine to park it.

The real magic happens in the suspension, keeping the X5 M remarkably steady in the turns and doing a fine job combatting the inertial forces attempting to keep this beast going in a straight line when you need it to corner. Like the standard X5, the X5 M gets an air suspension at the rear axle, but it adds adaptive suspension components at the front wheels. As sensors detect pitch and roll, the suspension reacts in milliseconds to keep the body flat, ensuring strong contact patches from the tires, a mixed set with 285/40s at the front and 325/30s at the rear. In addition, the all-wheel-drive system can dynamically throw 100 percent of torque to the front or rear wheels to increase grip.

2015 BMW X5 M
BMW M cars have become very programmable, with settings for everything from steering to gear shifting. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

That trackability definitely affects the public road character of the X5 M. If you desire comfort most of all, look elsewhere. The suspension goes from Comfort to Sport to Sport Plus, but what BMW calls Comfort would be termed Sport by most other automakers. The ride quality remains firm and may prove untenable for longer trips. Dial it up to Sport or Sport Plus and the X5 M becomes sports car stiff.

For stop and go traffic, the throttle requires delicate control, as the X5 M feels like it would rather be going from zero to 100 mph instead of holding pace at 5 mph. That holds true for its Efficient setting, and even more so for Sport and Sport Plus. Gear change settings also go from Comfort to Sport Plus, but I found it less noticeable when leaving the transmission to automatic shifting in traffic. Those settings come into play more when using the steering wheel-mounted paddles for sequential shifting.

Choosing Sport or Sport Plus for the steering adds heft to the steering feeling, but I found it perfectly reasonable to use Sport Plus in city driving. Obversely, Stevens preferred using the Comfort setting on the track, eliminating the resistance for point-and-shoot cornering.

I took the logical approach of programming the M1 button with all settings in Sport, and the M2 button with all settings in Sport Plus, which also turns off stability control. On a twisty road, I found either setting gave the X5 M spectacular handling, almost living up to the track experience. Sport Plus felt a little edgier, and the lack of stability control didn't seem to add any real danger. Traction control was still ready to step in and tame excessive tail-wagging.

2015 BMW X5 M
Although very good on the track, the X5 M isn't a perfect all-arounder, as its ride quality suffers on typical public roads. Wayne Cunningham/CNET


Assisting the humdrum, everyday driving which will take up 95 percent of an owner's time, BMW offers its wealth of cabin tech in the X5 M. The SUV comes standard with BMW's widescreen infotainment system, using an indirect controller mounted on the console. In line with latest generation of BMW's infotainment, the controller integrates a touchpad on top of the main dial. Driving down the freeway, I was impressed how well the system understood letters I traced on that touchpad while entering an address for navigation. Similarly, I could activate Google online search directly from the navigation menu, and use letter tracing or voice command to enter search terms. BMW includes Yelp, Wiki Local and a few other connected features as part of BMW Online, relying on a dedicated 3G data connection in the car.

Enhancing the navigation experience, BMW's maps show 3D-rendered buildings covering major urban and suburban areas.

2015 BMW X5 M
BMW integrates Google online search with the navigation system. Josh Miller/CNET

I could set the head-up display to show speed and route guidance, or its M mode, with a colorful gauge showing engine speed and current gear. The M mode is useful, once you get used to it, but the washed out colors made it difficult to easily see the engine speed on sunny days. BMW should redesign the graphics with a stronger color or shade to make engine speed crystal clear, especially when you're approaching redline and need to shift.

This X5 M came with blind spot monitors and a very useful surround-view camera system, showing a top-down view when creeping around a parking garage. BMW debuts a new safety system with the X5 M, Active Driving Assistant, combining the previously available lane-departure warning with features it calls Frontal Collision Warning, City Collision Mitigation and Pedestrian Protection.

The Frontal Collision system occasionally flashed a red car icon in the head-up display if it felt I was approaching traffic in front too quickly, while City Collision Mitigation relies on that same sensor system to hit the brakes to prevent low-speed collisions. I fortunately didn't have to test the latter feature. For Pedestrian Protection, I was impressed when the X5 M flashed a red pedestrian icon on the head-up display when it detected a bicyclist on a dark road.

Adding to my audio enjoyment of the X5 M, this example had the optional Bang & Olufsen sound system, comprised of 16 speakers including an acoustic lens that rises from the center dashboard. This system produces very balanced and detailed sound, although the car's seven-band graphic equalizer lets you fine-tune the output to a greater degree than in most cars. At high volume, the system maintained controlled audio, but most of all I was impressed with the clarity, such as the detailed sound from guitar strings.

The X5 M supports all the audio sources you could want, including Bluetooth audio with full control over music selection using the car's interface. BMW offers its phone-specific cradles that fit into the console, making it easy to dock your phone. The music library screen, however, is horrible, requiring too many clicks to choose and play an album or artist. Worse, I could never quite figure out how to set music to shuffle play.

2015 BMW X5 M
The X5 M is very capable as a sports driver, but like other BMW M cars, it would be a waste not to track it. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

A niche-mobile

The 2015 BMW X5 M is an extraordinary engineering achievement, but one that fits a very narrow niche--drivers who want a track-worthy SUV. As an M car, the X5 M is pricey, about double the cost of an X5 xDrive35i . In the US, you're looking at a base price of $98,700, with options bring the example I drove up to $115,450. In the UK, your base price for the X5 M comes to £90,180, while Australian buyers will need to come up with AU$200,297 as the drive-away price.

Beyond the hefty initial price tag, the biggest hit against the X5 M is its fuel economy. Despite an idle-stop feature and other BMW efficiency technologies, it still comes in at 14 mpg city and 19 mpg highway. I was content to bring in an average of 16 mpg during my time with the car.

And although the X5 M comes with all-wheel drive, a hill descent and a screen showing useful off-roading information, such as angle of inclination and roll, I wouldn't expect the this powerful SUV to rock crawl. For off-road capability, I would look to either the Jeep Grand Cherokee or Range Rover . For comfort, I would turn to the Mercedes-Benz GLE (formerly the ML) or Lexus RX . But if I really felt the need to take an SUV to track days, the X5 M would do the trick.

2015 BMW X5 M specs

Model 2015 BMW X5 M
Powertrain Turbocharged direct injection 4.4-liter V-8 engine, eight-speed automatic transmission
EPA fuel economy 14 mpg city/19 mpg highway
Observed fuel economy 16 mpg
Navigation Standard with live traffic
Bluetooth phone support Standard
Digital audio sources Internet streaming, onboard hard drive, Bluetooth streaming, iOS integration, USB drive, satellite radio, HD radio
Audio system Bang & Olufsen 16-speaker system
Driver assistance Collision warning, night vision, pedestrian detection, head-up display, blind-spot monitor, surround-view camera, back-up camera
Base price $98,700
Price as tested $113,150
2015 BMW X5 M

2015 BMW X5 M

Score Breakdown

Performance 9Features 9Design 7Media 8


Body style SUV