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In its 20th birthday year, is BMW’s original SUV back to its very best?

Since it launched the model in 1999, the BMW X5 has been referred to by BMW  not as a ‘Sports Utility Vehicle’, but as a ‘Sports Activity Vehicle’.

Semantics? Undoubtedly. And yet four generations, 2.2 million sales and an amazing rise to prominence suggest Munich’s marketing department knew what it was doing.

BMW claims the beam range on the X5's ‘Laserlight’ headlights is 200m greater than standard LEDs, at half a kilometre

Now, just as it is for the Porsche 911 or Volkswagen Golf GTI, such success is why the new G05-generation X5 has so little margin for error. In fact, the class-leading expectations placed on this new iteration far outweigh those of its great-grandfather, whose brand cachet, practicality and handling prowess made it a winner.

The game has moved on, and BMW has identified comfort as a core dynamic attribute for the car in 2018. Consequently, this new X5 uses acoustic glass for the windscreen and, optionally, the side windows; the suspension is now pneumatic; there is electronic roll stabilisation on some models; and passengers can enjoy four-zone climate control and an enlarged panoramic glass roof.

Naturally, BMW promises a more involving driving experience than ever, and we’ll shortly discover whether its engineers continue to defy the laws of physics in this respect.

Equally, this X5 uses a significant level of autonomous technology. The car can operate free from human input at modest speeds, and BMW has deployed its first in-cabin camera, rather than steering-wheel sensors, to ascertain whether the driver is paying attention to the road ahead by scanning their eyes.

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Luxury, practicality, involvement: it seems a contradictory blend of attributes, but it’s one BMW will need to have mastered if the X5 is to dominate its class like it once did.

BMW X5 design & styling

Pull up alongside a new X5 and you might not immediately tell it apart from the previous-generation 2013-2018 BMW X5. The kidney grille has grown to near-comical proportions and the front air intakes are larger, but the recognisably heavy-set design and stoically furrowed brow remain.

You’ll certainly notice the shadow that is cast by this car. The X5 has never been small but equally never has it gobbled up quite so much road space. BMW’s Cluster Architecture platform gets a second BMW SUV application and enables growth to the X5’s wheelbase (+42mm), overall length (+36mm) and width (+66mm). At 2110kg, the X5 is now also 40kg heavier than before.

By the end of 2019, both eight-cylinder and plug-in hybrid powertrains will be offered. For now, the exclusively straight-six engine line-up consists of a petrol 3.0-litre 40i and two torque-rich 3.0-litre turbodiesels. The powerplant in the top-of-the-line BMW X5 M50d oil-burner is remarkable in that it employs no fewer than four turbochargers to deliver 561lb ft from 2000rpm and a claimed fuel economy of 41.5mpg combined. The lesser 30d tested here has a quarter of the air-compressing hardware but will be far more popular, costing roughly £14,000 less and still mustering 457lb ft and 261bhp. All models use the same eight-speed ZF automatic gearbox.

Given the typical usage of these cars, four-wheel drive as standard is more for the sake of car-park credibility than necessity, although the rear-biased system can now shuffle torque to the front axle with even greater speed. Go for M Sport trim or the Off-road package and, as in the case of our test car, BMW will fit a locking ‘e-diff’ rear differential. Four-wheel steering is also an option.

New to the X5 and standard on the 30d and 40i is two-axle air suspension; the sharper-handling M50d gets steel springs and adaptive dampers as standard, and can have either active anti-roll bars or air springs as an option. Embodying the car’s versatility, the air suspension allows for 60mm of ride-height adjustment, lowering by 20mm in Sport mode for better high-speed aerodynamics or lifting up to 40mm for off-road duties.

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BMW X5 2018 road test review - cabin

Returning X5 customers might notice a slightly more perched driving position in this new version than there was in the outgoing one, a move likely made to create space in the car. It’s only a very marginal change, however – so you still feel as if you’re in something roughly midway between an executive saloon and an old-school SUV here.

But alongside the sense of familiarity you get in this car come new, tangible parallel senses of richness, of high-design style and of real material class. With its electroplated chrome garnishes, its neatly corralled button consoles, its visually appealing trim and its imaginatively shaped features, this is a luxury cabin of greater ambition than we’re used to from a big BMW. A less understated one in some respects too – but one clearly intended to retain people who might otherwise have their heads turned by the ambient splendour of a high-end Range Rover Velar or Audi Q7.

Latest-generation BMWs retain physical controls for the air conditioning system. We approve, and this is a fine place for them, but they’re fiddly at this size

And, without going over the top, the X5 cabin ought to achieve that with ease. There’s a striking air of expensiveness about BMW’s combination of chrome and ‘aluminium tetragon’ trim in our M Sport test car; an agreeably tidy look to the dashboard and centre console; a really upmarket feel to the cabin after dark, courtesy of BMW’s ambient lighting features; a sumptuous and special quality about its optional ‘BMW Individual’ Merino leather seats; and plenty of technological razzmatazz created by the widescreen infotainment and instrument screens.

The car’s second-row seats offer enough room for adults both large and small, although taller ones will find that their thighs float slightly unsupported above the seat cushions. For parents, the bugbear is that, unlike in the Audi Q7, the X5 only provides Isofix child seat anchorages for the outer seats. A seven-seat cabin layout is available at extra cost, with electrical folding also of the middlerow seats to make entry and exit easier (our test car didn’t have them).

The X5’s boot has grown from 500 to 650 litres – fairly big, but not quite as big as some of its SUV rivals (the Land Rover Discovery, Audi Q7 and Volvo XC90 all offer more carrying space). The car retains its useful split tailgate, however, which can be left in place to retain large loads or, once opened, will close electrically with the rest of the hatchback.

The X5 is the first BMW with the firm’s latest combination of infotainment and digital instrumentation screens to undergo an Autocar road test. Both screens are a sizeable 12.3in, and both display impressively clear and attractive graphics.

The digital instrument screen displays both an engine tachometer and a speedo in an analogue style around half-octagonal scales on either side of the binnacle. And partly because the tacho is on the right and therefore has to run anti-clockwise, the ‘dials’ are a little bit hard to read.

It’s also a slight disappointment to find that the configurability of rival digital instrument screens is missing here – so, although speed is displayed numerically elsewhere, you’re stuck with those octagonal half-dials whether you like them or not.

BMW is rolling out a new voice-recognition system on its latest models called ‘Hey BMW’. It hadn’t been fully activated on our X5 test car (likely coming as an ‘over the air’ software update) but, when tested on other models, we’ve found that it works well.

BMW X5 2018 road test review - engine

Next to the 40i and the quad-turbo 50d, the X5 30d’s entry-level positioning suggests a modesty about the quantity and quality of this car’s performance that’s a bit misleading.

The inclusion of a launch control function seems frivolous on a car like this, but nevertheless it enabled this 2279kg entry-level diesel SUV to sprint from a standstill to 60mph in a fairly fleet-footed 6.6sec two-way average. Not only is that on a par with the likes of the Volkswagen Golf GTI, it’s also 0.3sec quicker than the Audi Q8 50 TDI we road tested in 2018. Proof that BMW still doesn’t do ‘ordinary’ when it comes to its six-cylinder diesel engines.

Can’t say I was expecting to find a launch control function here. It’s unquestionably effective, but I’d love to know how many X5 drivers know it’s even there. Save it for the X5 M, I’d say

The manner in which that acceleration is delivered is smooth and contained yet strong and seamless, that initial surge of torque as you come off the brake pedal possessing something of a tidal feel, and propelling the X5 forward with no shortage of conviction. That conviction begins to wane a little as you approach the upper rev-range, but only enough to remind you that it’s a diesel you’re driving; while the bassy rumble that initially permeates the cabin morphs into a more overtly diesel-derived engine note.

By the smallest of margins, the BMW pips the Audi from 30-70mph – the metric we use to gauge a car’s real-world performance – taking 6.6sec versus the Q8’s 6.7sec. Ingolstadt has the upper hand over Munich in terms of outright in-gear flexibility, though: the Audi will complete the same run in fourth gear in 6.8sec – 0.5sec faster than the BMW.

The eight-speed ZF automatic gearbox is ever-smooth. Step-off is progressive provided the input from your right foot isn’t too hurried, while cogs are swapped with silkenedged polish on the run. Select Sport mode and these changes are executed even quicker, with a degree more forcefulness. The presence of a proper manual mode that won’t upshift at the limiter provides further evidence of this new X5’s effective driver focus, meanwhile.

Refinement was also a particularly strong suit for the X5 as far as our noise meter recorded it. At a 70mph cruise, our sound gear recorded ambient cabin noise at 64dB, increasing to a maximum of 71dB at full throttle in fourth gear. The Audi Q8 recorded a 67dB figure at 70mph, confirming our general impression that BMW’s attempts to elevate the X5’s standard for outright cabin isolation have been notably successful – and that this has become one of the quietest and most enveloping cars in its class.

BMW X5 2018 road test review - cornering front

BMW has developed something of a knack with its bigger saloons for combining sharpened directional response and cornering balance in a rounded and refined overall package.

This fourth-generation X5 pulls off this combination just as impressively as those saloons, and although it doesn’t quite dominate every rival with its outright body control and road-holding like its predecessors once did, it’s certainly an amicably poised and comfortable steer.

I’d heartily recommend the air suspension and I wouldn’t warn you off integral active steering if you park regularly in tight spots. BMW’s four-wheel steering system is quite a subtle execution.

With the adaptive air suspension set to Comfort, the X5 cruises along with a cushioned sense of rolling refinement you wouldn’t have associated with it a decade ago. At pace, over undulating roads, it deals with compressions fluently but allows the body to rebound more than fans of a connected, taut road feel might prefer.

But given the impressive cabin refinement we mentioned earlier (which is marred only when you encounter surfaces coarse enough to excite the sidewalls of those runflat tyres – and that’s not too often), it’s unlikely the prospect of a drive from one end of the country to the other would cause even the slightest apprehension.

From a rolling refinement perspective, it’s just a bit of a shame that at town speeds the X5’s softer set-up can permit enough unchecked body movement to create some head-toss in the car’s cabin, which doesn’t suit the car too well; and that the 21in alloys fitted to our M Sport-spec test car were tripped up by the occasional sharp edge.

On faster, flowing roads, the X5 comes into its own, as you’d hope and expect it might. Swap from Comfort to Sport mode and the suspension brings the BMW’s underbelly 20mm closer to the Tarmac, and the X5’s mass is even more adroitly kept in check particularly through tighter corners. Coupled with steering that usefully takes on weight and is increasingly direct off centre, the car has abundant, confidence-inspiring grip and traction. There’s more than enough of a dynamic edge about what’s on offer to appeal to the more enthusiastic driver.

The car’s ‘Adaptive’ drive mode ought to be the perfect everyday compromise between the two states, but isn’t quite. The testers tended to mix and match individual preferences for the car’s steering, engine, transmission and suspension systems via its ‘Sport Individual’ setting to arrive at their personally perfect combination. But, having done that, most ended up happy that they’d found a luxury SUV with a deal more dynamism and handling appeal than most they could think of.

Through the myriad fast corners that populate Millbrook’s Hill Route, the abundant grip generated by the X5 seemed to be something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the car never felt anything other than planted and secure. On the other, though, this tenacity with which it held on to the road’s surface near the limit of grip seemed to emphasise just how heavy a car the X5 now is. You could feel the car’s mass testing the damping authority of the suspension, and the progressive give of the tyre sidewalls – and in neither respect was the tidiness and poise of the car’s handling quite preserved when it came to it.

The 30d’s torque-rich motor was also well-suited to the numerous elevation changes, capable of providing more than enough pulling power almost regardless of the gear selected.

BMW X5 2018 road test review - hero front

BMW has increased list prices on this X5, but not by much: an entry-level xDrive30d xLine is about £2000 more expensive than its outgoing ‘F15’-generation equivalent.

An entry-level diesel Volvo XC90 remains about 10% cheaper, but asks you to compromise not just on power but also cylinder count; an equivalent Audi Q7 is slightly cheaper than the BMW; and an equivalent Range Rover Sport is a good 15% more expensive. So now, as before, the X5 is duking it out right at the centre of the premium SUV market. A competitive residual value forecast from CAP should allow it to be priced competitively on a monthly basis.

The X5 is the newest model here, but can’t quite stand up to the Audi or the Range Rover in terms of residual values

The X5 has a driveline that prefers electronic clutches to proper differentials, a maximum of just over 250mm of ground clearance, and is rated to tow only 1.9 tonnes on a braked trailer – so it’s versatile but not the most ruggedly configured of working 4x4s.

And yet it can certainly be efficient. Our test car returned 43.1mpg on our touring fuel economy run – which, from a near 2.3-tonne six-cylinder diesel SUV, is every bit as frugal as BMW’s best efforts over the past decade.


BMW X5 2018 road test review - static

The BMW X5 is now 20 years and several generations old, and what’s most remarkable about the new version may well be that, in spite of all of the ways that it has adapted as the market that it helped to create has changed, it retains the key selling point with which the original forged its reputation back in 1999.

This is the luxury SUV half-breed that gives people as much space, convenience and utility as they need, and a driving experience that doesn’t make any of those things feel like it’s come at a compromise. The X5 remains a better-handing SUV: simple as that.

Better to drive than the SUV norm, but not better across the board

For a buyer who needs much of what a big SUV does but who doesn’t want a car that embodies everything that the modern luxury SUV has become, the X5 should continue to appeal strongly (it outsold all of its key German rivals across Europe and the US in 2017).

An Audi Q7 remains a more upmarket, accommodating SUV, while Land Rovers offer more 4x4 capability in their own uncompromising way. But the X5 is restored as a contender by this latest version, and should be considered a favourite by many.


BMW X5 First drives