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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 First drives