New X5 still has X-factor

How will SUV fans remember 2003? As the year when the well-to-do end of the market mushroomed, giving buyers an even greater choice, or the year the X5’s honeymoon ended? Whichever way you choose to look at it, after three glorious seasons as the default SUV for the moneyed set, BMW’s phenomenally successful off-roader has begun to feel the heat from a new crop of luxo cars on stilts, most notably Volvo’s aggressively priced and hugely talented XC90.

And next spring things are set to get even more complicated when the X3 arrives in UK showrooms, priced and sized surprisingly close to the X5. Although work is underway on a bigger, Bangler next-generation X5, production is still several years away, hence this facelifted X5, which, despite first appearances, has undergone some pretty serious changes, most of which you can’t see.

Even those you can see are so hard to spot that included in BMW’s press material was a series of before and after snaps of the type you’d see in kid’s puzzle books. You know the sort: ‘Ten changes have been made to the photo on the right; can you spot them?’ For the record, the front end receives new headlamps, a more prominent grille and a restyled bonnet with bigger power bulges, while at the rear a new set of clear indicators are the sole tell-tale.

Inside, the changes are even more discreet, with no sign of the contentious iDrive system: only a revised steering wheel gives the game away. But apart from the X5’s ubiquity on Britain’s roads, we never really saw much wrong with the old car’s visual appeal, and there are bound to be more than a few potential customers relieved to find that the X5 still looks like a BMW.

But it’s under that familiar skin that the big changes have occurred. The base 3.0 petrol engine is carried over unchanged, but new to the X5 is the second-generation 3.0d engine first seen in the 730d, which churns out 218bhp and 369lb ft, a useful 34bhp and 67lb ft more than before.

Performance improves dramatically, the new car knocking nearly two full seconds off the old car’s 10.1sec spring to 60mph. This, combined with the warbly soundtrack and new six-speed manual or auto ‘boxes means the 3.0d does more than maintain its status as our favourite X5. That it’s fractionally cleaner and more efficient seals the deal, and we’d recommend anyone try it before plumping for the 4.4-litre V8.

That engine has also been revised though, power jumping from 286bhp to a more substantial 320bhp, reducing the 0-60mph time from 7.5 to 7.0sec in the process. And if that’s not enough, a 4.8iS joins the range next spring with around 380bhp and the potential to hit 60mph in under 6.0sec, albeit for £57,000.

The biggest hardware change, though, is to the four-wheel-drive transmission. The old X5 used a fixed front-rear torque split, but the new xDrive system (first seen on the new X3) uses a multi-plate clutch to vary between front and rear axles and DSC stability control to stop individual wheels spinning although, in common with most owners, we weren’t able to test the greater off-road ability BMW claims this provides. What we can say is that the X5 remains the finest-driving car in its class, with body control to shame a good many supposedly sporting saloons, despite your memories of school physics telling you it shouldn’t be possible.

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The price, unfortunately, is a monetary one: the new X5 costs up to £2850 more than the old, depending on model. At least it helps us tell it from the X3.

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