X5 moves up a gear

Oh, to work for a central-London BMW dealer charged with selling X5s. When I rang one, posing as a prospective punter for a new X5, I asked about delivery and he said August. When I expressed surprise at this, there followed a lot of not-terribly-convincing paper rustling, after which he retreated to January… next year. If our glorious Prime Minister volunteered to spend a day in the stocks for all the motorists his government has unfairly taxed, harassed, spied on and persecuted, selling trays of rancid tomatoes for the event would be more difficult than shifting X5s right now.

Its success is largely deserved and the fact that its sales in 2003, both in the UK and around the world, posted another year-on-year increase is testament to its enduring qualities. All this despite the appearance of newer rivals such as the Porsche Cayenne and VW Touareg.

But what has shifted waiting times from the tantalising to the frankly tedious is this second-generation X5. With new engines for all bar the 3.0-litre petrol model and a new four-wheel-drive system called, predictably enough, xDrive, the new X5 seems set to provide BMW’s big off-roader with what appears, at first, to be a quite unnecessary shot in the arm.

In fact, it’s crucial. Not because of either of the rivals mentioned above, nor the new Lexus RX300, old Mercedes ML or the superb Range Rover – it’s the home-grown X3 it has to worry about. It seems faintly extraordinary that BMW now has two quasi-off-roaders of very similar size, with identical powertrains, priced within £3000 of each other.

Not forgetting the fact that there are 3.0i SE versions of both the X3 and X5. Of course, this is where X3s end and X5s start, but as this particular model represented almost a third of X5 sales last year, it’s hard not to see it being badly hurt by its younger, cheaper and, perversely, more spacious not-so-little sister.

Further up the scale, life will be easier. The X5 4.4i Sport offers compelling performance from its new 320bhp engine, slick shifts from ZF’s now-ubiquitous six-speed auto and an extra degree of sure-footedness from its predictive all-wheel-drive system that made a mockery of the recent grim weather. It even uses less fuel than its predecessor, at 21.6mpg on the combined cycle.

Fault can still be found in its irritatingly uncompliant ride and surprisingly small rear quarters but, these points aside, the hitherto scarcely patchy talents of the X5 appear admirably complete. Dynamically, it’s not quite a Porsche Cayenne S, but it’s close enough in my eyes for its considerably better looks to make it worth the extra three grand.

For myself, however, I’d still spend the extra three grand required to secure a VW Touareg V10 TDi. A 50-grand VW may sound like a nonsense now, but it is only a matter of time before the world wakes up to this extraordinary car. Good though this new X5 is, not even it can argue with the VW’s 553lb ft of torque and 30mpg capability. Order today and you’ll get the VW a damn sight sooner, too.

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