15/04/2005 00:00 | By Brian Laban, contributor, MSN Cars

BMW X5 review (2004-2005)



BMW X5 (© BMW)


We like the BMW X5, and the market likes the X5, too. Since its launch in the USA in December 1999, BMW have sold more than 433,000 X5s worldwide not much fewer than then the much cheaper MINI over a slightly longer time period and a good chunk of those cars were sold in the UK.

Initially the only model available was the top-of-the-shop 4.4-litre V8 version which had just about everything possible going for it: style, performance, quality, the versatility of a car-like on road driving feel and reasonable off-road ability, the practicality of an estate car, comfort, drivability, great reviews, instant 4x4 of the year awards. If it has one drawback (it would be wrong to call it a fault) its that the top-ranking X5 is hardly in bargain basement territory. A lot of well-equipped car for the money, but a lot of money - even for a car that many (ourselves included) reckon moved the goalposts in the luxury 4x4 sector. However, the 4.4i costs a cool 48,105 minimum, whereas the 3.0i costs 35,735. So, the question is, would you hang on to virtually everything else thats good about the X5 but sacrifice a little straightline performance (and really not that much) for a cost saving of 27 per cent? In other words, just enough cash to buy a used 1-series. The savings are even starker when you factor in the brutal new top-of-the-ranger, the 4.8is at 58,445.

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More car, less car

More car, less car

Look at the choices. A 32-valve V8 versus a 24-valve straight-six? No big comedown when the six in question is one of BMWs legendary best, and just bursting with character of its own. 286bhp or 231bhp? On everyday roads, in this much car, it hardly feels like a big difference. 143mph versus 126mph? When are you going to use either? And theres another consideration here: you can only do 143mph with the 4.4i Sport, with its higher speed-rating wheel-and-tyre package - and that adds close on another three grand to the equation. The ordinary X5 4.4i is electronically limited to 128mph.

BMW X5: Less is more

So, look at it this way: a notional 143mph versus a notional 126mph for 13,000 extra. Maybe not. Or 128mph versus 126mph for the price of a nice hatchback? Well, you tell me. Too slow off the mark? Hardly: 4.4i, 0-62mph in 7.5 seconds; 3.0i, 8.5 seconds manual, 8.8 auto. One measly tick-tock, say. Even if the X5 was a conventional saloon it wouldnt exactly be a slowcoach, and in big 4x4 company it has absolutely nothing to be shy about in either guise. How often in the real world, not on a test track, do you reckon you might actually exploit maximum performance - in a 4x4? This could be a very expensive delusion youre allowing yourself to indulge in. Then theres fuel economy: 22.2mpg versus 20.3 in the combined cycle, and this time, naturally, its the 3.0i that shades it.

Less is more

Still not convinced? OK, look beyond the numbers. Fundamentally, the 4.4i doesnt have anything the 3.0i cant offer. The looks are the same, the packaging is the same, quality is the same, the technology is the same, the image is the same. While not as able as the new Land Rover Discovery 3, it is better at mud-plugging than its reputation suggests. It isnt meant for extreme adventuring, it doesnt have dual-range transmission, but it has enough electronic traction aids and enough flexibility to tackle difficult terrain, and Hill Descent Control to keep a tight off-road rein. Inside, it has big space, with BMW style and quality by the bucketful.

Off road

Off road that is every bit as true for the 3.0i and 3.0i Sport and the torquey 3.0 diesel for that matter - as for the 4.4i, in some ways maybe even more so. On the road, the 3.0i is fantastically sharp and lively, partly making up with lighter weight what it concedes in power. The numbers above speak for themselves, but the driving experience is a revelation - the 3.0i simply doesnt feel as though its giving anything away, and there is almost no situation where it feels less than sparkling. Either transmission option is superb: the five-speed Steptronic auto is almost ridiculously smooth and responsive; the five-speed manual is crisp, beautifully spaced and maybe the best option if you actually plan to go off-road - just for the extra feeling of control. And the 3.0i, by the way, has more than enough flexibility to handle the levels of off-road adventure that the X5 technology permits, which are ultimately limited by tyre spec and ground clearances, not grunt.

Another revelation is the X5 3.0is on-road steering, handling and ride. Whether its a function of a slightly lighter engine up front, or subtle geometry differences, the 3.0i if anything feels even more precise, even better weighted, even more car-like than its V8 cousin. Its just a joy to drive, either pottering along or pressing on hard. It is agile, comfortable, both roll and body movement are brilliantly controlled, and it tells you whats happening. There are cars that dont feel as good as this - BMWs even that arent as taut.

Verdict

Youre getting the picture here, arent you? We think the X5 4.4i is brilliant, but we think the 3.0i is arguably even more brilliant, for considerably less money. You can still go mad with the options lists if you want to match the pair spec for spec, but nobody will begrudge you that. And for some people, only the 4.4i will do. But for goodness sake, dont think the 3.0i is just a second-best alternative...

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