The X5 is a BMW through and through. On the road, that means an emphasis on sporty driving dynamics, even if it comes at the expense of utility. Sitting still, it means the X5 looks like a BMW sedan, only taller, ganglier.
The X5 gets a facelift for 2011, but it takes a sharp eye to tell the difference. Up front, there is a revised lower fascia with fog lights moved inboard and larger air intakes. More of the lower fascia is also painted body color, which visually lowers the front end. At the rear, the lower fascia has been reworked to complement the new front end. The lower apron is now body color instead of matte black, and its shape echoes the front fascia. The new taillights for 2011 add L-shaped LED light banks.
There's no mistaking the X5's classic BMW look. It starts in front, with that trademark grille and familiar dual-dual lamp clusters. Super-bright adaptive xenon headlights come standard. On the X5, they're ringed with LED circles that serve as the daytime running lights (plus, they look cool). These headlights level themselves when the X5 bounces over bumps, and turn slightly with the steering wheel. The standard fog lights also work as cornering lamps, lighting when the corresponding directional signal is selected.
In profile, the X5's big wheels and short overhangs promote an agile look, while the roof and taillights trail into a slightly flanged lip. These so-called separation edges smooth air as it rushes over the back of the vehicle. That means a slight improvement in fuel economy, and probably more significantly, less wind noise inside the X5.
Indeed, with a drag coefficient of 0.34, the X5 is an aerodynamically efficient vehicle, as tall, boxy SUVs go. Its underbody is smoothed with various fairing devices. The front spoiler directs air around the front tires, reducing resistance as the X5 punches a substantial hole in the air.
BMW tried to increase the X5's utility when it redesigned it for 2007, stretching it seven inches to add rear legroom and cargo space. By wheelbase and overall length, the X5 sits mid-pack among key competitors: Slightly larger than the Acura MDX, Land Rover LR4, Mercedes M-Class and Volvo XC90, but quite a bit smaller than the Audi Q7 and Lexus GX.
The X5 has a clamshell tailgate that is a mixed bag, in our view. The lower third drops down, once the upper portion has been lifted up. On the plus side, the split design is handy for dropping smaller packages in the back. The little tailgate keeps items from falling out when you open the hatch, which can be a problem on some SUVs with a single liftgate, and it provides a nice (though high) bench for changing shoes or just resting a moment. The problem is that the upper portion includes not only the glass, but also half the metal that comprises the rear of the vehicle. In other words, it's the heavier, more substantial portion of the gate. It takes more effort to operate than it would if only the glass opened up and down. The optional power tailgate helps in this respect, and we recommend getting it.
The M model is distinguished by unique fascia front and rear. In front is a more angular lower fascia than the other X5 models. The M model deletes the fog lights in favor of larger lower air intakes and more prominent grille openings. Side gills are located behind the front wheels. With its sportier suspension, the X5 M sits 0.4-inch lower than the other models and rides on unique 20-inch wheels. From the rear, the X5 M has a slightly altered appearance. It features a different lower fascia with an integral rear diffuser that surrounds quad exhaust outlets.
The diesel-powered X5 xDrive35d looks the same as the gasoline-powered models.
The X5 cabin has typical BMW ambience: a combination of sporting, character, wood- or aluminum-trimmed luxury and lots of things to adjust.
Nothing inside the X5 makes it feel like an SUV, beyond its relatively high seating position. Measured by overall fit and finish, the X5 compares favorably to luxury brands such as Infiniti and Mercedes.
Panels and pieces inside the X5 fit impeccably. Most surfaces have a rich feel, and the seats are perforated to enable the active ventilation option. Standard line models are available with aluminum or one of three wood-trim packages: dark-stained bamboo (almost black), dark-stained poplar (the most traditional), and light-stained poplar (essentially blonde). The vinyl dash and door panels in our test X5 were a single, dark tone, rather than the two-step dark/light treatment increasingly common in BMWs and European brands in general. We liked the overall appearance, though the monotone creates a serious, no-frills feeling.
The front seats are excellent: comfortable and exceptionally supportive, once they're tailored to whoever is sitting on them. The optional Comfort Seats and the M's sport seat have a lot of side bolstering for this type of vehicle, and that's a double-edge sword. It's great for drivers about to take a spirited run through the canyon, but less so for passengers, and particularly the elderly, who have to climb up into the X5 and then slide over the bolsters into a front seat. Seat adjustment comes via BMW's usual extensive array of controls, including double-hinged, articulated seat backs and various bolsters that can be squeezed or pumped up. They all work well, but there are so many that fine tuning takes time and some trial and error. The memory feature, which comes standard, is handy once the driver has found a comfortable position. It can take a while.
The dashboard applies a taller variant of BMW's stepped or stacked design, and it looks tidy in the X5. It certainly isn't cluttered, as it can be in some vehicles in this class, thanks partly to BMW's point-and-click iDrive control. Now in its fourth generation, iDrive features Menu, CD, Radio, Tel, Nav, Back, and Option buttons around the central aluminum knob. The previous generation had only a Menu button. This system controls navigation, communication, climate, and entertainment functions, and the new buttons make accessing many controls easier and quicker. It can still require several steps to perform various functions, making tasks like finding a new radio station overly complicated, but we find the latest generation easier to use than its predecessor. We also found that it becomes easier once you get used to it.
Unfortunately, there are still too many things you can't adjust without delving into the iDrive menus. Audio tone, for example. The optional premium stereo sounds fantastic, but we were discouraged from taking full advantage of its sound processing features because of the tedious, distracting iDrive sequence required to set them. Those who frequently switch between talk radio and music may find this inconvenient.
One of the best things about the iDrive-equipped X5 is that it has conventional switches for temperature adjustment, fan speed and airflow, and for some audio functions, including a genuine volume control knob. In other words, you can make these frequent adjustments easily without fishing through iDrive. There are also phone and redundant audio controls on the steering wheel spokes. Cruise-control functions are located on a third stalk on the steering column, with wipers on the conventional, right stalk and a trip computer button on the left, turn-signal stalk. We find BMW's electronic turn signals among the most cumbersome in any luxury brand, to the point where you're tempted to do the wrong thing and switch lanes without using them.
The center screen is large, and we like the fact that it allows you to keep the map displayed on the right third of the screen, regardless of what's shown in the primary portion. The navigation system also comes with an 80-gigabyte hard drive, 15 gigs of which can be used to store music files.
In the M model, drivers can also control the M Drive settings through the iDrive system. Choose the settings for the Electronic Damper Control, Dynamic Stability Control, Power (throttle mapping and transmission shift points), and Head-up Display in various iDrive screens and they will all be used when you press the M button on the steering wheel. These controls allow you to firm up the suspension, leave more room for play in the stability control system, increase throttle response, adjust shift points and add a rev counter warning in the optional Head-up display to inform you when to shift manually if you're using the automatic transmission's M (manual) mode.
Measured by its ergonomic packaging, the X5 is very good. Forward visibility is excellent; armrest height and window-switch placement are just as we like them. Everything, including the mirrors, can be adjusted with the driver in the driving position, meaning back against the seat rather than leaned forward to reach a switch or the rearview. The switches generally have a nice, precise feel.
The fat rear roof pillars limit visibility just behind the vehicle, and demand an extra dose of caution when backing up. The available rearview camera helps, and we recommend it. The rearview camera is also available with a Top View and Side View display. The top and side views allow you to see the sides of the vehicle when backing up, making it easier to parallel park.
New for 2011 is a lane departure warning system. When the vehicle crosses a lane line without a turn indicator it sends a signal to the driver by vibrating the steering wheel. The system works as advertised, but many drivers may find it annoying, especially those who don't use blinkers.
The center console is wide, almost massive. Besides the iDrive controls, it sprouts BMW's video-game-style, electronic gear selector and a hand brake. A sliding plastic blind exposes an ashtray and the cupholders. Those cupholders aren't terribly deep, though they do have little tension devices that snug around the bottom of a cup. The console box opens down the middle, clamshell style, and it measures about six-by-six-by-ten inches, lined with a rubber mat. It houses a power point, headphone-type auxiliary jack and, when ordered, the new USB port.
Storage options inside the X5 are fair: Much better than the typical European vehicle a few years ago, but not up to the best in this class. The glovebox opens with a remote switch in the center stack, close to the driver, and it's large enough to hold small items beyond the extra-thick portfolio for owner's documents. The door bins are molded into the door panels, and split into two compartments. They're wide and deep, so anything you put here is likely to stay when you open or slam the door, and lined with rubber so contents aren't prone to sliding and making noise.
When BMW stretched the X5 seven inches (starting with the 2007 models), it did wonders for rear passenger room. Space is now competitive with the roomiest mid-sized luxury SUVs. A five-foot, nine-inch rear passenger has inches of headroom to spare, and enough legroom to stretch his/her feet up under the front seat. There's a reasonable array of accoutrements for rear passengers, too, including vents, a power point and small storage bin on the back of the center console. There's also temperature control and a fan switch on models so equipped. The dropdown center rear armrest offers no cupholders or storage, but it reveals the optional locking pass-through port for long items such as skis or fly rods.
Cargo space still ranks at or near the bottom of the class. There is 23.2 cubic feet for stuff behind the second seat: about half again as much as the trunk in a large sedan, though the space is tipped up on its end with a much smaller load floor. Adding the optional third-row seat expands passenger capacity to seven, but it also eliminates most of that cargo space. BMW claims adults up to five-feet, four-inches tall will be comfortable in the third row, though we find it to be one of the smallest on the market, with too little head and legroom, and too low of a seat bottom, for anyone other than preteen children.
A cargo blind opens and retracts over the carpeted area behind the second seat, which features several tie-down points and a rail system that accommodates slide-out accessories offered by BMW dealers. The rear seat backs fold forward easily, but not completely flat, so there a slight angle to the load floor. The bottom cushion for the rear seats can be removed completely, as a single piece. That levels the load floor, but then you have to find a place for the seat bottom.
Even with cargo space maximized, the X5 offers less capacity than most competitors. With 75.2 cubic feet available, the X5 is surpassed by the Acura MDX (83.5), the Volvo XC90 (93.2) and a host of others. There is some additional storage under the X5's load floor, enough for a tool kit or a six pack, in the bin with the temporary spare.