Resistance is futile. When the big, premium SUV thing really kicked off in the late ’90s with the launch of the Mercedes M-class and BMW X5, people like me would bleat on about how diesel estate cars from either of these makers were – pound-for-pound – among the best you could buy, with all the prestige and as much practical space as the new SUVs, yet without the disadvantages of cost and efficiency that came with the off-road hardware you’d never use, and wouldn’t take you very far if you tried to. So why would you want an SUV?
Of course, we completely missed the point, and you rightly ignored us. Since 1999 you have bought 1.3 million BMW X5s over two generations, for its elevated driving position, sense of space, and feeling of security imparted by its size and four-wheel-drive. We tried to tell you that an SUV couldn’t drive as well as a standard car. We were right about the first, ’97 M-class in that respect, but the ’99 X5 blew that argument apart by handling better than most rival estates.
The formula is now fixed, and as those sales figures attest, premium SUVs are no longer a niche but central to the profits of their makers. BMW was not going to cock up the third generation of its cash cow, and after ten days and 700 miles in one I can confirm that it hasn’t. Even as a committed premium diesel estate car driver, I’m struggling to find anything not to like about it.
Maybe the name? The spec sheet in front of me tells me I’ve been driving a BMW X5 M50d, which reads like one of the replacement passwords you get emailed when you forget that ‘dumbass’ is the key to your online banking (it isn’t, by the way). Not as confusing or randomly capitalised as the X5 sDrive25d, though. That’s a 2.0-litre, four-pot rear-drive eco-special X5 that promises 50.4mpg and emissions of 149g/km, made possible by an increased use of high-tensile steel, magnesium and plastics in the body that cut up to 90kg from the new X5’s mass.
But we can’t drive that yet, so I’ve had to ‘settle’ for this 3.0-litre, six-cylinder, triple-turbodiesel with 381bhp at 4400rpm and 546lb ft of torque at 2-3000rpm. Resistance really is futile in the face of this thing: the top-spec Range Rover Sport diesel falls around 100 units short in both measures, and you need a V8 Porsche Cayenne diesel to beat it. The X5’s still-not-especially-svelte 2265kg mass (both RR and Porsche are lighter) doesn’t offer much resistance either. This engine drop-kicks the X5 down the road, with 62mph reached in 5.3sec and the eight-speed ’box keeping it seamlessly and accurately in the thick of that torque band. Better drivetrain refinement was an aim for the new model and while you can hear the engine – a breathy roar of appropriate volume – you can’t feel it.
BMW even claims it will do 42.2mpg. Not the way I drove it, it won’t. My car had £2495 of Dynamic Adaptive suspension fitted, one of four active suspension options. This one includes Dynamic Drive active roll- control and rear air springs, which together provide either extraordinarily level, composed handling or a fine steady-state ride. The 20-inch rims (a £1200 upgrade) scoured a little over poor surfaces, and the now fully electric steering has perfect weight but not much feel. An active-chassis Range Rover Sport is more involving to drive, but you’ll struggle to decline that motor.
The new cabin is magnificently made, not something that could be said of all BMW’s US-built cars over time, with looks and functionality to match. With options, this is an expensive car but the cabin feels like 75-grand’s worth. The big 10.25-inch main screen does justice to the clarity and accuracy of BMW’s nav, over which the iDrive system offers easy, intuitive control. It is a bit of a button-fest in here, but BMW seems to have finally nailed the simplicity-vs-accessibility balance, with the most important functions at most a couple of taps away.
Six versions of the new X5 will eventually come to the UK, plus an X5M that BMW hasn’t officially owned up to yet. I’d be surprised if any were better than this.