2014 BMW X5 xDrive50i

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The third-generation X5 looks less truckish than ever. This is the M Sport trim; other “design world” packages include Pure Excellence and Pure Experience. And for you Third World warlords, BMW will soon offer an armored X5 too. BMW

A high-end, high-performance SUV is a thing of wonder. As in, I wonder how they got a “truck” to behave like this? And, I wonder what they were thinking?

It’s all well and good to be able to keep up with sports cars while coddling the family in high-rise luxury, but with an SUV comes a not-unreasonable expectation of all-weather and all-surface capability.

Such a vehicle, which typically costs somewhere between 75 and 150 grand, ought to be a true dreadnought—literally, “fearing nothing.”

The Royal Navy launched HMS Dreadnought in 1906. The Germans were so taken aback by its big guns, heavy armor and speed that they countered with a new class of warship of their own.


For the next 40 years and through two world wars, the balance of naval power in Europe seesawed back and forth, finally culminating in the Range Rover and the BMW X5—sorry, I meant the Bismarck and HMS Prince of Wales.

Germany’s best response to Britain’s four-wheeled dreadnought, the Range Rover, came in 1999, when BMW rolled out the X5. In luxury, amenities and space, it was a close match. On pavement, the BMW could eat the Brit alive, but off-road was a different story.

I once went on a pheasant shoot in England with an early X5. The gamekeepers said I’d never keep up with their Rovers. In fact I did, but I had to get a running start at each muddy hill and I was sideways a lot. Once back on the tarmac, though, I’d be halfway through my first pint before the local talent got back to the pub.

A lot has changed since then. The British dreadnought’s pavement performance has improved tremendously, and without losing any of its off-road chops, while over in the friendly-enemy camp, VW, Mercedes-Benz, Audi and even Porsche have built their own über SUVs. BMW hasn’t been standing still, though; just a few minutes in an 2014 xDrive50i make it clear that this third generation of the big-bore X5 is a battle cruiser extraordinaire—on pavement.

(Few high-dollar 4x4s ever go deeper into the weeds than the landscaping alongside the driveway, and BMW has no off-road reputation to protect, so the company can be excused the X5’s focus on pure pavement performance.)

Even with 445 horsepower, the twin-turbo V-8 X5 is slightly outgunned by a few other top-end SUVs, but no matter—BMW’s biggest and most powerful ute has a gilded chip on its shoulder. Don’t let the impressive luxury, the long list of amenities and the high-quality materials fool you; there is nothing soft or yacht-like about this vehicle.

All the inputs—steering, braking, acceleration—are direct, linear and require some effort. From a standstill, a V-8 X5 will blast to 60 MPH in a tick under five seconds. Its top speed must be 165 or so, but it’s electronically limited to 130 MPH, at least in the US.

Now click the 8-speed Steptronic transmission into “S” and select “Sport” on the (available) Dynamic Performance Control. This sharpens up the acceleration, the steering and the suspension—not that it was flabby before—and makes the X5 feel even lighter on its feet.

“Light” isn’t the right word; a V-8 X5 weighs more than two and a half tons and can barely exceed 17 miles per gallon. So let’s say “preternaturally agile” instead. All that weight is divided evenly between the front and rear axles; along with very sophisticated suspension, traction-control and all-wheel-drive systems, this explains why a tall, heavy four-wheeler performs like, well, a BMW.

As to why BMW built this machine, that’s easy too: Because they could.

If you intend to use your X5 xDrive50i for fast Friday-night runs up to ski country for the weekend, check the tires first. If your car, like ours, is wearing low-profile, 20-inch Dunlop SP Sport Maxx GT tires, insist they be exchanged for something winter-worthy. These are meant for howling round the Nurburgring on a sunny day; on snow, they feel like Vaseline-coated banana peels.

Better yet, have the dealer throw in a set of winter wheels and tires, and just swap each fall and spring. Then your V-8 X5 really need dread absolutely nought. On pavement.

—Silvio Calabi