Most cars sporting BMW's vaunted M badge maintain a dual character: Clark Kent for everyday commutes and Superman for track days and weekend jaunts. But the all-new 2010 BMW X5 M is more like Dr. Bruce Banner--it can never really hide the Hulk lying beneath the surface.
Even at its most tame settings, the X5 M feels brawny. The thick steering wheel offers plenty of grip for your hands and road feedback, while its mighty heart, a twin-turbo V-8, pulses powerfully under the hood. In full M mode, the X5 shows its Hulk brute force, the engine roaring in anger and its muscular tires keeping it planted firmly on the ground.
Previously, BMW kept the M badge reserved for its coupes and sedans, but the X5 M deserves the honor. It is pure violence, a powerful beast of German engineering. Before this car came along, the Porsche Cayenne GTS was the only SUV we felt really brought sports car performance to the segment.
Except for the 20-inch alloy wheels, from the side the X5 M looks conventional. But its front shows the car's brute character explicitly, with a ridiculous amount of big vents containing black honeycombs surrounding the traditional BMW kidney grille and lining the area below the bumper. Four pipes stick out of its back, confirming the M badge on the tailgate.
Standard X5 traits that carry over to this M car are the clamshell tailgate and ample cargo area. Inside, the X5 M treats its occupants to a panoramic sunroof and a typical quality BMW interior. BMW uses leather liberally around the X5 M's cabin, on the seats and door insets, while the dashboard is all soft plastic.
Roll your own M mode
We weren't surprised to find BMW's new iDrive controller on the console, as the company rapidly updates the electronics across its model line. This controller works well, letting you select menu items on the car's LCD and provides a set of quick access buttons for audio, navigation, phone, and the stereo. This interface could still use some work, though. It includes an Option button near the controller and a Settings item on screen, each of which lead to different menus.
The iDrive lets you program the steering wheel's M button to customize the X5 M's performance. You can choose sport or normal settings for both the suspension and stability control, choose power or normal for the engine, and set the head-up display to go to a special M view. You can also have the stability control disengaged. These settings will all take effect when you hit the M button on the steering wheel. We generally left the suspension and stability control in sport and the engine in power mode.
When driving the X5 M in normal mode, it did a poor job of disguising the power of its twin turbo V-8. Under acceleration, the turbine whine kicks in, making the X5 M sound like a jet fighter. Lifting up on the accelerator causes an impressive bass exhaust backflow, little sonic booms from the exhaust system.
Although this engine is the same basic configuration and displacement as that in the BMW 750i we reviewed, it makes much, much more horsepower. The M tuning gives the X5 M 555 horses, compared with the 7-series' 407hp. Its torque is up at 501 pound-feet, a good chunk more than the 7-series' 442 pound-feet. But tuning for this kind of power comes at a cost, namely fuel economy. We made liberal use of the car's M mode, but also spent time cruising on the freeway and negotiating city traffic, resulting in an average fuel economy of 13.2 miles per gallon. This thirsty engine limits the X5 M's range, as well. With its 22-gallon gas tank, don't expect to go much more than 300 miles.
Weighing more than 5,000 pounds, the engine gets the X5 M moving very fast, very quickly. According to BMW, the X5 M hits 62 mph in 4.7 seconds. Every time we mashed the accelerator, the car threw us back into our seats with force, regardless of if we were in M mode .
The transmission might seem a disappointment to M fans, as only a six-speed automatic is available; there is no manual, no dual clutch gearbox, as found in the M3. We tried its drive, sport, and manual modes for fast launches, finding we could get the best acceleration shifting with the thick, aluminum paddle shifters. But it was also difficult to keep from over-revving, as the engine speed rises very quickly, sending the tach needle past the redline.
Ultimately, we were impressed by how quickly the automatic transmission shifted in manual mode, showing little slushiness. The automatic's sport program was generally good, but occasionally spastic. As we slewed the X5 M through difficult corners, the sport program downshifted aggressively, setting the right gear for acceleration at the apex and letting the engine speed rise appropriately before upshifting. But occasionally the sport program delivered a downshift when it wasn't called for, probably because it misinterpreted our gas and steering inputs, massively lurching the car and nearly sending our photographer through the windshield.
Cornering was a surprising experience in the X5 M. We've never felt an all-wheel-drive SUV rotate in the corners before, but this one does it. Throughout this car, BMW shows no hesitancy to use tech to improve performance, and that goes for the suspension and all-wheel-drive system as well. An air suspension is standard on the X5 M, but handling is improved by electromagnetic dampers and electronic antiroll bars. BMW's road-holding technology constantly monitors speed, steering angle, and uses the suspension components to counteract movement that would put the vehicle out of control.