With cars such as the X5 M, BMW demonstrated it could use technology to make an SUV handle like a sport car. The 2012 BMW X5 xDrive35i does not reach quite the same level, but shows that technology does not rule out responsive driving feel. The X5 is not a luxury SUV for lazy drivers; it never let me forget that I had my hands on the wheel.
Some luxury SUVs aim for effortless driving, and some people appreciate that character. But the X5's steering wheel keeps a connectedness to the road that many cars have lost. Although BMW employs some electronic components in its power steering, it still holds on to hydraulic power as the main boost. Many automakers have gone to pure electronic power-steering systems, but none have been able to crack the code of maintaining true road feel with these systems.
Not that BMW's steering technology is behind the times. The X5 can be had with BMW's Active Steering option, which varies the turning ratio, or lock-to-lock turn of the wheel, based on the speed of the car. When going slower, this system means less force is required on the steering wheel to effect more angle on the front wheels. At higher speeds, the car offers more latitude with the steering wheel.
Likewise, the suspension gives the X5 excellent contact with the road, while at the same time offering a comfortable ride. The X5 corners exceedingly well, considering its ponderous 4,563-pound curb weight. Little tricks like having a wider track at the rear wheels help in this regard, as do the ridiculously wide tires that come as part of the M package, 275 millimeters on the fronts and 315 millimeters on the rears. BMW also offers an active-suspension option to keep the car really flat when tackling tight corners.
The xDrive part of the X5's model name means it comes with BMW's all-wheel-drive system, which also contributes to the vehicle's cornering prowess. Instead of torque vectoring, BMW uses the term Automatic Differential Brake, a technology that slows a wheel that is slipping, running its torque to the wheel at the other end of the axle.
If none of these technologies and attributes sound appropriate for a rock-crawling four-wheel-drive truck, it is because the X5 feels designed much more for paved roads. It boasts 8 inches of ground clearance, which is not bad, and BMW even insists it can ford water to a depth of 1 foot 7 inches. But with the wide, low-profile tires and the body cladding, it doesn't look like a vehicle for the outback, at least not without significant aftermarket mods. It features automatic descent control to help it down steep, snow-covered roads.
The engine in the xDrive35i version of the X5 is one of my favorites from BMW, a high-tech masterpiece with 3 liters of displacement from six inline cylinders. Direct injection delivers the fuel and a twin-scroll turbocharger pushes in the air, getting output up to 306 horsepower and about 300 pound-feet of torque.
Given the X5's weight, this engine gives its all. It hits 60 mph in a reasonable 6.8 seconds. The acceleration comes on steadily, without drama or turbo lag, put to the wheels through an eight-speed automatic transmission. The engine offers enough power for just about any traffic situation, but there is not a lot of overhead.
Even with its just-adequate power, the X5 xDrive35i does not achieve particularly good fuel economy. The eight-speed transmission helps it up to 23 mpg on the highway, but its city number is only 16 mpg. During CNET's time with the car, its average came in at under 20 mpg. BMW should probably put its efforts into lightening the X5 to boost the fuel economy number further.
Any major updates to the X5, such as a lighter body, will have to wait until 2013, when the next generation of BMW's largest SUV should come out. Although the current generation has been around since 2007, BMW's interstitial refreshes included updating the cabin tech to the latest and greatest.
The middle of the dashboard holds BMW's wide-screen LCD, with two-thirds set aside for main cabin-tech functions and the other third acting as a supplementary screen, showing information such as trip data or the currently playing music. The iDrive dial, on the console, and voice command control all of the onscreen functions. The interface takes a little getting used to, and functions such as browsing need improvement.