ATLANTA, GA - Here we go again. This month's interpretation of the sport/utility vehicle (SUV).
BMW AG's been telling us for a couple of years that its SUV wouldn't be an SUV. The company's backing up the assertion with its chosen moniker for the 2000-model X5: SAV, or Sports Activity Vehicle.
And, to its credit, BMW also is not ashamed to say that the new X5 makes no pretense about offering any sort of off-road prowess; the press blurbs talk only about " a light-duty truck with the SUV silhouette," and "combining all-road capability (italics ours) with the attributes most people appreciate in BMW automobiles."
So, the line in the sand is drawn. Either you're going to do a "trucky" SUV or you're not - and luxury automakers have been doing just fine on both sides of the line. Sure, the X5 is classified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a light-duty truck, but really it isn't. The platform essentially is all-new, although it borrows heavily from the 5-series component set. The name X5 was derived from "X," for all-wheel drive, and "5" to signify a vehicle sized in the 5-series category.
The competitors are obvious: If you're going to spend the X5's $49,970 base price, you can get any number of full-size, luxury-oriented trucky SUVs: Lincoln Navigator, Toyota Land Cruiser, Cadillac Escalade. The same money puts you comfortably into the only luxury passenger-car based (i.e. unibody) SUVs in the category, DaimlerChrysler's Jeep Grand Cherokee and the Lexus RX300, although with the Lexus you can't get a V-8 (at least not yet).
Then there's the Mercedes-Benz M-Class, namely the V-8 equipped ML430, which until now perhaps most delicately danced the line between trucky SUVs (the M-Class is built on a frame) and SUVs with more car-like ride, handling and profiles. The ML430, at a base price of $43,750, likely will be the X5's stiffest competition.
Now that the positioning matter is settled, note that BMW introduced the X5 to the press at the sinuous Road Atlanta race track - and that intros for the Navigator or the Escalade most decidedly did not take place there. BMW is out to prove that this is one supposed SUV with dynamics to challenge the best road cars.
For the most part (we'll get to this in a minute), the point is well taken. BMW says the X5 unibody exhibits torsional rigidity in the 5- and 7-series class, so the platform is extremely solid, thanks in no small degree to a large dollop of high-strength steel (BMW says 56% of the body/chassis weight is comprised of high-strength steel).
At each corner of this solid foundation rest the main elements of the 5-series all-independent suspension, although the control arms are sized-up to a beefier spec and constructed of steel instead of weight-saving aluminum. The front suspension elements are all-steel, whereas three of the rear suspension's four links at each corner are aluminum and one is steel. Both front and rear subframes also are steel.
Until late in the first quarter of 2000, when export build at the X5's Spartanburg, SC, plant begins, all X5's are of the same specification: power comes from the immaculate 4.4L DOHC V-8 and a 5-speed automatic transmission driving a full-time all-wheel-drive system with a planetary gear center differential splitting torque 38% to the front and 62% to the rear. Electronic traction control augments the all-wheel-drive system by limiting individually spinning wheels. In addition, BMW adds its faultless Dynamic Stability Control (DSC-X) - adapted for all-wheel drive - to limit the potential for hazardous under- or oversteer.
Finally, there are monster disc brakes at each wheel and robust 255/55 18-in. tires to make an impressive footprint on the road, which BMW engineers clearly would prefer to be nicely paved.
The X5 proves its mettle at Road Atlanta, bending into the corners without any of the sort of body roll expected of a vehicle with a 29-in. (74-cm) step-in height. And the 282-hp and 324 lb.-ft. (439 Nm) of torque available from the 4.4L V-8 definitely delivers better than your everyday SUV accelerative experience (BMW says 7.5 seconds to 60 mph [97 km/h]).
Ah, but how that 4,828-lb. (2,190-kg) curb weight must have pained the engineers! Mercedes' V-8 M-Class - a vehicle with considerably more cargo capacity - drags around, remarkably, more than 300 lbs. (136 kg) less, despite its full-frame construction.
The weight of the X5 always is felt, but particularly here at Road Atlanta, where the vehicle does not come out of the corners particularly hard. Those expecting a BMW-like power-to-weight ratio discover that measure to be no better than most of its supposedly inferior competitors (see chart). And after a few semi-hot laps, several journalists scoff at BMW's claim that the X5 circulates the demanding German Nurburgring race track with the same lap times as a U.S.-spec M3.
I left the track simultaneously puzzled and enlightened.
For one, it's difficult to understand the real advance of the X5, for there's nothing extraordinary about this vehicle - it is precisely what was expected, with no cutting-edge advances other than a chassis that does a great job of body control.
And the X5 most certainly is light on any "utility" aspects: the cargo bay, at 54.5 cu. ft. (1,543L) with the back seats down, isn't going to hold any hulking objects; moreover, it's so nicely trimmed out that even muddy golden retrievers need not apply.
Yet give BMW credit for recognizing that few SUVs - particularly those of the "luxury" ilk - will ever plow through a sodden corn field to retrieve the bloody deer killed this morning. So why pretend?
Instead, the company has pragmatically applied its understanding of the customer to present a vehicle with the SUV characteristics that seem to be purchase "drivers"; a more-commanding ride height, full-time all-wheel drive, and the all-important aggressive appearance.
Maybe I've just seen one too many $50,000 SUVs to care anymore, but apart from the ride-height thing, there's nothing in the X5 that couldn't be done with the V-8 5-Series station wagon. So if you want the dynamic ability of a BMW passenger car, buy the stinking car, already.
Yet SUV lust in the U.S. remains powerful, and BMW now has the X5. The famous propeller badge, if nothing else, will ensure that the company sells the 30,000 to 35,000 expected of first-year production. And before the X5 has even gone on sale (it does so this month), the company already is preparing an expansion of production capacity, so BMW clearly knows better than we what will sell to today's SUV "intender" - and why.