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BMW X5

The international press launch for the BMW X5 included a test drive from here to the German automaker's assembly plant in Spartanburg, S.C., with educational stops at an off-road driving course and a racetrack.

But even after the under-10 m.p.h. romp in the woods and the over-100 m.p.h. ride on the serpentine Road Atlanta race course, I still wasn't sure whether the X5 was a sports sedan disguised as a sport-utility vehicle, or a sport-ute that had a sports sedan as a role model. Given the ute-like traction and the sporty handling, maybe BMW is justified in claiming it has invented a new niche, which it calls the "sports activity vehicle." I know one thing, the X5's cornering capabilities are truly remarkable. Normally, I'm a little leery of pushing sport-utility vehicles on winding road courses. Their high center of gravity makes them adept at getting through deep snow, not fast corners.

I typically drive a ute hard enough to get some sense of the vehicle's dynamics, but not aggressively enough to make visions of tippiness dance in my head. The X5, however, felt so stable and composed that I didn't have that fear of flying. Indeed, I pushed this critter hard enough to occasion the kind of braking that makes the pads smoke. To think that a heavyweight sport-ute such as the 4,828-pound X5 can muster that sort of athleticism -- and get from 0 to 60 in a scant 7.5 seconds -- really is cause for pause.

BMW was in no big hurry to get into the sport-utility game, especially after it bought Rover, whose products included the upmarket and highly capable Range Rover. As X5 project manager Bert Holland put it, "We already had the best sport-utility vehicle in the world."

There was also the challenge, and potential pitfalls, involved in reconciling a big, plodding rock hopper and BMW's sporting image. On the other hand, there was the dealer unhappiness triggered by BMW sales lost to someone else's sport-utes. Ultimately, the bimmer boys and girls did what they do so well: They identified an unserved niche market for a high-performing ute.

"Conducting careful market research, we found out that there is a kind of gap or opening between the conventional sport-utility vehicle and the typical sports sedan," said Helmut Panke, the BMW board member who attended the X5 launch. "Since this means there is definitely a demand for a vehicle fitting into this gap, we found it appropriate to offer an answer typical of BMW, taking the opportunity to create a new and fascinating vehicle full of character.

The deluxe V-8 model, which is now in production at the recently expanded Spartanburg plant, will go on sale in December with a base price of $50,000. A less fancy, six-cylinder version will be offered late next spring at a starting price of just under $40,000. Although the X5's big helpings of performance, comfort, and bad-weather traction do lend validity to BMW's claims of something new and unique, it is structurally a hybrid sport-ute, like the Lexus RS 300 and Subaru Outback. Hybrids have a carlike unitized body and independent suspension. Traditional, truck-based utes, such as the Ford Explorer and Toyota 4Runner, have a true frame and usually a nonindependent, live rear axle.

Typically, the hybrid has more carlike ride and handling attributes, while the truck-based ute is better-suited for off-road use by virtue of its greater ground clearance, more rugged construction, and extra-low gearing. As a result, the hybrid is usually at its best providing traction advantages on a slippery street, not a slippery trail. Generally, the X5 should be viewed as an on-roader, although it does have several features that make it a decent off-road performer. These include good ground clearance (7.1 inches), and a hill descent control, activated by a dash button, that automatically brakes the vehicle so it negotiates inclines slowly and safely.

The vehicle seemed to do pretty well off-road, although it was hard to tell on the course BMW had laid out. The test trail was off-roading's answer to I-95, with virtually no obstacles above the stature of a pebble. They even put crushed stones on the creek banks where we forded, apparently so that we wouldn't get stuck in the mud -- and live to write about it.

The off-roading also demonstrated that the handsome, muscular X5 is as strong as it looks. No creaks and squeaks in this critter. The lack of body sounds was complemented by little wind and road noise at highway speeds. When you couple that cabin quietude with supportive leather seating and comely poplar veneer trims, you have a recipe for pleasant, comfortable touring. The X5 is about as roomy as a midsize sedan, with good shoulder room, but barely adequate rear legroom. The X5 gets its considerable acceleration and passing power from a 4.4-liter V-8 that develops 282 horsepower and enough torque to pull down City Hall.

Not unexpectedly, that engine has a thirst for premium fuel of Big Gulp proportions. (Its EPA mileage ratings are 13 m.p.g. city and 17 highway.) The power is shipped to the front and rear wheels via a silky, sophisticated ZF five-speed automatic transmission. In order to maximize the sporty factor, this gearbox is equipped with a shifting option that mimics a manual shifter.

Under normal driving conditions, 62 percent of the engine's power goes to the rear wheels, and the rest to the front ones. This rear-wheel bias in the X5's all-wheel-drive system is intended to give the vehicle the feel of a rear-drive BMW passenger car.

When slippery conditions are encountered, however, the basic 62-38 power split is temporarily shelved while the system distributes power to the wheels with the most traction.

Although this is an upmarket sport-ute, BMW's top man stateside, Tom Purves, doesn't expect it to cannibalize Range Rover sales. At roughly $40,000 and $50,000, he notes, the six and eight-cylinder models will be well below the $60,000 Range Rover, and will attract a different, less affluent buyer.

The Range Rover buyer, he points out, is more interested in the vehicle's utility than its performance. He or she is much more likely to pull a horse trailer than let it all hang out in a corner.

Vehicle Type:

front-engine, four-wheel drive, midsize sport-utility

Base Price:

$49,970

Engine Type:

4.4-liter V8

Power (SAE net):

282-hp

Transmission:

five-speed automatic

Wheelbase:

111 inches

Length:

183.7 inches

Curb Weight:

4850 pounds

EPA fuel economy, city driving:

13 city/17 hwy

 

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