2011 BMW X5 xDrive50i

Review and photos by
Chris Chase, CanadianDriver.com

Before the BMW X5 came along, sport utility vehicles – despite the very word being in the designation – were not sporty. They were utilitarian, like the Jeep Cherokee, the granddaddy of all SUVs, or the Ford Explorer, which you can credit (or blame) for making this kind of vehicle so popular in the first place.

2011 BMW X5 xDrive50i

2011 BMW X5 xDrive50i

And then along came the X5, which proved that an SUV – or crossover, as these not-designed-for-off-roading SUVs came to be called – could be entertaining to drive, paving the way for other vehicles that so many enthusiasts love to hate, such as the Porsche Cayenne.

For 2011, this second-generation X5 (it was redesigned in 2007) gets a mid-cycle refresh that includes small styling changes to the front and rear fascias, and new colour choices inside and out. More significant, though, are a couple of new engines, and an eight-speed automatic transmission to go with them.

The engines aren’t brand new, but rather motors that, to this point, haven’t been available in an X5. First is the new base engine, the turbocharged six-cylinder used in the 1, 3 and 5 Series; it makes 300 horsepower in the newly-designated xDrive35i model, compared to the old non-turbo six’s 260 horses. Next up is the also-newly-named xDrive50i, which gets a 4.4-litre twin-turbo V8 good for 400 horsepower, replacing a 350-horsepower, 4.8-litre engine. The new eight is the same motor used in the X5 M, but detuned from that version’s stonking 555 horsepower. The eight-speed transmission is the only one offered with the two new powerplants. Carried over from 2010 are the diesel-powered 35d variant and the aforementioned M version.

BMW says an X5 like my 50i tester will do the zero-to-100 km/h boogie in 5.6 seconds. The X5 M will do the same in just 4.7, but what the lesser model’s numbers don’t tell you is that its 450 lb-ft of torque peaks at 1,750 rpm and stays pegged there until 4,500 revs. The result is both great driveability – acceleration, no matter how much of it you need, happens right now – and great full-bore thrust. This engine pulls hard from just off idle, and the percussive-but-never-intrusive exhaust note at high revs is a great soundtrack.

The eight-speed is built by German gearbox maker ZF; BMW says it weighs no more than the six-speed it replaces. The benefits of the extra two gears are closer ratios in the lower ranges for quicker acceleration, and “taller” seventh and eighth gear ratios for more relaxed highway cruising. Like all BMW automatics, this one has a sport mode, accessed by moving the shifter to the left from the Drive position. Here, the transmission holds onto lower gears, shifting later in acceleration and keeping the revs higher for more responsiveness. At this point, drivers can also use a manual shift mode to choose the gears for themselves.

Tall gearing indeed: at highway speeds, the engine makes fewer than 2,000 rpm even at 120 km/h. Smooth as it is, things get a little busy in city driving. The car will move through the first five forward speeds by the time you hit 60 clicks, and will happily settle into eighth by 80. Downshifts don’t come easily, but they don’t need to; that broad torque curve I mentioned means it can provide significant acceleration at cruising speeds even when spinning under 2,000 revs. Mat the throttle, though, and depending on how quickly the car is moving, the transmission will pop down two or even three gears – remember, there are a lot of them here – to help the engine thrust you forward.

The X5’s fuel consumption estimates are 15.3/9.9 L/100 km (city/highway). I averaged 15 in city driving; a diesel X5 I drove in 2009 averaged 10.7 L/100 km in cooler April weather.

The X5 V8’s awkward full name – X5 xDrive50i – gives away the fact that there is no two-wheel drive version of this truck (there never has been). The xDrive is the company’s name for its all-wheel system, and its addition in its badges is the company’s attempt to gain some publicity as a maker of all-wheel drive vehicles, much as Audi has done for years with its Quattro setup. Unlike many all-wheel drive systems, xDrive always supplies power to all four wheels, split in a 40/60 front/rear ratio, but it can divert more power to one axle or the other when wheelspin occurs. Dry summertime conditions meant the all-wheel drive system had it easy during my week with this truck, but experience has shown it to be a very effective setup in wintry weather.

This SUV isn’t what I’d call an easy commuter. The throttle and brake pedals are touchy, so smooth city driving actually requires effort, and the heavy steering makes for a great upper-body workout in tight downtown streets and parking lots. The suspension is firm and offers a hard ride; my tester’s 20-inch M-package wheels, shod with 275/40 tires up front and 315/35s in the back (run-flats, too) didn’t help.

For the enthusiastic driver, of course, these attributes translate into an SUV that doesn’t drive like one. If performance and utility were my parallel priorities, I’d always choose a 5 Series Touring wagon over any performance-biased crossover, but despite its taller ride height and centre of gravity, the X5 is entertaining enough when pushed. Thing is, few buyers in this segment will care how this vehicle handles, and I suspect many will put up with its buzzed-up responses just to own a BMW, even if they’d prefer a more relaxed ride.

If the X5 puts a sporty drive before a smooth ride, there’s still plenty of comfort to be had while the truck is standing still. My tester had the M Sport Package, including BMW’s sport seats which, in addition to being very supportive, are some of the most comfortable chairs you’ll find outside of a recliner factory. Getting people in and out is a little less than elegant, thanks to the wide door sills and tall step-in height. Running boards are an $800 option (though they can’t be had in combination with the M Sport Package), but even these tend to be too high to be much help. By default, the X5 is a five-seater, but two more seats in a third row are a $1,950 option that’s bundled with a rear air suspension system (the M Sport Package includes a self-levelling air suspension setup, too). Four-zone automatic climate control is the rule in 50i trim, as are heated outboard rear seats.

Not so comfortable are the front seat armrests, both in the doors and on the console. They look pretty, covered in the same Oyster Nevada leather wrapped around the seats, but they’re underpadded and very hard on the elbows – a good incentive to keep two hands on the wheel and your mind on the drive, I suppose.

People-space is good front and rear, but at 650 litres, the cargo area is smaller, volume-wise, than that in the Mercedes-Benz M-Class and the admittedly larger Audi Q7. Naturally, the back seat folds almost flat to expand cargo capacity, though the additional space is still less than that found in the Audi and Benz. Still, in absolute terms, the X5 is plenty useful, and the trunk area is nicely finished, in typical German style.

The split tailgate – three quarters of it is a traditional swing-up door (power-operated, naturally), with the balance being a small manual flip-down panel – is a curious setup until you have to load something large/awkward/heavy into the cargo area. Set your load down on the bottom piece and it can be slid right in, without the need to hump it over a bottom sill. The downside, though, is that while the upper tailgate can be operated from the key fob, the bottom is lowered via a manual handle.

The BMW iDrive interface of today is a vast improvement over the original setup, which was widely reviled by seemingly every journalist who tried it. Now, there are hard buttons surrounding the central rotary controller to take you directly to the most commonly used systems: climate, audio, navigation and communication. There are also radio preset buttons and fully-functioned climate controls on the centre stack. Even if you still don’t love iDrive, there’s less to hate about it now.

My tester’s Executive Package included a backup camera with what BMW calls Top View. It’s similar to Infiniti’s Around View system and can be toggled to show what’s beside and behind the car when the transmission is in reverse. Like any backup camera, particularly in a tall SUV with a large blind spot below the rear window, it’s handy to show you what you can’t see by simply looking over your shoulder, but it’s easy to forget that that is still the best way to see what you’re trying to avoid bumping into.

The X5 xDrive50i is the most expensive of the non-M models, at $74,300; the 35i starts at $59,990 and the diesel 35d is worth $62,800. Naturally, no German luxury vehicle is complete without thousands of dollars worth of options, and BMW complied here, adding over $16,000 worth of extras to my tester. These include the $5,500 Executive Package; the $3,000 Technology Package; the $2,000 Audiophile Sound Package; and the $5,600 M Sport Package. Metallic paint, dark bamboo interior wood trim and Nevada leather are no-charge stand-alone options.

All of it adds up to $90,400, a not-insignificant sum for a vehicle that probably does more to advance your social status than to upstage the utilitarian nature of the crossover. This V8 X5 is fun, but the perfect X5 is the diesel model, because it puts the emphasis on the sporty things you can drive to in your SUV, rather than trying to make the SUV sporty.

Pricing: 2011 BMW X5 xDrive50i

Base price: $74,300

Options: $16,100 (Executive Package of automatic tailgate, comfort access, soft-close doors, rearview camera with Top View, manual side sunshades, comfort seats, ski bag, lumbar support, heated rear seats, four-zone automatic climate control, navigation and voice control, $5,500; Technology Package of lane departure warning and active cruise control with stop and go, $3,000; Audiophile Sound Package of satellite radio tuner and BMW Individual Audio System with Dirac LIVE, $2,000; M Sport Package of aluminum roof rails and shadow line, sport seats, M leather steering wheel, anthracite roof liner, self-levelling air suspension, M driver’s footrest and door sills, brushed aluminum trim and 20-inch double-spoke M alloy wheels, $5,600)

A/C tax: $100

Freight: $1,995

Price as tested: $92,495

Crash test results

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)

Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS)

Chris ChaseChris Chase is an Ottawa-based automotive journalist. He is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC).

Read more Test Drives on CanadianDriver.com

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