Let me begin by stating that I come from the lighter is better ethos relative to automotive engineering. Weight is the enemy of performance and sometimes even safety. And I can think of few means other than regulatory involvement to act to reduce the arms race of “safety” foisted upon us by the automotive buying public with increasing efficiency demands necessitating lighter and more advanced structures. With ever increasing vehicle mass a product of grecian column A-pillars, Abrams tank like passenger safety cells and air bags festooned in every conceivable location, driving a modern car is more akin to piloting the Titanic than a Zodiac. With this in mind I will try to relate my most recent experience with the 2011 BMW X5 xDrive35i Premium.
For a couple of days bracing the labor day holiday weekend I had the opportunity to experience the updated X5 offering from BMW. With a myriad of updates for the 2011 model year, and positioned smack in the middle of the model line-up for this largest SAV. Black on black, 3 L turbo, equipped with the Technology, Cold Weather, and Convienence packages, this is what I imagine would be the most commonly purchased model. Although, an argument can be made that the 35d should be taking that honor.
For starters my use entailed my daily duties and I did little to test the limits of the vehicle, I did no offroading, no track work, and I never saw the highway. I packed my boys in, one and a half and five, with their car seats, picked up a friend, and headed to a car show. Later during my tenure I basically trundled through the city with the X5 running errands. Not surprisingly the X5 acquitted itself very well to these tasks. Was it any better, more effective than my normal steed, the ever present staple of the suburban family, the Toyota Sienna? The utility of the purpose built mini-van probably surpassed BMW’s excellent sports activity vehicle, but I know which I prefer.
Mated to the new for 2011 8-speed automatic, the N55 motor was an almost perfect companion. From trundling through town to briskly hitting gaps and scything through traffic with a whining turbo spool underlaid with a subtle growl, the X5 was quick and controlled and plenty rewarding (at least aurally) to hustle through the daily grind. The new transmission was perfect, in that it was almost completely invisible to the driving experience. Cruising in drive, or pushing it in sport, the xDrive35i moved imperceptibly through the gears, stepped down when pushed, and engaged aggressively when needed. The only thing missing, which might have enhanced the driving experience, were the wheel mounted paddles, but such was the effectiveness I never felt the need so they were never missed.
Circling back to my opening rant, the X5 is a big car, even on 19 inch alloy wheels that appear too small for the chassis. BMW did a superlative job balancing all the mass thanks in part to the xDrive, such so that I’m slightly ashamed to admit I approached hoonish levels of aggression and at no point did I feel the X5 couldn’t keep up with my demands. But heavy and a little ponderous, thinking ahead, always mindful of the mass, it was balanced and completely controllable. I can easily see it getting away from a less experienced driver.
I confess my experience with 4-wheel drive SUV/SAV’s is limited so I’m a bit out of depth commenting on relative ride quality and steering feel in these applications, but from my seemingly objective perspective (as objective as one can be having driven an R53 MINI with 18″ wheels for six years) I could use more granularity in the feedback through the steering wheel. The car always went where I pointed it, the weighting was good and conveyed the necessary information, but without the detail I’d like. Perhaps an unfair criticism of the tires would be directed toward their lapdog tendency to roll onto their sidewall’s during anything but a simple lane-change. This resulted in a slight delay in response from direction to execution.
A surprising highlight of the experience was the Technology Package. Normally I eschew any seemingly unnecessary technology as wastefully distracting from the purposeful act of driving. The technology creep, complicating and adding weight, clouds the “stick & throttle” driving experience I love. However, hypocrite I am, I did fall in relative love with this particular piece of equipment. While the X5 is unquestionably a very large car, having grown up driving 80′s era GM diesel wagons in urban and suburban Chicago, I’m accustomed to negotiating traffic and parking behemoths. With mirror and tailgate mounted cameras complete with parking line overlay’s, the Technology Package made parking a dawdle. So easy, in fact, that it would be beyond unacceptable to curb a wheel or otherwise damage the X5 parking in even the most confined spots.
So that’s about it I expect. The new motor and transmission worked well, power and refinement mated to a chassis that rewards well enough. More than enough utility to handle a families daily grind, sufficient towing capacity for the odd Lemons car, I’m sure. My boys liked it enough to earnestly complain about it’s departure, and continue to this day to enquire whether I can get it back. I too grew to appreciate it for it’s abilities and utility in town, if it is using a sledgehammer to drive a thumbtack home. Nevertheless, at $60,000 equipped, I might go looking for E90 M3′s instead. I think the boys might prefer that as well.