The original E53 X5 set the tone for SUVs that would spend most of their time on roads rather than trails- it was designed with road handling and comfort in mind rather than attacking mud and rocks. That first BMW SUV, Sport Activity Vehicle (SAV) in BMW speak, also weakened the view of SUVs for offroading prowess. The vast majority of sport ‘utes are never taken off road or even marketed towards offroading, Jeep and select models from others being the outliers in a sea of softroading machines. That being said, that doesn’t mean that BMW’s X models can’t go off road.
Outside the Nürburgring in Germany’s Eiffel region sits an offroad park, open to members and the general public, it offers a controlled environment to test the ability of both man and machine. Hardcore vehicles such as Land Rover Defenders with improved suspension and enormous tires are the norm here but we are taking the BMW X3, X5, and X6 around a simplified circuit. The BMWs are factory fresh with no modifications and as such have limited ground clearance- high performance street tires and novice driver’s behind the wheel. We made a mess and had a great time doing it!
The Offroad Park has a wide range of obstacles and elements such as steep grades, rock fields, mud pits and sand traps just to name a few. The real purpose of this expedition into a realm that BMWs rarely go is to show how the technology in the car designed for on road safety and performance can effectively be used in off road situations (and vice versa). We were about to be surprised as our expectations were awfully low of how a BMW would fair in some of these elements- particularly the gnarly dirt hills with huge ruts and washouts.
As a system, xDrive worked as advertised getting us up and over mud laden and deep rut filled hills and through deep loose sand without any hiccups. Through the steering wheel and seat of the pants the power shifting fore and aft could be felt but never did it induce a sense of panic that we’d be stuck. xDrive under normal circumstances, distributes driver power between the front and rear axles in a 40:60 ratio, and changes this figure variably, xDrive can direct up to 100% of drive forces to one axle if needed. The power shift was especially felt in the sand and ascending some of the more rut filled hills.
BMWs equipped with xDrive feature hill descent control, which allows the car to creep down hills at constant speeds. Useful when slippery due to weather conditions on road and off road it is makes steep grade with loose soil nothing to fear. To our surprise hill descent control works in forward and reverse- just in case the traction is not sufficient for xDrive to get you up that hill you can safely descend backwards.
The most eye opening experience of the day was the depth the X3 and X5 could ford at- the air intake is at the top of the kidneys and as long as water doesn’t get up that high they can handle the water for a short period of time. The interior stays dry and the outside gets a wash to free the mud- not a bad deal! And yes, even the X6 M with its custom xDrive system and lower ride height can soft-road!
By no means are BMW SAVs designed for true off-raoding but they can hold their own if the pavement fades to dirt, while rocks and sticks impede your travels. xDrive and the other foul weather technology designed for street use gained some more “cred” in our book – things on the road would need to be on a catastrophic level to approximate these less than frightening off road obstacles we experienced.