Last week was a week of contrast for us. Wednesday, we were at North Hills mall for National Drive Electric Week, offering test-drives in the BMW i3. BMW i is what happens when Efficient Dynamics gets a line of cars all to itself. The i3 is the pinnacle of the city-going EVs, and the i8 hybrid sports car is redefining the public’s concept of performance automobiles. These are the beginning of a line of cars that will shape the future of the whole industry, and it represents a radical departure from what many see as the core tenants of BMW.
Friday, we got to experience another one of those radical departures, one that began in 1999 when BMW launched the X line. Before that, BMW was known for making great rear-wheel drive cars, and that was it. The thought of them making an all-wheel drive SUV would have been verging on sacrilege prior to 1999, but then came The Boss.
Of course they don’t call it an SUV, and maybe that helps. With the X5, BMW invented a new segment – as they so often do – that they call the Sports Activity Vehicle or SAV. It would be a stretch to say the designation has caught on, but our hope is that if we leave the Germans to their quirks and insistent terminology, they’ll keep making incredible cars. So far that’s worked out, but still, we had to ask Sales and Leasing Consultant Tim Hicks: “How many clients walk into the showroom saying they want to look at an SAV?”
The Cut of Your Jib
While we were walking out to the side lot, Tim explained that he couldn’t find the exact model we had linked when lining up our test-drive over email, but that they had a 2015 X5 on the lot with even more features than the one we requested. Instead of the xDrive35i with the straight six-cylinder, we would be driving an xDrive50i with a twin-turbo V8. Oh darn, so much for talking efficient dynamics in this review.
We were more than ok with the upgrade. Tim’s choice stuck out from the row of X cars, resplendent in Space Grey Metallic paint. Our X5 was a member of the M Sport line and was equipped with twenty-inch wheels, a more aggressive front fascia, and satin aluminum roof rails. It also had the lighting package for full LED headlights and automatic high beams.
Even without the aerodynamic kit, the X5 cuts a distinct profile. It looks like an SUV, but it doesn’t tower over the road like a truck. Just looking at it, you can understand why BMW errs toward activity over utility when marketing it, not that the X5 is impractical by any means.
The bulk of the M Sport package is carried out on the inside of the car, notable as we take our place behind the wheel right away. The seats are Ivory White Nappa leather, the trim is Fineline oak wood, and the headliner is anthracite, which gives the cabin a two-tone divide that looks and feels great. The white seats won’t get too hot on a sunny day, while at the same time the black headliner reduces glare.
We would also like to call attention to the twenty-way power adjustable front seats. Yes, twenty-way. If you’ve never heard of twenty-way seats you aren’t alone because we weren’t aware that a car seat was capable of perfectly molding to fit our body. We’re talking full lumbar control, adjustable thigh support, and a second set of motors in the back of the multi-contour seat for the most minute adjustments. Of course they’re also heated and ventilated. We spent so much time getting our seat configured that we forgot to adjust our mirrors and had to stop on the way off the lot to correct our oversight. Luckily Tim was there to remind us.
Tim has been with Leith for a little less than two years. Before that, he captained and sold yachts for fourteen years, but his vessel of choice on land has always been a BMW. “I get the new cars for my wife, but I drive the old ones,” he explains. His first Bimmer was a Euro-spec 1980 635CSi that he and his brother bought together in college and which solidified his loyalty to the blue and white roundel. He’s currently driving and fixing up an E28 M5. It’s a family affair for Tim, as he, his brother, and his dad will go to car shows in the summer just to see classic BMWs. Over the years he has also owned and enjoyed the occasional AMG, but the intangibles always keep his heart grounded in Munich. All this is to say that when you’ve got Tim riding shotgun, telling you in exhaustive detail about the car you’re about to buy, you aren’t dealing with some fanboy. He’s a connoisseur.
Sport or Activity, You Decide
“Now you’ve got 445 horsepower to work with, but I want you to hold off on it until we get to the on-ramp for 540,” Tim said while we were pulling out onto Capital Boulevard.
“That’s a lot of power. Is that the Sport part or the Activity part of the vehicle?” we asked.
“I guess it depends on how you use it,” he said. We followed his advice and waited for the curve, one that we distinctly remember from our test-drive in the 5 Series back in the spring. The tires were squealing when we took that turn, but that wasn’t the case this time. “Stay in this outside lane and push,” says Tim, coaching us up to 60 miles-per-hour, “then let it settle into the curve – maybe don’t push quite that much – and now right here at the top put it all the way down.”
We hit the highway going fast, and remember this wasn’t an M3. Driving an X5 also means we weren’t drifting up the ramp – and that’s not in our driving skillset anyway – because it’s equipped with xDrive, BMW’s all-wheel drive system. If you have to have it, the sDrive35i gives you a rear-wheel drive X5, but we prefer xDrive in this car specifically for the traction it gives us going around a turn like that on-ramp, not to mention added security in adverse road conditions.
Speaking of security, our fully-loaded X5 was also equipped with all the expected safety features, including collision prevention, blind-spot monitoring, lane-keeping assistance, surround view cameras, and more. While we didn’t test the collision mitigation system, Tim got us to check out how the blind-spot and lane-keeping systems work on the beltline. Try to drift out of your lane without a turn signal on and you’ll feel a vibration in the wheel as well as an indicator flashing on the instrument panel. Flick your turn signal on when someone is in your blind-spot and you’ll see a light blinking on the side of the mirror in addition to another vibration. These systems provide visual and haptic feedback but nothing auditory, so they’re helpful without being annoying.
As for the cameras, we let Tim cycle through those as we were doubling back on Six Forks. The front and rear facing cameras provide wide angle views for when you need to see around a corner, and together with two cameras mounted under the side mirrors, you have access to a complete bird’s eye rendering of the X5. When combined with the sensors in the front and rear bumpers, parking this larger vehicle is a breeze. The best part is that you can access any of the four cameras or all of them at once whenever you want, not just when the car is in reverse.
For what it’s worth, the X5 already has great visibility. You won’t find any debilitating blind-spots when you’re looking around, and it’s important to note that surround view works best as a supplement, not a substitute, for turning to look behind you.
Having gotten the highway driving out of the way, we pulled off onto Durant Road, or as we’ve come to refer to it, the fun part of a Leith BMW test-drive. We were eager to see how the X5 handled those long and winding curves, but then disaster struck: we got stuck behind a dilapidated Saturn SL driving ten miles under the speed limit.
We sat behind the wheel, sighing and muttering as we were forced to go 35 in a 45. Even Tim had fallen silent, the wind stolen from his sails. “It’s certainly a quiet ride in here,” we mentioned offhand.
The slog down what is normally our favorite road gave us a chance to appreciate the X5’s infotainment setup. It features BMW’s iDrive 4.2 system, complete with rotary wheel and the new touchpad feature. The knob is located next to the shifter, easily reached from the center armrest, and it controls what’s happening on the widescreen panel sitting atop the console. The panel is wide enough to support split-screen functionality, which means you never have to be without a map, your trip information, your current media selection, or whatever information you consider essential.
This system will also allow you to pair multiple phones at once, although you’ll have to opt for the enhanced Bluetooth if you want to the most robust integration with your mobile device. That said, iPhone users can take advantage of iDrive’s Siri integration, using the normal voice controls to parlay with their favorite virtual intelligence. Don’t be surprised if you don’t recognize her voice at first – she’ll be speaking to you with received punctuation, giving your European car a European voice.
We reached the end of the road, which is usually the near-end of the test-drive, but Tim told us to wait at the stop sign. The Saturn turned right, no doubt on the way to tormenting whoever came up behind it next. “Go straight,” said Tim, “and make a U-turn.” That’s why you want to take a test-drive with Tim Hicks.
It turns out the curves on Durant Road are just as much fun going the other way. We felt like we were on rails in the X5. The way it finds the bends and sits into them is so natural, and you don’t have to worry about losing any speed.
At one point, Tim asked us to slow down and then floor it, ready to slam on the breaks when he told us to. We hit terminal velocity before he told us to stand on the other pedal, and then we came to a stop within a matter of feet with no jostling or whiplash. We remarked how big this car is to be so agile, commenting on the precise damping that prevents the car from taking a nosedive during a stop like that. “This is what people don’t seem to understand,” said Tim. “When you hear that millions of dollars went into developing a car, most people can’t put that budget into perspective. Just the suspension on this car is worth that much alone.”
The bottom line is that BMWs are premium vehicles for a reason, and the X5 is no exception. It’s fun to drive whether you’re traveling across the country with a full cargo or if you’re just running down to the grocery store. We barely even tapped into the car’s Sport mode, let alone Sport+. Tim likens these high-performance driving profiles to a sharpened pencil – it’s the same pencil you were just using, but it will make your handwriting look that much better.
At times, the X5 feels like many different cars contained within a single frame. We think of it as a multiple personality ability, giving you the power to change your road experience with the push of a button or by giving it a little more gas. BMW makes no apologies when it departs from its mores, and once you’ve driven an X5, you’ll understand that there’s no need for an apology anyway.
Leith BMW is your local authorized center for new and used BMWs as well as full service and repairs. If you want to schedule your own test-drive experience in a 2015 BMW X5 or another vehicle in our inventory, you can do so online or in person. Thanks to Tim Hicks for lending us all of his professional expertise. You can follow Tim on Facebook and Instagram.