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Click for pictures“Ninety-two per cent
  of X5 owners would
  recommend one to a
  friend. Having driven
  the latest 3.0d turbo
  diesel, so would we...”


BEFORE WE SAY another word, let's get one thing straight — BMW's X5 Sports Activity Vehicle is essentially a road car. More or less without exception, every road test report ever written about the X5 praises its superb road manners and its saloon car quality, comfort and poise. Having just spent a hard-charging week behind the wheel of the latest 3.0-litre turbodiesel model, we'd second that.

The X5 first went on sale in the UK in late 2000. From 2004 it benefited from significant enhancements both cosmetic and beneath the skin, including the adoption of a ground-breaking new 4WD system. Judged against even its freshest rivals, its stylish good looks continue to shine. And where some of its 'classmates' major principally on sheer bulk, the X5 exudes a smart, egalitarian air that makes it as acceptable to get you to an informal family barbie as it is to drop you at the Palace for a formal garden party.

X5 buyers have a good choice of either straight six or V8 powerplants. Two in-line sixes offer a further sub-choice: petrol or diesel. The V8s are both petrol, and the choice this time is only of capacity: 4.4 or 4.8 litres. But the current favourite with the majority of luxury SAV buyers is for 3.0 to 3.5 litre engines. And the first choice, spurred by current diesel technology providing clean and economical engines with bags of torque, is increasingly for powerful turbodiesels. This is why we've chosen to review the second-generation 3.0-litre diesel model, whose 218bhp engine delivers a very substantial 369lb ft of torque. Tested here in Sport guise that — in keeping with the X5's already established reputation for sporty car-like handling — adds stiffer spring and damper settings for improved body control and reduced body roll, along with 19-inch Star-Spoke alloy wheels shod with high-performance Michelin 4x4 Diamaris tyres (255/50 front; 285/45 rear). We plumped for the automatic transmission — because it's also the preferred choice among today's discerning customers.

It's nicely packaged — think luxury estate car but with higher ground clearance and a taller body.The X5's attractive interior is a faithful reflection of its well-dressed exterior. Once you've settled inside and shut the sturdy door, you'll find space and grace enough to show up more than a few luxury cars. Shapely, leather-clad electric Sports seats offer real long-distance comfort for two, and if you need to seat five then three adults can easily be accommodated side-by-side in the rear with generous amounts of room for heads, legs and elbows.

We should also point out that there really is bags of room in the back. Sitting behind a six-foot driver, there was a good four inches of space between the front seatback and my knees. A wide, well-padded central rear armrest ensures two back seat passengers can really get comfy. Rear passengers also get their own dedicated air vents, AV socket, TV control and cupholders and good lighting.

The cabin oozes quality and the ultra-organised, multi-tiered dash layout places all switchgear exactly where you need it. Four classic white-on-black dials set in a black binnacle keep you informed of fuel, speed, revs and coolant temperature. Additionally, the currently selected gear and mode is always clearly displayed. And, as usual with a BMW, there are lots of thoughtful touches that include the comfort-able thumb rest scallops on the sports steering wheel, puddle lights concealed below the door mirrors, non-slip alloy side steps, a recharge-able torch in the large glovebox, an electric tailgate release, a power wash/wipe cycle that really cleans the screen, a handy memo facility (a function of the on-board computer) and the useful two-level air vents at each end of the dash.

There are lots of storage areas including very large door bins in the front, the concertina-lidded lidded cubby alongside the selector lever behind the hazard and master central locking switch, and the air-conditioned two-tier lidded central armrest cubby. The SatNav screen is well positioned just below the principal air vents in the central fascia. With uncomplicated function buttons, it's easy to use and displays navigation directions with maps, on-board computer information, and telephone data. If you pull over, you can watch TV on it and it also has a split-screen facility so you can view navigation and audio information side by side.

Equipment is everything you'd expect to find on most expensive upmarket saloons, and includes a Sports multifunction steering wheel (audio/telephone/voice control and cruise control), electric steering column with an automatic easy entry function, MP3-compatible CD/ radio with six speakers, auto lights and wipers, on-board trip-computer, electrically operated and heated door mirrors, headlight power wash, cruise control, tyre puncture warning system, park distance control (front and rear), auto-dim rear-view mirror with a compass, automatic dual zone air conditioning, four one-shot electric windows, tinted glass and 3-memory function (driver's seat, steering wheel and mirror positions).

You also get smart anthracite headlining and some classy metallic finish interior trim. And you'll find a fire extinguisher under the driver's seat with a first aid kit beneath the passenger's. More importantly, the quality of materials used is typically first class BMW. As is the standard of fit and finish, which puts many of its rivals in the shade.

Getting comfortable is most definitely not a problem. The supportive and comfortable front Sport seats are high off the floor so your legs are immediately comfortable. They also adjust electrically for height, seat-back rake, lateral fore and aft and tilt of the seat squab plus manual adjustment of the under thigh support. There's excellent lumbar support, too. The meaty three-spoke, leather-rimmed steering wheel adjusts for both height and reach. Combine this with a commanding view out over the contoured bonnet and you are assured of a superb driving position. Better still, the driver sits dead square to the wheel and in-line with the pedals so there's no hidden twist to play up your back. From the driver's seat there's an unspoilt view of the instrum-ents, important switchgear and the SatNav screen.

The boot is generously accommodating, well-shaped, beautifully lined and has a usefully split tailgate comprising an independent opening (and self-locking) upper glass window for light loading. A sturdy drop-down lower door extends the floor some 15 inches for piling in the heavier stuff or for just sitting on. With the 60:40 split rear seats up, there's 465 litres of boot space. Release one catch and they fold forward — with their headrests conveniently in-situ — to free up a further 1,095 for a total load capacity of 1,550 litres. With the seats down, the X5 provides a flat load area approximately 4 feet wide by
5 feet 6 inches long.

Underpinning the X5's all-surface ability is BMW's xDrive, an 'intelligent' state-of-the-art four-wheel drive system first seen on the recently-introduced X3. XDrive ensures that drive forces are always delivered
to the axle that needs it most. In an instant. It's comprised of two key ingredients that regulate power to each wheel — a centrally mounted, electronically-activated multi-plate clutch to distribute power between axles, combined with BMW's Dynamic Stability Control system to regulate power to individual wheels. Responding instantly, xDrive is far quicker than more conventional four-wheel drive systems that require the build up of hydraulic pressure before they can change drive distribution.

The 'intelligence' of xDrive comes from DSC, which delivers a wealth of vehicle data including individual wheel speed, steering angle, lateral acceleration and yaw rates. By constantly processing this information, xDrive can predict traction loss and transfer drive where it is most needed to maintain grip.

Naturally DSC can intervene but — because of xDrive's ability to re-direct power to prevent traction loss — it does so far less frequently and only then in extreme circumstances. Where traction loss is un-avoidable, DSC cuts power and, if necessary, applies brakes to individual wheels allowing the car to regain a foothold, but it does not necessarily slow the car's progress.

As a driver you don't need to appreciate DSC's inner workings. You only need to know that it's there 24/7 like a guardian angel, safeguarding your every move however bad the weather conditions. In layman's terms, the practical benefits of this intelligent 4WD set-up are twofold. On the road, traction and agility are improved whilst over- and under-steer are countered during cornering. Off the road, traction is signif-icantly improved as xDrive channels drive forces to the axle with most grip rather than cutting engine power or braking troubled wheels.

Two additional features of DSC further enhance the X5's dynamic safety. The first is Trailer Stability Control, which uses yaw sensor data, applying brakes and reducing engine power if undue pendulum movement is detected in a trailer attachment. The second is Hill Descent Control — part of the X5's standard equipment — that improves off-road control by allowing drivers to travel smoothly and safely down the steepest of gradients.

HDC automatically controls speed with no throttle or brake input re-quired from the driver. Available at speeds below 22mph off road, HDC automatically reduces speed to around 5mph. However, drivers can adjust the HDC speed between 3 and 16mph by pressing the plus and minus cruise control keys on the multifunction steering wheel, or using the accelerator or brake.

Okay, enough of the technical stuff. So... given the promise of 'sporty performance' ingrained into BMW's blue-and-white roundel, just how well does the xDrive-equipped X5 perform? The answer is, very well indeed. Once you adjust to the higher ride height of a sports activity BMW — a very short learning curve — you'll be agreeably surprised at how much like any of the bigger BMW saloons and estates this X5 actually is.

Unleash the X5 on a demanding twisty road and you'll quickly be in
no doubt at all that the 'sports' part of sports activity vehicle is no misnomer. There's a satisfying blend of sporting driving characteristics made up of predictable handling with first rate body control, reassuring grip, communicative slack-free steering with sharp turn-in that sends the X5 precisely where you point it, and terrific brakes that come with huge discs, serious bite and a nicely progressive feel through the pedal. A 'max power' emergency stop from 60mph produced nothing more than a perfect, drama-free stop. Phew!

This is a car you can trust and — allied to poise, agility and that all-important permanent four-wheel drive — it's oh-so-easy to get en-grossed in the 'wieldy' driving experience to the point you'll think you're behind the wheel of one of BMW's more potent estate cars. On one fast A-road trip we found ourselves easily holding station with a well-driven sports car, one also sporting a desirable badge on its nose.

With 218bhp on tap and loads of grunt from the super-torquey (369lb ft) six-cylinder power unit, get-up-and-go is guaranteed. You'd never guess from the way the 2,993cc turbodiesel pushes things along that the X5 weighs in at over two tonnes. On paper, the automatic 3.0 turbodiesel engine will take you to 62mph from a standing start in 8.8 seconds (8.3 for the manual). It feels quicker. Top speed is a practical 130mph.

Driving anywhere in an X5 is always a pleasure, thanks not only to the beautifully-weighted controls but equally to the seamless shift quality of the six-speed Steptronic autobox that adapts to your driving style and which offers the driver the opportunity of taking control of the six individual gears. A delightfully positive snick across to the left puts you in the 'sport/manual zone' whenever you feel like it. Once in the manual mode, downshifts are made with a nudge forwards; upshifts with a nudge back. The X5's ZF automatic transmission helpfully allows you to drop more than one gear ratio so long as your road speed is appro-priate for the selection. BMW diesels are among the very best and the 3.0-litre powerplant installed under the X5's bonnet is a particularly likeable one. Muscular and responsive, it also has a nice throaty sound-track as it goes about its business.

Long, boring motorway trips pass speedily in an X5, thanks to the refined powertrain and the smooth power delivery. Wind and road noise are both so hushed they are hardly worth mentioning and the X5's arrow-straight, high-speed stability and composure is impressive. Inside the cabin at 80mph — with the turbodiesel turning over at a lazy 2,500rpm in sixth — it's relaxed and peaceful with absolutely no rattles or creaks to intrude, helped by the fact that all storage areas are lined.

Fuel consumption is not going to faze anyone spending the best part
of forty thousand pounds on a car, but overall our test car returned a very commendable 25.4mpg — especially surprising considering it spent most of the time in the eagerly responsive Sport mode — with a long-journey 'best' of 33.9mpg. Official figures are 23.5, 30.1 and 35.3mpg for, respectively, urban, combined and touring. Better yet, a 20.4 gallon fuel tank stretches the distance between fill-ups to around 600 miles.

Our test X5 came fitted with the optional Sport suspension package and, as on any car, firming up the damping and fitting 19-inch diameter wheels with massive tyres improves the handling but it is often at the cost of some degradation in ride quality. A number of reviews have criticised X5s thus equipped, but clearly the very latest models — judging by the X5 we road tested — are superior, because we found the ride to be perfectly fine and surprisingly supple over all road surfaces at both low and high speeds.

'Safety first' could well apply to the X5, because F.I.R.S.T (Fully Integrated Road Safety Technology) incorporates all of BMW's active and passive safety systems under one umbrella. Adding to driver, passenger and front door airbags, the X5 features front and head airbags as standard. These head airbags prevent the head and shoulders from hitting the door in the event of an accident. As they remain inflated longer than conventional airbags, they continue to protect passengers in the event of the car rolling. With rear door airbags available optionally, the X5 boasts ten airbags. Part of the reason the X5 was awarded a five-star Euro NCAP rating.

In addition there's Trailer Stability Control, as well as a small army of electronic safety aids utilised by Dynamic Stability Control and which includes ABS, Cornering Brake Control, Electronic Brake-force Distrib-ution and Hill Descent Control to name but half of them. There's also
a Tyre Puncture Warning System and XDrive all-wheel drive. All in all, it's a very comprehensive package that should cover just about every eventuality.

With its desirable looks, well-earned reputation for premium quality, truly satisfying on-road driving abilities and strong residuals, the accomplished and well-rounded X5 continues to be a strong contender for anyone with more than a passing interest in driving enjoyment who's looking to buy a Sports Activity Vehicle.

We didn't get the opportunity to test it seriously off road, but then ninety per cent of owners will probably never take it on anything more challenging than a wet field or slipway — even though it's designed to wade through twenty inches of water! So it's true to say that the X5 has more all-terrain capability than most owners will ever have need of. And going by its technical hardware, if and when the need arises we would expect it to prove perfectly capable.

Realistically speaking, the 3.0d is all the X5 you should need. Desire, however, is a different thing. And for those who place 'want' above 'need' there's always the faster and much more expensive 4.4 (48K) and 4.8-litre (59K) petrol-drinking V8s. Whichever of these classy models ends up on your drive, you can be sure that it looks set to remain sought-after for a long time yet. And, who knows, it could turn out to be the only car for you.

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BMW X5 3.0d Sport | 38,515
Maximum speed: 130mph | 0-62mph: 8.8 seconds
Overall test MPG: 25.4mpg | Power: 218bhp | Torque: 369lb ft

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------------------------------------------------------------------------------ BMW X5