Expert Reviews

First Drive: 2019 BMW X5

ATLANTA, Georgia – Good news! No longer will BMW X5 drivers be left behind, all sad and lonely, while their peers driving Mercedes G-wagens or Range Rovers take off into the woods with their rigs.

Improved in nearly every appreciable way.

BMW has decided that simply having excellent on-road manners is not enough for a mid-size luxury sport utility vehicle, so it’s given the 2019 BMW X5 greater off-road capability.

There’s now a two-axle air suspension system that’s automatically self-levelling and can increase ground clearance by 40 mm over the standard setting. In fact, should that not be enough and the X5 gets high-centred, there’s a little air left in the reserve to crank another 20 mm higher still just to help get the X5 dislodged.

A new Off-Road Package is offered for the first time that includes the aforementioned air suspension, but also a host of underbody skid plates and an electronically controlled rear differential lock. There’s also the ability to adjust the xDrive mode system between sand, rock, gravel, or snow, which optimizes accelerator and transmission response.

During our media drive, our route included a stop at the Painted Rock Farm – a sizeable rural playground that includes many miles of off-road trails through the Georgia woods, previously used by Land Rover for events. We set out in four-car convoys following a guide through the woodsy trails, up hills and down, and across at least one mostly dry creek bed.

Through it all we were instructed to set our rigs up with various button-pushes to turn off the stability control and parking sensors, but occasionally turn on the descent control function. The latter seemed to trip up a number of my peers on one rather dicey downhill section, where those without faith in the machine to do the braking would interject, causing the X5 to momentarily speed up before scrambling to regain control again.

Fortunately, the conditions weren’t very slippery, but if they had been, it could’ve caused a few of the X5s to get closer to some of the trees than we’d like. As it happened, one X5’s nose was introduced to another’s tail with a gentle nudge. So if you’re going to off-road your X5, just follow the instructions and trust it, okay?

Descent control speeds are managed through the cruise control buttons, but I often found that once the terrain levelled out, the X5 would disengage its descent control and simply coast to a stop. If the computer brain had simply been programmed to maintain a set speed, it would be like a “4 Low” gear in a four-wheel-drive machine, and be more useful for proper off-road driving.

As it was, the route rarely challenged the X5 much and truthfully, a Subaru Forester could’ve likely made it through just as easily. While the new X5 may be more off-road ready than previous generations, it’s still unlikely to keep up with a G550 or Range Rover when the terrain gets properly demanding.

On some events, manufacturers will swap out our road machines for the off-road ones, often wearing different tires or set-ups. Not so here, where the same machines we drove on the highway fitted with 21-inch Pirelli PZero performance tires were used to climb over muddy ruts and rocks. This speaks volumes about how well BMW’s xDrive all-wheel drive system manages traction, even on less-than-ideal surfaces.

What’s much more important than the new X5’s increased off-road ability is that everything fans of the X5 loved before has been improved upon.

Arguably, the new machine has a little more visual presence than before. Each of the twin “kidney” openings in the grille are the size of the entire grille on the first-generation X5. The taillights have also evolved into a pair of squinty LED ribbons.

But the profile is unmistakably an X5. This is a good thing since this model has always been a handsome offering in the segment, and even more so finished in the medium blue colour of our test machine. 22-inch wheels are available for the first time on the X5 for those who really hate to see a tire’s sidewall profile.

Just as the exterior styling is largely evolutionary, so is the interior design. Materials – especially on our well-spec’ed tester – are top-shelf. The fragrant leather swaths much of the interior acreage, but the rest features rich, matte-finished wood trim, and plentiful real-metal accents, twisted and stretched in artful ways. Of special note, like it or leave it, a crystal-like gear selector knob is available that glows with an “X” in the centre at night. It’s a fancy touch that’ll likely appeal to those who buy collars with Swarovsky crystals for their purse dogs.

Seating was excellent in the last generation, especially when optioned up with BMW’s Comfort Seats, and that’s no different here. The new X5 is 26 mm longer overall, and that additional length was given all to the rear seat passengers for legroom. Otherwise, interior dimensions remain virtually unchanged. The models on hand were all five-passenger configurations, but seven-passenger versions will be available, though I wouldn’t expect it to be any roomier than in last year’s X5.

The cargo space remains decent, although it’s reportedly slightly smaller than the outgoing model, but you’d need fine measuring tools to determine it. BMW continues with its two-piece, (now power-actuated) tailgate-and-lift gate affair that many of its owners so adore. And if that load is a little too high to reach, the air suspension can lower an additional 40 mm to help access it.

Ergonomically, the new X5 improves versus the outgoing model by incorporating an all-digital, 12.3-inch instrument cluster that’s designed to be consistent in terms of graphics, fonts, and ambient lighting with the 12.3-inch seventh-generation iDrive screen. BMW has been implementing wireless CarPlay to great effect for a few years now, and this remains the case here. In fact, the menu systems have been streamlined slightly and re-ordered based on user feedback, enabling an even easier iDrive system. Applause for BMW for maintaining its super-easy rotary controller too, when even Mercedes seems to be slipping toward a touch-pad-only system.

Audiophiles can impress their passengers with the upgraded Bowers & Wilkins Diamond Surround Sound System that delivers 1,500 watts through 20 speakers. An optional rear-seat entertainment system is available which includes a pair of seat-mounted 10.2-inch HD touchscreen monitors that are Blu-ray and DVD compatible, plus offer a pair of USB ports, an HDMI input, and two headphone jacks. Or you could just buy the kids an iPad each and save some money.

The evolutionary improvements relate to the drivetrain as well, where a gas-powered inline-six-cylinder or V8 remain available – both are turbocharged, of course.

The V8 is an updated version of the one found in BMW’s 7 Series sedan and nestles its pair of turbos between the cylinder-bank V, enabling quicker spool-up of thrust. And that thrust is formidable with 470 lb-ft of torque available between 1,500 and 4,750 rpm, and 456 horsepower cranking out between 5,250 and 6,000 rpm. BMW claims this is good for a 0–100 km/h blast of 4.7 seconds.

My drive time was spent with the X5 40i powered by a free-revving inline-six with its twin-scroll turbocharger. Here 335 hp and 330 lb-ft of torque provide enough oomph to motivate the X5 to 100 in a claimed 5.5 seconds.

BMW has received plenty of accolades for its superb inline-sixes over the generations, and this one is well deserving of more kudos. It’s smooth and sonorous and provides ample thrust to move the big machine along with authority, whether passing on a freeway, or scampering up a muddy, rutted hill.

The latest iteration of the eight-speed automatic is also well-matched here. It’s smooth and seamless most of the time, but is smart enough to let the driver play (and the engine sing) when driven spiritedly.

Handling is very good for a heavy (from 2,258 to over 2,400 kg) SUV, though steering feel is largely tuned out. Drivers looking for more of a handling challenge can switch on the X5’s lane-keeping assist, which is among the most forceful and intrusive systems I can recall experiencing. Suffice it to say, it was quickly switched off during my test drive. The brake-by-wire system earned a few grumbles from my co-driver and me for its unnatural feel.

BMW is introducing a host of new telematics offerings with the X5, some exclusively for the European market (at least at first), and some for us. You can get out and park your rig by the key, or, will soon be able to use your smartphone as the key itself, enabling a multitude of other functions, like locking or unlocking, even if you’re on the other side of the planet.

In our recent comparison test, last year’s X5 endeared itself to several of us for many of the reasons this new generation succeeds. It’s got a properly luxurious interior, decent passenger space, and an engaging drivetrain. But its eye-watering price knocked it down a few pegs compared to some of its rivals. The new X5 xDrive40i starts at $71,500, while the X5 xDrive50i starts at $86,000. Add on even a few “essential” packages and it’s easy to push well into six figures.

Lovers of the X5 are sure to adore this new machine. In an evolutionary way, it is improved in nearly every appreciable way (some may still wish for more interior space). It remains swift and solid on-road, is even more luxurious and tech-laden inside. And for those who felt they’ve been left behind when the off-road trails got a little too gnarly, maybe they’ll be able to keep up now. At least for a bit.

Pricing: 2019 BMW X5

xDrive40i: $71,500
xDrive50i: $86,000