First Drive: 2011 BMW X5 [Review]

Now well into its second generation, the BMW X5 gains some new powertrains for the 2011 model year as a way to freshen up the German automaker's luxurious and - dare we say it - sporty "just right" family and cargo hauler.

Not radically different like the X6 SAV, nor smaller than useful like the X3, the X5 has proven itself as the perfect in betweener in BMW's two-box lineup.

Since the X5 is crafted in the United States, the automaker chose to stage the international media launch for the 2011 model in Miami, where Leftlane got the chance to check out its new powertrain lineup and other tweaks - not to mention an opportunity to visit some alligators who did their best to convince us that leather should always be made from cattle (see photo gallery for our new friends).

Striking a balance
BMW once again strikes a balance that reflects their ideas of style and efficiency. Whether it's a day at the market, soccer mommying on a school day or road tripping over the weekend, X5 users should be able to find a solution based on the company's product lineup of various engines and trim levels.

But they are clearly not the only game in town. Competitors from both this and the other sides of the ponds include the Audi Q7, Land Rover LR4, Mercedes-Benz M-Class, Lexus GX 460 and GMC Yukon, each of which can be had in various degrees of spiciness and utility - the size of your wallet being the determining factor, of course.

Looking like"¦
A muscular station wagon, the X5 is a basic two-box design featuring strong shoulders, short overhangs at the front and rear wheels, and loads of interior space for the often-weekly visits to Home Depot or area antique shops.

Heaven forbid it shows up at a garage sale or K-Mart. That's Dodge Grand Caravan territory.

The iconic twin-kidney grille returns along with a slightly revised front fascia. Fog lamps have been repositioned, and silver-contrast trim rings have been replaced with body colored trim surrounds. A new matte-finish skid plate offers at least the appearance of underside protection while LED corona rings around the headlamps serve as daylight runners.

The X5's caboose is similarly reconfigured and features redesigned tail lamps, a reshaped bumper with tailpipe surrounds, and a silver matte-finished skid plate in rear, as well.

Look closely or else you'll miss the changes - but to Bimmerfiles the world over, the sum of the parts helps identify the latest and greatest.

Driver accoutrements
The X5 interior is familiar to anyone who has recently been in a BMW, but it still offers several forms of personalization. Mildly revised, it offers driver assistance features including Active Cruise Control with stop and go, a heads up display, Lane Departure warning with haptic alerts and a four-zone automatic climate control system. Top, side and rearview cameras keep visual sentry around the X5, while a rear-seat entertainment system, Bluetooth, comfort access with keyless entry. Optional ventilated seats and Nappa leather help to round out the bill.

The driving position remains the same in the X5 with all the controls as they should be - in typical BMW style. The fourth generation of iDrive finally makes its way into the X5, featuring a high-resolution 8.8-inch screen, with new controller and more intuitive operations. We found this to be exactly the case, and didn't growl so much this time over the cranky interface of the previous versions. With some acclimation, iDrive begins to make sense - but it's also bound to make some shoppers run out of the showroom.

We did notice that the heads-up display vanishes when wearing polarized shades. So if you like to see your HUD properly, with apologies to that little ole band from Texas, ZZ Top, wear some cheap sunglasses.

To the engine room
The X5 will continue to be offered in three flavors, two of which have been newly shoehorned under its long hood. Naturally, BMW's knack for Germanic naming continues: The X5 xDrive35i and X5 xDrive50i feature new gas engines, while the X5 xDrive35d continues with its 3.0-liter turbodiesel.

Topping the range, the X5 xDrive50i features a 4.4-liter twin turbo V8 first seen in the X6 sistership. In this application, it puts out to the tune of 400 horsepower and 450 lb-ft. of torque between 1,750 and 4,500 rpm for a relatively stable and flat power band. Like the X6, its twin turbos reside in the valley of the V and are assisted by the engine's high-pressure direct injection. Thanks to its solid torque range, the 5.3-second 0-60 mph sprint only partially shows this V8's strength. Highway passing is phenomenal and we'll be anxious to visit a less flat testing locale to sample its mountain highway abilities.

The model expected to be the bigger seller of the two will be the X5 xDrive35i with its TwinPower turbocharged inline six-cylinder engine with Valvetronic, which instead of twin turbos, as before, now utilizes a twin-scroll single turbo for more efficiency. The end result is a 3.5-liter engine which puts out 300 horsepower and 300 lb-ft of torque. BMW says that the six-cylinder sprints to 60 mph in 6.4 seconds, a hefty 1.4 second improvement over the outgoing model. The six-cylinder can tow up to 6,000 lbs. and has an overall curb weight of 4,960 lbs. BMW hasn't released EPA figures

Incidentally, both engines are mated the eight-speed automatic with Steptronic manual shift ability that debuted last fall in the 5-Series Gran Turismo.

Cruising around South Florid's less than exciting streets and highways is hardly a test for such a capable vehicle, but we did our best.

Although equipped with hill descent and hill-start assist, we were barely able to find inclines that made it possible to test the system. We thought the tip-in whilst in standard drive mode was substantial, but switching over to the Sport setting button at the base of the gear selector transformed the vehicle. With an engine and transmission re-map, it was just what our right feet ordered. Handling was Teutonically taut as we have come to enjoy in most Munich-based vehicles"”even if this one was built in Spartanburg, South Carolina. It cornered flatly and handled expressway on and off ramps equally well.

We did like the lane departure system, which fed vibrations to the steering wheel whenever you crossed a line without engaging the turn signal first. The system seemed less intrusive and more accurate than others we've tested recently. On gravel roads, the interior of the X5 soaked up rutted and gravel packed roads without transmitting jarring or harshness into the cabin, making it a solid drive-to-the-cabin family hauler.

We'll wait for a full test to truly sample the new turbocharged six and eight-cylinder power, but for now we remain impressed with the thorough underhood update.

Why you would buy it:
Because life sometimes involves hauling more than just the family. And because everyone needs a little Hofmeister kink in their lives.

Why you wouldn't:
Because you believe only car-based BMWs are the ultimate driving machine.

Leftlane's bottom line:
BMW's refreshed X5 continues in its quest for total perfection in the luxury crossover/SUV realm by incorporating engine and drivetrain improvements that continue to keep the Sport Activity Vehicle, or whatever they want to call it, relevant in an extremely competitive segment.

If your bottom line is healthy, our bottom line says it's definitely a 'ute worthy of your consideration.

2011 BMW X5 xDrive 35i base price, $46,675.
2011 BMW X5 xDrive50i base price, $59,275

Words and photos by Mark Elias.