2007 BMW X5 4.8i

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The sporting credentials of BMW’s X5 have never been in question — but the utility aspects often left something to be desired.

Prospective buyers who needed third-row seating, for example, had to look elsewhere. And the original X5’s cargo-carrying ability was not much of an improvement over a typical mid-sized sedan’s. So although it could leave most mid-sized SUVs tumbling end over end if they even tried to hold the same line in a high-speed corner, the X5 couldn’t hold as much gear — or as many people.

It’s no surprise therefore, that the all-new ’07 X5 is bigger (though at first glance, it’s hard to tell, so subtle are the alterations to wheelbase and sheetmetal), can be ordered with third row seating and (to equalize things a bit in the ever-escalating horsepower wars) now comes with a much stronger (260 horsepower) standard engine — with its upgrade V-8 punched out to 4.8 liters and 350 horses from last year’s 4.4 liter, 315 hp engine.

What is surprising — in a good way — is that the new X5’s superb, almost sports car-quality handling characteristics have not been hobbled by any of these changes.

It’s typical that as a vehicle grows in size and becomes more “mainstream” and “family friendly,” it also becomes more like the typical middle-aged clientele that needs mainstream and family-friendly vehicles. Once-sharp reflexes and a firm suspension set up for enthusiast drivers are swapped for drop-down DVD entertainment systems for the kids and power-operated toys for the grown-ups.

The X5 has an abundance of the latter — including a “simplified” version of the infamous iDrive mouse controller (more on that below), available Heads-up Display and an electrically-activated gear shifter similar to the system first used on the 7-Series sedan (more on that below, also).

But as I experienced first-hand during two days of flogging brand-new X5s (both the base six-cylinder powered 3.0si and the V-8 X5 4.8i) on some of South Carolina’s best Moonshiner backcountry roads — with gravel in the apexes and nonexistent shoulders that led to perilous drops into valleys where the remains of old refrigerators and ancient Studebaker carcasses could be seen rusting into oblivion — the ’07 X5’s every bit the runner the old one was.

And then some.

With or without the optional Sport package (which adds 19-inch wheels and run-flat all-season tires as well as BMW’s AdaptiveDrive stability and automatic damping control system), anything like normal/legal speed driving doesn’t begin to challenge its composure. And if you keep leaning on it, the X5 leans right back, with the AWD system and electronic stability-enhancing systems always maintaining an even keel.

It’s not quite a 5-Series as you get close to the limit — but it’s close enough to impress the hell out of you when you consider the X5’s considerably higher off the ground (8.3 inches of clearance) isn’t shod with ultra low aspect ratio high performance “summer” tires like a 5-Series would be — and is, after all, basically an SUV.

I deliberately allowed the X5 I was driving to wander slightly off the paved road so that two wheels dipped partially onto the grassy shoulder; in many SUVs, this commonly encountered situation can induce fairly alarming, even violent weaving (due to weight transfer and loss of traction) as the driver tries to get back on the road. But the X5 wasn’t troubled; it eased back onto the pavement with no drama and felt absolutely composed. Similarly, even when pushed to the limits of lateral grip on BMW’s skidpad, the X5 is hard to spin out completely. Back off the throttle and the slide stops almost immediately, too — without frantic counter-steering. There’s next to no heave-ho body-roll, either — even when power-sliding around the aforesaid skidpad.

There have been some major changes to the X5’s suspension to account for all this — including a modified A-arm/double wishbone set up in the front (vs. the strut-type system used previously), along with standard 18-inch wheels (19 and 20-inch rims are optional) and a revised 4-link fully independent rear end. In addition, the ’07 X5 can be ordered with BMW’s Active/Servotronic Steering — a speed-sensitive, electrically-driven system that alters the relationship between how much the wheel is turned by the driver and how aggressively the front wheels actually turn the vehicle. At speeds up to 55 mph, the relationship is more direct — while at speeds above 55 mph, the driver doesn’t have to adjust the wheel as often to keep the vehicle on track or make course corrections. I was able to drive the X5 with and without this system on BMW’s skid pad and through a series of low and high-speed slaloms at the company’s Spartanburg Performance Center; the difference in low-speed agility/ease of use is very apparent in back-to-back testing and worth the extra coin ($1,250 on top of the mandatory $3,600 Sport Package, which also gets you the 19×9.5-inch rims with run-flat tires, Adaptive Drive/Roll Stabilization and Damping Control).

Though it’s hard to tell by eyeballing it, the new X5’s chassis has been stretched by several inches to accommodate the optionally available 7-passenger seating configuration (a $1,700 option on the base model X3 3.0si; $1,200 extra on the top-of-the-line X5 4.8i). Compared with the outgoing model, the ’07 is 7.4 inches longer overall — and 2.4 inches wider. BMW engineers say that the increased track also helps stability — while the longer wheelbase (up to 115.5 inches from the previous 111 inches) should make pulling a trailer with the new model that much safer, too.

The bump in proportions is no small thing, but happily, the 2007 X5’s curb weight is about the same as the ’06 model’s — about 4,980 lbs. for the X5 3.0si. This was achieved by the use of aluminum for suspension and other components, including the new front end pieces. In addition, the revised 3-liter DOHC straight six has several lightweight magnesium alloy castings (upper crankcase, bedplate), hydro-formed hollow camshafts, plastic cam cover and aluminum cam chain tensioner. These design changes cut 22 pounds off the engine — which also produced 35 more horses than its predecessor.

Because it’s more powerful and didn’t gain much weight, the ’07 X5 3.0si now achieves 60 mph in the the high seven second (and respectable) range — vs. the so-so mid eights previously.

The V-8 powered X5 4.8i can knock more than a second off that time — and is significantly more potent than last year’s mid-range 4.4 liter V-8. Buyers should also rejoice that this top gun engine comes at a discount. The ’07 X5 4.8 is priced at $55,195 — vs. $ 71,100 for last year’s range-topping X5 4.8i (there are now just two versions of the X5 instead of three).

The base ’07 X5 3.0Si stickers at $46,595 — about four grand higher than last year’s base X5. But it’s better equipped, larger and faster.

Both 2007 X5 engines work through new-for-’07 ZF six-speed automatics; the manual transmission that was available in the previous X5 3.0 has been dropped, as has the old 5-speed automatic that was optional on the ’06 X5 3.0i. The six-speed autos are snappy performers, though. Shift timing, quality and firmness are what you’d expect from a BMW — nicely aggressive when driving aggressively, but smooth as glass when you’re just cruising along. The Sport mode will placate most enthusiast drivers — while the higher power and torque of both ’07 engines makes it easy to forget about the absence of a clutch.

Some buyers may not like the new-for-2007 digitized gear selector, however.

There’s still a handle on the console — but all the action is controlled by servos and buttons. Putting it in “Park” is fine — just tap the little button on top. But getting “Reverse” and “Drive” (and the manual/sport modes for “Drive”) is sometimes more work than it ought to be — or just takes too long (getting from “Reverse” and back into “Drive,” for example). It’s one of those things that’s certainly clever and “high tech” — but whether it makes the function involved easier to perform is another matter entirely.

You’ll have to check that out and decide for yourself.

Same with the notorious love-it-or-loathe it iDrive mouse controller. It is “simplified” (compared to the original) and can be programmed to execute six several owner-specific functions with decent ease. But as with the e-shifter thing, it can be a polarizing feature that some buyers might prefer to pass up. It’d be nice if it were an option — with old-style controls available for those who prefer driving to playing with mice.

On the upside, you can now carry seven people, pull as much as 6,000 lbs. (which is 1,000 lbs. better than the current Mercedes M-Class) while still driving a machine that can out-corner and out-brake anything calling itself an SUV. The new X5 even compares favorably with full-size lunkers like the Range Rover HSE and Lexus GX470 in terms of what and who it can carry — without the often-overwhelming sense of massiveness that can come with driving those behemoths.

It might be time to trade in that Denali!

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