BMW X5: A fresh start from familiar foundations

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No messing with a good formula - the BMW X5. Photos supplied

Heading out of Napier, there are three recognised driving routes to Taihape - via the Manawatu Gorge (SH3 and SH1), via Taupo (SH5, SH1) and via the Gentle Annie, the most direct choice.

BMW's sat nav didn't, for some unfathomable reason, identify ''direct'', which caused an issue for the other in our group who, like me, was driving the new X5 solo.

We met up again at lunch in Raurimu, me having gone the correct way, having known where to locate the modestly signposted starting point near Roy's Hill, and John, having placed implicit trust in the on-board assist and therefore missed the key turn-off, via the southern Manawatu route, very much the long way round.

The Gentle Annie - such an ironic name for it is anything but - was a good road for this car. The X5 has always been a particularly sporty experience for its type and this third generation remains true to that tradition.

The electrically assisted steering might have lost some of its sharpness, but retains plenty of feel and though this car is as large as before, it's a little lighter and has more power, so that's beneficial, too. Finally, all X5s now come with Driving Experience Control (DEC), a toggle switch that lets the driver switch between Comfort, Sport and more extreme Sport Plus and Eco Pro modes, all of which are more pronounced now.

The Annie and an adjoining gravel road we nipped on to demanded Sport and Sport Plus; the latter relaxes the stability and traction controls enough for the X5 to twitch its tail on stone, but not so much that it feels uncontrollable. Good fun.

Then again, maybe taking the alternate route would not have disappointed either. As I say, the DEC settings are better separated now; Eco Plus is perhaps too dramatic away from smooth, flat highway - it really pins back the gearshift pattern and throttle response - but Comfort is much more in keeping with that descriptive now, delivering a softness and yield that was absent from the previously X5. John might not have had the most exciting drive, but he certainly had a relaxed run.

Broadened dynamic ability aside, the X5 seems a case of a fresh start from familiar foundations: The wheelbase is the same as the outgoing model's, the chassis is a rework, engines are familiar fare and it retains that upright profile and traditional features such as a two-piece tailgate.

BMW's response is ''why mess with a good formula'' and it's hard to disagree; the outgoing model claimed 1.3 million sales; every year it was on sale the counts grew, including here in New Zealand.

So old makes a good new, though it's hardly a simple refresh. No body panels transfer, it has a new face, and has become wider and longer. The front and rear overhangs are extended, without ruining the trademark squat proportions, and the new model appears to sit lower, though BMW asserts there's still 210mm ground clearance.

Diesel is the sole engine choice here until the M-fettled flagship arrives. The xDrive30d and xDrive50d continue to run 3-litre in-line six-cylinder engines with different levels of turbocharging (one turbo for the entry xDrive30d, and three for the xDrive50d).

The 30d now musters 190kW/560Nm, and manages 0-100kmh in 6.9 seconds and optimum economy of 6.2 litres per 100km, a 16% improvement.

The 50d makes 280kW/740Nm, 0-100kmh in 5.3s and 6.7L/100km (an 11% improvement).

Next year we will see an xDrive40d, another 3.0-litre rendition but with two turbos, and the xDrive25d, featuring the first four-cylinder for the X5, a 160kW/450Nm 2-litre.

Inside, there's a more luxurious, better-crafted cabin with styling that follows the lineage of recent BMW models. Buyers can again ask for the factory-fit foldaway third seat row, still really for sub 1.5m-tall types even though squaring off the exterior and lengthening the tail has released more interior space. Boot capacity is up by 30 litres at 650 litres, rising to 1870 litres when the rear seats are folded away.

BMW's technology bent is in evidence, with everything from a head-up display and night vision to internet access with email dictation, mostly driven through the latest version of the iDrive cabin-control system.

The standard trim level, ''pure experience'' is abetted by a no-cost ''excellence'' alternate, but buyers need not stop there. Also offered, and likely to be popular, is a $5500 M-Sport enhancement (body kit, 20-inch wheels, adaptive suspension) and alternate interior treatments, topping with ivory and mahogany Nappa leather fit-outs, for between $5000-$8000 depending on the seat count. The leather quality is beautiful, but the colour choices questionable. Most Kiwi buyers prefer all-black interiors, but that's not an option with the highest-grade leather.

BMW also offers opportunity to buy in alternate spring/damper tuning as well, but I'd suggest trying the standard settings before determining whether any additional meddling is needed. I'd say it's not; the X5 has always had impressive handling for a car of its size, and the new model continues the trend.

For ride quality, however, the xDrive30d is superior already to the xDrive50d, whose firmer setup is disappointingly fidgety on coarse chip.

The base engine, too, continues to shine. Sure, it hasn't the sheer shove or snarl of the triple-turbo but it leaves the impression there's still all the performance you're likely to need, and has some growly aural character.

Power and torque are enhanced only modestly, but there's enough here to lead to sharper acceleration - the 0-100kmh time drops by 0.7s - while fuel economy and CO2 emissions have improved.

BMW X5: A fresh start from familiar foundations
At a Glance
BMW X5

Prices: $129,000 to $174,000.

Engines: 2993cc six-cylinder single-turbo diesel, max power 190kW@4000rpm, max torque 560Nm@1500-3000rpm; 2993cc six-cylinder triple-turbo diesel, max power 280kW@4000rpm, max torque 740Nm@2000-3000rpm.

Transmission: Eight-speed automatic.

Brakes and stability systems: ABS, DSC, EBD, HDC, ETC, HDC.

Wheels, tyres: 225/50 R19 to 275/40 R20.

Fuel and economy: 6.2 (xDrive30d) and 6.7 (xDrive50d) litres per 100km on EU combined cycle, capacity 85 litres.

Dimensions: Length 4886mm, width 1938mm, height 1762mm.