David Thomson said goodbye to 2013 and hello to 2014 with the 30d version of the latest BMW X5 in his care. It seems to have marked an auspicious start to the new motoring year.
When BMW launched the original X5 back in 1999, its arrival prompted a storm of debate.
While it seemed quite logical for a company such as Mercedes-Benz - with its long history in commercial as well as passenger vehicles - to produce what we now call an SUV, the same could not be said of BMW. How, many folk asked, could such a vehicle align with BMW's core strength and reputation for building driver-focused, rear-drive performance cars?
BMW's early push down the SUV route has turned out to be a brilliant business decision, even allowing for the company's official designation of the X5 as a Sports Activity Vehicle (SAV) rather than a sports utility (SUV).
Rolling off a new production line in South Carolina, the X5 played a vital role in extending BMW's presence in the United States, the most sports utility-centric of all the world's major car markets. It's now built in Mexico and Russia as well, and production has topped the 100,000 mark for each of the past four years.
Here in New Zealand, the X5 ranks as our top-selling luxury SUV. With 250 registrations in 2013, it also places second only to Toyota's ubiquitous Land Cruiser Prado in the large SUV sales charts.
During the past year of sales success, BMW has phased out the second-generation X5 and introduced its third-generation successor. It is the $129,000 30d version of this third generation vehicle that is the subject of this test.
The new X5 maintains the same wheelbase as its predecessor, but is fractionally wider, slightly longer, and just a little lower. Viewed side-on, it carries over the well-established X5 look, but the new machine's appearance from both front and rear angles is quite fresh.
Up front, the styling treatment echoes that of the latest 3-series saloon, with BMW's kidney grille more upright and prominent. The bolder, somewhat bluff look of the nose is complemented by a heavily creased tail, similar to that seen on the latest iteration of the smaller X3.
Larger and more flexibly packaged than its predecessor, the cabin is superbly executed. The broad sweep of dash (with brushed alloy on top, and dark mock wood below) from the steering wheel and across to the passenger's side of the cabin is lovely. A 10.2 inch (25.9cm) centre display screen in the middle of the dash and a prominent instrument binnacle for the driver are the other key features up front, while a wide centre console with a combined storage bin/centre armrest separates the front seats.
The front seats are wide and comfy, with power adjustment and excellent slide-out under-thigh support. The second row of seats are split 40:20:40, and adjust fore-and-aft as well as for rake.
The test car's boot contained two further pop-up seats ($3600 extra cost options), but for most of Drivesouth's test it was stacked with holiday luggage. BMW claims a class-leading 650-litre capacity for the boot and the power-operated boot lid, split tailgate and pop-up cargo net were much appreciated.
Technology marches ahead on the new X5, which has features such as BMW's surround-view camera system, head-up display and adaptive bi-xenon headlights now standard. The test car featured LED (a $2200 option) rather than bi-xenon headlights and the optional ($900) system that displays speed limits in conjunction with navigation information.
The company's new Driving Assistant safety package is also standard on the 30d: this includes a land departure warning system that sends a tremble through the steering wheel if the car strays across a road marker line and collision warning and emergency braking activated by the car itself.
Each of these features proved its worth on test, though the Polaroid sunglasses I prefer for driving in bright conditions render the Head Up Display almost invisible.
The new X5 also includes the latest iteration of the iDrive controller system, which gives access to multimedia, radio, satellite navigation, BMW Connected Drive (Internet), vehicle information (trip and on-board computer, vehicle status, sport displays and xDrive status settings). Heated seats, a power-adjustable steering column, cruise control, Bluetooth audio and phone, keyless entry and start are further parts of the package.
Drivesouth's test of the X5 30d involved Christmas and New Year motoring that included the highway hack from Dunedin to Christchurch, a return trip over Arthur's Pass, and time spent exploring the byways of Banks Peninsula.
The 30D's drivetrain - a 190kW/560Nm 3-litre twin-turbo engine with an eight-speed automatic transmission and BMW's xDrive variable four-wheel-drive system - earned plaudits in every phase of the test.
The transmission's own decision-making can be overridden via paddle-shift controls, which I found most useful for popping the vehicle down a gear to maximise engine braking on steeper descents.
Otherwise, the only intervention that was really necessary on test was to select sport mode for the run across Arthur's Pass.
This mode sharpens the engine's throttle response and places the gearbox in a more aggressive shift mode. Together, these enable the 30d to muster a cracking 6.9sec time for the 0-100kmh sprint.
Opt for the standard and economy settings, and economy returns of better than 6.5-litres per 100km mark are easily achievable on standard highway runs. Drivesouth's return over the whole road test was 8.0l/100km.
BMW has struck a nice ride-handing balance for the 30d, no mean feat given the inescapable challenges associated with providing decent damping and containing body roll in a vehicle of this type.
Driven at everyday speeds, and with the temptation to push hard into tighter bends resisted, the car is surefooted and very relaxing to drive on the open road. It's only when you move on to really twisty tarmac roads, such as those abounding on Banks Peninsula, that the X5's bulk is a significant deterrent to spirited driving.
But while a luxury saloon would have been a better proposition on those roads, it would not have coped nearly as well (if at all) with the gravel roads and tracks that give access to some of the peninsula's most interesting spots.
Keen drivers who seek more sharpness from the X5 can find it with the 30d by specifying the $5500 M-Sport package, which includes adaptive sports suspension. There are also progressively more potent 40d ($148,500) and 50d ($174,500) versions available as well as the entry-level 25d ($112,500).
To be honest, though, I am not sure there is much real-world gain to be had by looking further up the X5 ladder. That point was aptly illustrated on the return leg of the trip over Arthur's Pass when I found myself on the tail of another X5, in M-Sport configuration, as we left the West Coast.
It was being handled very well, with the driver taking passing opportunities without hesitation as they arose. However, I was able to keep in touch all the way to Sheffield, where he turned off the main road with a cheerful wave.
The 170km we spent in our loose convoy formation ranked as the most enjoyable spell of my festive season motoring, and played a vital role in confirming the X5 3.0d as a vehicle superbly suited to South Island motoring.
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