Jungle Book 

BMW's X5 prefers street smarts to back-country image

BMW's X5 prefers street smarts to back-country image

I have just about had it up to here—here! I say—with this whole SUV epidemic. I am so tired of seeing all these advertisements depicting muscular, brutish trucks performing daring off-road feats. I am tired of it because none of the snow-covered peaks, tabletop mesas, or vine-laced jungles in the magazines or on television have the least bit of connection to the real commuter world in which anyone who actually pays a car note is mired these days.

So I’m genuinely surprised at my reaction to BMW’s relatively new contender in the sport/utility fracas. The X5 is, in fact, an anti-SUV, and BMW underscores this fact with the acronym SAV—Sports Activity Vehicle. Cute, but there’s more: To the best of my knowledge, BMW is the first manufacturer to emphasize that the X5 is not a go-anywhere, do-anything vehicle expressly intended for making rash, unfeasible escapes from civilization. It is, instead, a jungle truck, and the jungle it sets out to conquer is the urban one that engulfs us all.

To survive the urban jungle takes an entirely different set of virtues than the ones required for hopscotching boulder-strewn trails. In the latter instance, you and your vehicle simply won’t survive at any speed faster than walking. In the urban jungle, where traffic snarls and chokes like a writhing python, the best place to be is out in front. The best way to get to the front is to speed your way there, and speed is what the X5’s 3.0-liter inline-six does best. It’s not just a matter of the engine’s 225-horsepower rating, which is decent for six cylinders but outdone by many V8s in this class. (BMW’s own 4.4-liter V8 version of the X5, for example, delivers 282 horsepower—for a $10,500 premium.) What sets this 3-liter six apart is the eerie smoothness of its inline layout combined with BMW’s near-magical VANOS system of variable valve control. A five-speed manual transmission comes standard; but for $1,275, an exceptional five-speed auto allows gear changes in three different modes: “tame” and “sporty” autoshifts, or crisp manual shifts without a clutch. Acceleration is thereby effortless, silent, deadly for the competition. At highway speeds that are already ambitious, a tiny poke at the accelerator seems to levitate the X5 above and beyond fellow travelers until the question slowly occurs to you: “Hey, what’s that third digit doing on my speedometer?”

This fleet sensation wouldn’t be so majestic were it not for the X5’s independent front and rear suspensions and the rigid unitized body-cum-chassis. Handling is catlike and precise. A self-leveling system at the rear maintains near-constant center of gravity, regardless of load. The effect is razor-fine accuracy of maneuver, even at highway speeds. The X5 slashes through clotted traffic the way a machete hacks through tangled vines.

The X5 doesn’t just ferry occupants through the urban jungle; it exempts them from it. Automatic climate control, for example, features not only dual zones for driver and front passenger but also independent regulation in the back. Pale poplar-wood trim and cropped-pile carpeting complement leather seats that are as taut as the drum head of a conga. Like so much mosquito netting, sheer black mesh shades extract from slots in the rear doors to cover the side windows.

Much has been made of the X5’s stingy cargo space, but with all seats in use, there is actually quite a bit of storage behind the rear bench—23.8 cu. ft. from floor to ceiling, to be exact. The fact remains, however, that the X5’s 54 cu. ft. of maximum cargo space with the rear bench folded is only two-thirds of what its archrivals offer (e.g., Mercedes-Benz ML320, Lexus RX300, Acura MDX) despite similar exterior dimensions. There can hardly be more vivid demonstration of an inline-six’s chief disadvantage compared to V6 and V8 alternatives: No matter how striking its performance, its length robs an interior of precious space.

After a week with the X5 3.0i, I have all the more respect for BMW’s decision to eschew a mountain-man image for its SAV. It’s not for the rugged trail that you need 10—yes, 10—front, side, and head airbags. It’s for the high-speed jungles we call superhighways. Certainly, the all-wheel-drive X5 can tackle mild off-road jaunts, but the computerized All-Season Traction (AST), Dynamic Brake Control (DBC), Dynamic Stability Control (DSC-X), and Hill Descent Control (HDC) systems are all intended to help drivers survive encounters with unexpected urban threats rather than the all-too-predictable dangers of the outback. There is a troubling psychology that accompanies our SUV fetish. Somehow, we’ve come to assume our trucks will save us from all harm no matter how dismal our driving skills. BMW seems to acknowledge this unfounded assumption by equipping its X5 with automatic electronic “brains” that may one day be called upon to save us from our complacencies.

Yet there remains a unique risk of the urban jungle that no technology can adequately neutralize. I myself was attacked unawares by a parking lot predator who center-punched the passenger-side front door of this $50,000 truck with his rear bumper while I was away filling a prescription. With my 10-year-old daughter the only witness, the coward hit and then ran—predictable enough behavior for a hyena in any jungle, I suppose. It’s more than a little ironic, don’t you think, that BMW’s anti-SUV should earn its combat stripes so easily in a drugstore parking lot while owners of other, grittier sport/utes can only daydream about the tight scrapes awaiting them on grueling backcountry treks they’ll never find the nerve to take.

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