Let’s get a few things straight; the sun was out and the pavement was as dry as could be. As I entered the corner I thought about that torque vectoring system I had read so much about (and felt in the X6 50i we tested last year). I knew what it was capable of and I knew very well the X5 M had moved the goal posts even further. Exactly where that limit was I didn’t quite know.
Yet here I was entering a 90 degree turn with substantial speed on a desolate rural road in the heart of Wisconsin. I simply turned in smoothly and began to feel the impossible. The 5,000 lbs BMW X5 M started to oversteer. And I’m not talking a little wiggle. The M Division’s first AWD vehicle actually drifted out of the corner and then elegantly got back in line (with appropriate correction) for the next 90 degree coming up in 300 feet.
This article was suppose to be a thrashing of the X5 M as an overweight impostor to the hallowed M brand. But that begs the question of how do you even measure what M is? While the answer is inevitably personal, there are a few core ingredients that we can all agree on. Power, balance and precision. However thanks to the X5 M, the scale of which we measure those attributes has just shifted. Is it a true M based on tradition? Can a vehicle with all wheel drive, turbos and an automatic transmission be mentioned in the same breath as the E30 M3 or the original M Coupe? After 1,000 miles in seven days the answer is a little complicated, but during those few seconds in that corner it was nothing but pure joy in the most raw “M” way.
So we’ve thrown around the 5,000 lbs figure (it’s actually 5,368 lbs). Yes, the X5 M is heavy. The wizards at the M Division have actually done an amazing job masking all that weight. The delicacy in the steering is almost shocking considering the mass behind the wheel. However, it’s still a big vehicle and there’s little question that it can’t match an M5 in overall driving experience. The crazy thing is that while it doesn’t have the tactile quality of the E60 M5, it actually feels faster.
The twin turbo V8 at the heart of the X5 M is a technological tour de force. The basic design is based on the twin turbo V8 in various current BMWs. Turbos in the V and twin scroll turbos keep power as constant as possible. The engine may be massive but it’s even more massively powerful. 555 hp and 500 lbs of torque make 0-60 come up in a shocking 4.5 seconds. The truth is, it feels even faster.
Then there’s the sound. Like any M car it has the endearing habit of starting a little rough when completely cold. The engine sounds almost stressed. Like a cheetah’s strange gait while merely walking, it feels like the X5 M isn’t completely happy idling. I hope this is intentional. If not I hope that M never spends time to “fix” this issue.
Once you get going the aural pleasures get more interesting. There is the sound of turbos spooling from time to time but there is also a wonderful series of backpressue pops on overrun. After that it all gets a little weird with what can only be describes as flatulence. Yup. It’s hard to describe it any other way. It ultimately became endearing and part of the character of the car. It’s certainly not the classic sounds we’ve gotten use to with the E46 M3 or the E90 M3.
While the power and performance is admittedly shocking for such a large car, it’s the (relative) efficiency that’s eyebrow raising. Consider this; the X5 M weighs over 2,500 lbs more than the M3 and has over 130 more hp. Yet despite all of that it’s rated at 13 mpg city and 18 mpg highway – just one and two mpg off the much lighter and less powerful M3. Ok, efficiency may not be the right word. But clearly the M division has a win win situation on its hands with this new approach of twin turbo-charging.
Yet it’s the engine that is one of the biggest departures of the M brand. First off M cars are not turbo-charged. Or at least that’s something M has been preaching for years. However, with efficiency regulations closing in around the company it’s clear something had to change. So the engineers at M have created an exceptionally quick revving large turbo-charged powerplant that shocks you with torque (500 ft lbs) and surprises you with it’s ability to pull strong all the way to it’s (relatively) high redline of 7000 rpm.
The two things that define this engine for me are the 500 ft lbs of torque available at 1500 rpm and how quick the mill runs up to redline. The combination of the two produce acceleration that is (in the real world) M5 rivaling. In fact we’ve heard rumors that the X5 M is actually faster around the ‘Ring than the E60 M5. BMW will likely never admit that of course.
The technology behind the engine and the drivetrain is astonishing as compared to what M cars had just a few years ago. BMW beefed up the drivetrain and added cylinder deactivation between shifts to lessen the blow to the transmission. The result is a barrage of pops and flatulent sounds from the exhaust that is strangely aggressive. But why deactivate cylinders when accelerating? Simple; the torque and overall dead weight of 5,000+lbs would break something very expensive before the massive tires (325 mm in the rear) would spin free.
What about the balance and feel part of the M equation? It’s no shock that the X5 M doesn’t have the delicacy the best M cars posses. Sure there is more feeling here than any thing else in the sport crossover field (that I’ve driven) but the brilliant engineers at M can’t defy physics that much. In the end it’s a connection to the experience of driving that M cars are so often judged and in this regard the X5 M has a hard time living up to the brand character.
Part of the problem is the transmission. Unlike any M car before it (the US Spec E36 notwithstanding) the X5 M is equipped with a no apologies six speed automatic. And while it’s the fastest shifting torque converter automatic I’ve ever driven (it’s almost as fast as the DCT in the M3) it’s still an auto and lacks aural and mechanical feedback of a manual or even a DCT.
One test note; our car had a noticeable driveline shudder from 2nd to 3rd throughout the week long test. If that was not bad enough, it often shifted from 1st to 2nd without any driver input (while in manual mode) There are few things more damning to the enthusiast driver than a transmission with a mind of its own. It was absolutely disheartening every time. As an enthusiast I want a car (especially an M car) that responds to driver input. Even if the car allows for complete control 95% of the time, as a driver I’m left feeling a little less confident knowing that the brains behind the beast can’t be completely overridden. We’re not 100% sure if this was an issue with software, hardware or just normal operation, but it clearly wasn’t ideal. (Other X5 Ms we have spent time behind the wheel in did not display the same characteristics)
Transmission aside; the engine and it’s all-wheel drive system is simply incredible. M leveraged BMW’s incredible torque vectoring xDrive system for the X5 M to great effect. As we mentioned upfront, when pushed the X5 M goes from neutral to oversteer. The set-up allows for incredible grip levels while allowing the driver a level of control that is nothing less than shocking a vehicle this big. How is it accomplished? It’s one part suspension set-up and another clever electronics. All the same magic that allows an X6 to take corners faster than it has a right to is combined with other tricks supplied exclusively by M engineers. The result is nothing like any crossover I’ve ever driven and (dare we say it) could even be called M like.
Like the current M3 the X5 M also has user programmable drivetrain function that allow the driver to tailor the experience both on default and with the M button enabled. The differences in the settings aren’t quite as dramatic as they are on the M3 but it’s a nice touch nonetheless.
Stopping all of this maddness are 15.6/15.2 inch ventilated disc (front and rear respectively). They do the job with little drama and exceptional pedal feel.
Where does that leave the X5 M? You get the sense that automotive writers have fallen into two camps on the car. There are those that have fallen in love with the utility and the performance while anointing it the best sporty crossover in the world. Then there are those that claim the idea of a sporty crossover is so out of touch with all that is real and authentic with the M brand that they can’t help but call it a failure. Nevermind the gem of an engine and the almost magical torque vectoring all wheel drive system.
Where does that leave BimmerFile? Honestly I wanted to completely pan the X5 M. I wanted to call a spade a spade and disregard it’s performance while focusing on the ridiculousness of the size, price and position as an M vehicle. Yet I can’t. The truth is that there is no denying the X5 M has been touched by the magic of M in enough of the right ways. While I can’t call it a true M car in the classic sense (as even M subtly admits with the official naming convention) I can call it the M of crossovers.
So it’s fast, handles impeccably and sounds raw. Does it harm the hallowed M brand? Probably a little. Will they make money off of it and allow for cars like the upcoming 1M? Based on what we’ve heard from sources the answer is a resounding yes. And when judged on all of this criteria, it’s hard to not call the X5 M a measured success.