In 1999, the BMW X5 set a template every premium manufacturer has since followed.
BMW took a punt with the launch of the original X5 that a strongly road-biased SUV – then a stone largely unturned – could not only differentiate itself from boxy off-road-ready rivals such as the Land Rover Discovery and the Mercedes G-Class, but ultimately make more sense than them.
Fast forward to the scenario we find today, and the original X5’s party trick as an SUV designed to be great where people are using them the most – the road – has long transformed from a unique selling point into the bare minimum buyers expect. Rivals like the Porsche Cayenne, Audi Q7 and Volvo XC90 have all been engineered to be sharp to drive or luxuriously comfortable on tarmac, first and foremost.
It means that as the X5 enters its fourth-generation, BMW can’t just rely on previous momentum to sell its original SUV. It’s a cutthroat competition, only made more intense with the arrival of the new Mercedes GLE at the same time. While we’re waiting to drive that car in Britain, we’ve now been for a spin in the new X5 here at home.
The new BMW will be most popular in xDrive 30d form, with diesel sales set to remain strong, but the latest X5 family will eventually grow into a diverse bunch. Petrol options are available at launch and a full-blooded X5 M is due in 2020, but right now, the M50d version driven here takes its place right at the top of the model ladder.
It’s a warm-up act for the V8-powered X5 M, and it sticks with a six-cylinder 3.0-litre diesel engine. But it gets a whopping four turbochargers, taking power to 395bhp and torque to a monumental 760Nm.
It’s the second figure that really defines the powertrain. With well over two-tonnes to haul the M50d doesn’t pounce forward with the alarming urgency you might hope for. Instead, it leans heavily on its torque to be remarkably consistent at picking up fuss-free pace, regardless of the gear, revs or the road ahead.
Barely spinning much above 5,000rpm, the engine is silky smooth in its delivery and is hardly intrusive. Claimed fuel economy of 41.5mpg is impressive, too.
A degree of extra aggression can be unlocked if you flick the X5 M50d into its Sport Plus driving mode, which brings harder, faster gearshifts and a flicker more responsiveness from the unit, but overall, despite this car wearing an M badge, it feels more impressive as a cross-country cruiser than an SUV designed to be driven hard.
The M50d doesn’t get the supple twin-axle air set-up available elsewhere in the X5 range, using an M Sport-developed adaptive steel spring arrangement instead. We tried the system in optional M Sport Professional form. It’s far from overly firm, though, striking a neat balance between keeping the X5’s huge, heavy body in check thanks to active body roll stabilisation, and remaining comfortable, even on the M50d’s huge 22-inch wheels.
Opt for the Professional set-up and four-wheel steering is added. This is a bit less impressive; it feels a little inconsistent in action, and X5s without the four-wheel system offer a sweeter, more natural steer. Indeed, less is probably more in the case of the £70,000-plus M50d versus the less expensive 30d-badged models, which ultimately, is where our money would go. Take a look at the list of standard equipment featured on the M50d and model specific items aside, such as the suspension, M Sport differential and exhaust system, adaptive LED headlights and a Harman and Kardon audio setup are the only extras you’ll find over the already strongly equipped xLine and M Sport models.
The biggest sign of change over the X5’s 19-year lifespan is, quite simply, how much it has grown. This new model uses a new platform called Modular Longitudinal Platform, which it shares with the X3. However, there’s a genuine, visual gulf in size between BMW’s two longest-serving SUVs these days. You can even spec a third row in the new X5, turning it into a seven-seater.
Elsewhere on the inside, there’s heaps of room up front and in the second row, so five adults will be very comfortable in the X5. The dashboard uses BMW’s latest interior scheme, with a much more angular look than before. We’ll leave it to you to decide if you prefer the look, layout, and new fripperies such as the crystalline gear selector. But the huge 12.3-inch infotainment display is bright, sharp and fast, and while the new 7.0 version of the iDrive software powering it feels a little more complex to navigate than before, it’s still right up there as one of the best systems in the business. However, the new digital dials are slightly less convincing; Audi and Mercedes’ panels are much more configurable.
Around the back, the 650-litre boot is accessed easily via a split-folding tailgate, but it’s surpassed in size by the Audi Q7, the Volvo XC90 and the new Mercedes GLE, which gets a huge 825-litre cargo area.