As some of you may have seen, I played rental car roulette last weekend by reserving a “BMW 1-Series Manual or Similar” at a Sixt in the basement of an Amsterdam hotel with just two days notice. I ended up with a €98,000 automatic, all-wheel drive, diesel crossover for 10 hours. While I would have liked to have sampled an F20 1-series or some other premium hatch that we don’t get in the USA, half a day with this F15 still proved to be quite a nice experience.

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(Full Disclosure: BMW wanted me to drive an X5 so badly that they swapped out my €100 rental for one that normally would have been €300 and even had the gentleman at the counter greet me with “I am going to make you a very happy man, because today we have for you instead of a 1-Series an X5 for the same price.” Actually BMW had no part in this at all and I even had to pay for my own diesel.)

Let’s get this out of the way up front: “BMW X5 xDrive30d M-Sport” is a ridiculous name, up there with 1990's JDM classics like “Toyota Estima Lucida G Luxury Joyful Canopy,” but hiding behind the chaotic number-letter jumble is quite a respectable vehicle. I’m going to cover all of the standard review categories, but I only drove the car for a few hours over maybe 100 km (my co-worker drove the other 75), so this is really more of a first impressions review. If you think of anything I missed that I might have formed and opinion on, ask in the comments. Also, all of the photos are from my old iPhone 5S - sorry about that.

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Exterior: 9/10

Let me start by saying that I think BMW styling peaked with the E85 Z4 coupe and had been declining ever since. I’m not a huge fan of any of their current designs except for the 4-series GC... and this. This thing is gorgeous. The standard X5 is a good base - it has the right amount of bulges and creases to look both premium and purposeful. One look and you know it is from a luxury marque. It doesn’t hide that it is big, but appears almost shrink-wrapped over the platform. This M-Sport model adds just the right amount to look properly sporty (for a crossover anyway) without going over the top.

I didn’t bother to check if this brake duct was functional. It does look cool though. Besides on the wheels, these little ///M logos on the fenders are the only exterior M-Sport badges. I think this is a good thing, because this clearly is not a proper X5M.

In particular, the wheels are quite fetching - but stay away from curbs! The 20" Pirelli P-Zero’s (!) were almost a stretch fit to the rims, which is quite aggressive for a factory crossover. Especially on Europe’s narrow roads, these are bound to be completely curb rashed within a few years, but they sure do look pretty from the factory.

Each door handle has its own white LED. Inside the thin red LED trim lines wrap around. You might be able to change them to other colors - I didn’t have enough time to check all the options this thing has buried in its infotainment system menus.

On top of that there are subtle fender flares and some of the better LED lighting that I’ve seen. The front and rear bumpers are M-Sport specific in body color and have a cleaner, sportier look than the non-M models. Do the LED’s on each door handle that light up when you press the unlock button on the fob score points in Exterior or Toys? Who cares, they are awesome. Add in the thin amber eyebrows that blink as the handle lights fade on and everyone in the parking lot knows this car means business.

Another nice touch is the split tailgate that apes the original Volvo XC90. I’ve always been a fan of the utility of this design, and it also creates a functional line to break up the hatch that is normally either featureless or over-styled on crossovers. Obviously, it isn’t perfect. This is no supercar, and there is only so much you can do with a big two-box. The tail lamps are too big and look weird. But as far as crossovers go, this is one of the best looking.

Somehow my co-worker got a whole bag of cookies and treats from Hilton when he checked in, while I just got the standard cookie. Which was still appreciated after a 9.5 hour flight, but still less than a stack of cookies. The plastic on the tailgate is two panels that slide over each other to make a seamless ramp for sliding cargo like suitcases (and boxes of cookies) into the X5.

Interior: 9/10

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I’ve read a lot of criticism of the interior of this current-generation X5's interior. Maybe that is true of the lower-trims, but this M-Sport was one of the nicest cars I’ve ever been in. Let’s start with what struck me first: this is God’s own steering wheel. The size, shape, and padding of the thing are just perfect. The wheel diameter is just small enough to feel sporty without being out of place in a crossover. The rim is thick, but not cartoonishly so. There are just enough buttons to control everything without getting lost. Power tilt and telescope worked perfectly. And the leather... the leather on this wheel was just just so soft. One touch and you don’t want to let go. It just begs you to keep driving so you can keep using that steering wheel. Sure it will probably start to fall apart at 50,000 miles, but in this 25,000 km example it was a complete joy.

The steering wheel is awesome. The triangle on the wing mirror lights up when a vehicle is detected in the blind spot.

The “sport” seats were also covered in a similarly-soft leather in a delicious looking and smelling mocha color. I almost licked one at one point. (This is actually a “Mocha Interior Design Pakckage” option.) They are well-bolstered for a crossover, but not like proper Recaros in, say, a Focus ST. Which is actually great for a vehicle like this. We were only on the highway for an hour or so, but they seemed like they would be comfortable all day. They power-adjust in every direction, including the classic BMW extendable thigh support which is great for long-legged folks like me. Both passenger and driver seats get memory positions.

Everything was well laid out and easy to get to. The center console/arm-rests split open in the middle so that the passenger can place things inside the console while the driver still has an elbow on the rest. Cup-holders and cubbies abound, with well-damped sliding covers over many. In a hint of cheapness, all of the bins were raw plastic at the bottoms - come on BMW, even a VW Golf now has a thin layer of felt at the bottom of the door car pockets!

Interior space was immense - this is to be expected for a 5,000 lb. crossover, but it was well packaged. For an RWD-based vehicle, I expected more space to be eaten up by the driveshaft tunnel. The large wheels and rear suspension to make the cargo area a bit smaller than one might expect. Despite the high belt-line and large size, visibility is quite good. The wing mirrors have integrated blind-spot mirrors that merge seamlessly into the main flat glass unlike a Ford Mustang’s more utilitarian small-mirror stuck into a big-mirror approach. I never felt that I needed the equipped blind-spot warning system. A rare low point: the retracting cargo cover locks into place in a convoluted manner. After fussing with it the first time, I thought I was an idiot doing something wrong, but after finally freeing it, the sea of scratches left by previous renters proved that I wasn’t the only one. I suspect if you own the vehicle you would get used to it.

The “car in a green circle” button is actually the “intellegent safety” button. I have no idea what it does.

There are perhaps too many buttons, but, ergonomically, it is nearly perfect - everything is well within reach and easy to differentiate. The screens are all extremely high-resolution. I know that they have been around for a few years, but this is the first car that I have driven with gauges, navigation, climate screens, etc. that look like the Retina display on my iPad. It’s a small thing, but the high-resolution makes everything crisper and easier to read at a glance.

Mocha.

Even though they have no function other than to look cool, the thin LED strips along the trim are amazing. Yes, others have LED mood lighting, but very few integrate like this or wrap around so much of the interior. It’s a true luxury touch that really separates this from your run-of-the-mill Hyundai Santa Fe. The silver plastic trim that replaces the wood in the M-Sport is a bit of a let-down. (BMW calls this “Aluminum Hexagon”... it may be real aluminum but if it is, then it is encased in some sort of resin.) Yes, it has a 3D effect, but it looks cheap and seems easily scratched if the marks left by prior renters are any indication. It would be better off with just raw aluminum. The turn signal selector sucks. A light tap is supposed to do three blinks and a strong tap will set it until you turn or cancel it. It doesn’t click into place like a traditional indicator switch. The problem is that it is way too easy to tap over to “stay on” position. I constantly found myself indicating to move to the left lane then accidentally switching to indicating right when I just wanted it to be off. To play devil’s advocate, maybe this a big part of the reason why BMW owners never indicate. Finally, why does this thing not have a sunroof?

Acceleration: 6/10

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The version of the 3.0L inline-six diesel N57 motor in this xDrive30d X5 puts out 254 hp and 410 lb-ft of torque. (Oddly, this is the same one we got in the USA until 2015 that was called xDrive35d. It isn’t available in 2016 due to some issues with the EPA, but BMW claims it will be back for 2017. Europe now gets this 30d version as well as a 40d making more boost for 313 hp.) This is enough to hustle this 5,000 lb. two-box from 0-60 in somewhere between 6 and 7 seconds. It’s not slow, and it feels slightly thrilling at first to push something this big to the mile per minute mark in under 7 seconds. But it isn’t exactly fast - a Honda Pilot will leave it behind.

Aluminum dead pedal with an M logo. The actual pedals were just black rubber.

Of course, all that diesel torque is nice. Prod the right pedal at any speed or rpm and you get punched with an initial surge forward. A typical diesel redline of 5,000 rpm means that it dies off quickly, but there is fun to be had. Highway passing is especially easy - mash the accelerator and overtake. Still, I was left wanting for a bit more power in something covered with little M-badges.

Braking: 8/10

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The brakes themselves are nothing too special even on this M-Sport version, but they work well. We didn’t get a chance to test brake fade, or even really panic stop, but the pedal is easy to modulate. Initial bite was good - there isn’t any slop. They brakes just work. The few hard stops we did showed that they were up to the task of bringing the 5,000 of teutonic crossover to a stop much shorter than you’d expect from such a heavy vehicle. Still, from the M-Sport package it would be nice to see the calipers dressed up or discs that filled the enormous wheels better, even if it would just be cosmetic.

Ride: 7/10

The ride is compromised, but not terrible. On the highway, it is well damped. It is firm without being jarring, and you can adjust through “Comfort,” “Sport,” and “Sport+” with the touch of a button. Even in comfort, though, there is a bit more firmness to the ride than you’d probably like out of a big crossover. I imagine that BMW does this, on the M-Sport at least, to give a feeling of sportiness, but it seems out of place. It never gets crashy, though. You can tell this is an expensive vehicle, because the suspension doesn’t let in tons of noise or toss the occupants. There is no choppiness, though wheelbase and weight probably inherently prevent that more than suspension tuning. It feels distinctly German, yet the ML-class, for example, it more refined.

In the twists, it gets worse. The ride is still firm, but body roll rears its ugly head, even in Sport+. I realize that this isn’t the full X5M, but the trade-off for a firm ride should be well-controlled body roll. Sadly, this isn’t the case. It isn’t as bad as my Forester, but I expected more. In every corner you are reminded that this isn’t a car. Yes, a Miata leans too, but it doesn’t feel as bad when it does, because you sit so much lower to the ground. It makes you not really want to explore the limits of handling, because of an inherent fear that you might lift a tire.

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Handling: 8/10

And that body roll is a shame, because this big guy really does handle well. I’m assuming this is where the firm ride really paid off. Also, the P-Zeros have to help here too. The steering is direct with great feel. In Sport+ there is essentially no on-center slop and the response is instant. Turn the wheel and it goes. As much as I tried to upset it, I was never able to get a tire to squeal on public roads. Taking turns on back roads without slowing is easy. Everyone but those with racing experience are likely to get upset with the body roll before the X5 is truly upset. Believe it or not, this thing is actually fun to take corners quickly in. Add in the diesel torque and all-wheel-drive and you can absolutely blast out of apexes. Yes, as I mentioned earlier a Pilot is faster in a straight line, but forget about keeping up with an M-Sport X5 in most other crossovers once the roads start to bend.

But the handling isn’t quite perfect. The steering does feel a bit isolated. This is probably a good thing for the masses that will daily drive this car, but I would have liked a bit more vibration and feedback. Also, it is a bit hard to place the front passenger-side wheel - but that’s going to be the case in most mid-size crossovers.

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Gearbox: 5/10

Let’s get this out there: the gear selector sucks every bit as bad as you’ve heard. I never had any idea what it was trying to do. Executing a three-point turn in this (which you will be doing a lot of in an X5 in Europe, because it is too big for everything over there) is painful. There is no feedback - you just tap it forward or back and hope it does something. Sometimes it went into N, sometimes it skipped it. I have no idea what the point of the M/S mode is since the paddles on the wheel always seemed to be active. Also you have P for transmission park and (P) for the parking brake and some Auto H button that who the hell knows what that does. I also could never quite figure out how to use the parking brake, but I think the X5 just decides that on its own too.

The 8-speed automatic transmission is a stinker too. It shifts smoothly, but it just has too many gears. I’m sure they are responsible for the decent fuel economy and 254 hp getting a 5,000 lb hunk of car to 60 in a reasonable amount of time, but it just feels like too many. Yes the diesel has a low redline at 5,000 rpm so you expect some shifting, but this thing was shifting basically non-stop. It got old fast. Speaking of fuel economy, we covered 173 km using 16 liters of diesel which is 25.5 MPG. Not bad considering we basically left it in Sport+ and mashed the accelerator constantly. In the EcoPro or whatever stupid name it has mode, I imagine you could hit 27-28 MPG, which is fantastic for a big, heavy vehicle that still can hustle around corners when asked.

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Toys: 11/10

This X5 had BY FAR the most toys and gadgets of any vehicle I’ve ever driven - I couldn’t even figure them all out in the short time I had it...

Yes Nissan has an around-view monitor on vehicles costing less than a third of what this X5 does. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t cool and useful here. The high-resolution screen makes it easier to tell what you are actually looking at than in lower-cost versions (if you’ve used an iPad with a Retina screen you get the idea).

Here is a partial list of what I did find:

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  • Blind-spot warning - amber light on the wing mirrors and beeping if you try to change lanes anyway
  • Around-view monitor - put the car in reverse and not only can you see behind you, but all around you with green/yellow/red zones and audio warnings
  • Traffic-jam assist - the thing will accelerate and brake in a traffic jam... this was actually helpful when the A44 suddenly became a surface road in The Hague, but I was was too scared of wrecking the rental car to keep it on - it also seems to detect traffic jams and disable the engine stop/start tech when you are in traffic as opposed to at a red light
  • Power rear hatch... yes lots of cars have this now, but the BMW version seemed to close about 2x faster than most of the slow-poke systems I’ve used
  • Lane-departure warning - vibrates the steering wheel if you wander from your lane... this was actually pretty annoying and seemed to just vibrate for no reason sometimes
  • Speed limit assist - speed limit from GPS - as the speedometer needs sweeps past the speed limit it turns red and traces a bar graph from the limit to where you are... this did seem be not quite accurate in a few spots, but in others it changed at the exact moment we passed the speed limit sign on the road
  • Those individual door handle LED’s
  • Memory seats passenger and driver
  • High-DPI displays everywhere
  • Dual-zone auto climate control
  • Rain sensing wipers
  • Automatic headlamps
  • Etc.

I could go on, but let’s talk about the crown jewel of this whole car: Holy shit this HUD. Now, there may be other HUD’s out there like this one, but I’ve never used one. And now I never want to drive a vehicle without one again. This is not a traditional or low-cost HUD that projects a low resolution green dot-matrix display on your windshield or transparent screen sitting on the dash (think Corvette C5/C6, Mazda 3). To start with, the BMW HUD is a full-color high-resolution screen. Next it uses auto-stereoscopic 3D to appear like it is floating in mid-air at the end of the hood. I assume that is actually projects two images into a screen in the windshield with a parallax barrier to create the 3D effect. However the effect is created, it works well. The size and position are perfect for being able to look at it while still looking at the road ahead. I felt like it came right off of a set of a Star Wars movie.

This is what the HUD looks like from the driver’s seat - it is hard to tell in a still image, but it reality it appears to hover in space at the end of the hood. The speed limit is shown in the red circle (in Europe - this is the European speed limit symbol), but here in the parking garage the GPS couldn’t get a fix to know what the speed limit was.

The HUD is more than just a party trick, though. The function is fantastic. On the left, the current speed limit (based on GPS) is displayed. Next to that is your current speed in the classic white (day) or amber (headlights on) BMW font like it came right out of an E39. When navigation is on, it gets truly special. Next to the speed, a small bar graph appears in white that fills up as you approach the next instruction. On the right, a small map of the intersection/exit/etc. appears. What really struck me is how well it deals with situations like motorway splits, roundabouts with more/less than 4 streets going into them, turns not at 90 degrees, and wide streets with multiple turn-only lanes. There seems to be an easy-to-decipher cartoon for every situation.

Zoomed-in view of the HUD. It is difficult to photograph well, as the phone camera doesn’t capture the 3D effect quite the same way as the human eye does. The rectangle above km/h is a bar that has been filing as we approach the turn that is now 20 m away. Stopped at the red light behind the Benz, we were almost there, so the little sliver at the top of the graph is a visual cue that we are almost at the turn. At the top “Haarlemmerplein” is the street we need to turn left onto. The map just shows what you need to do in a simple view so you can focus on driving and not on the map.

As anyone who has ever been to Amsterdam can probably relate to, I was very nervous about getting out of the city center without incident before I picked the car up. This made it incredibly easy. We typed in our destination and just followed the HUD. At one point we were in the wrong lane for a turn and it instantly figured out the next best way for us to get to the motorway without doing a recalculation or making us do a U-turn or 3-point turn like Google maps sometimes will. If you’re at least 30 years old, you’ll probably remember the fuss about how bad iDrive was 15 years ago. This is not the same system. This is not the like the systems in GM vehicles that are a total hassle to use. This is fast, and good, and it just works. All the toys in this X5 actually help the driver to drive rather than distract. Welcome to the future.

One of the many cameras for the safety systems - in between the kidney grilles.

Audio: 9/10

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I’ve never heard a diesel sound this good, full stop. I’m not sure if BMW is pumping sound into the cabin using the stereo or other means. I don’t really think it matters though. From the cockpit it sounds genuinely sporty when you hold down the right pedal. It just sounds like an inline-6 (which it is). There is almost no diesel sound at all at idle and it ramps up nicely and smoothly to the (low) redline. With the 8-speed firing off shifts in Sport+ it can actually sound almost racy with just a hint of turbo woosh sneaking in as the revs build and a hint of blowoff valve snap when it shifts. Maybe I’m over-rating it, because I’m comparing to other diesels, but seriously, diesels aren’t supposed to sound like this.

Speical M-Sport styled key. Seriously.

The sound system was fantastic. It has lots of low-end response even at low volumes. It is helped by a quiet cabin, of course, but audio was clear at lower volume levels than I typically use, even with FM radio. The system appeared to be unbranded, so I’m not sure if it is just the base X5 system. Regardless, we turned it up half-way and it was too loud and still not distorting. It should be good enough for all but audiophiles.

Value: 6/10

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If you look at all of the above scores, the picture that forms is that this X5 is a pretty good vehicle, if maybe a little slow and with a dumb transmission. And it is a pretty good vehicle... but it needs to be for basically €100,000. The toys are great. The interior is great. It handles more competently than something this big an heavy has any right to. Yet, at this price it needs a little more. A little more power. A little less stupid of a transmission. A little less cheapness in the little things like the unlined storage bins.

None of this means that the X5 is a particularly bad value, but jumping up to the M-Sport package on the 30d seems a bit silly (at Netherlands prices this 30d had over €20,000 in options). The xDrive40d is about €4,000 more, adds approximately 50 hp/50 lb-ft, and hardly drops fuel economy. That should get the 0-60 time down to right around the 6-second mark which is more in character for the M-Sport package. At this price point, spending a few grand more seems like no-brainer.

In the USA, pricing is a bit different. Specifying an xDrive35i the same way (Mocha leather interior package, M-sport, 20" summer tires, all the driver assistance, etc.) comes to $76,000. Since the xDrive35d pricing started basically the same as the 35i when it was available, let’s assume it would be the same price. So it is a bit less, but, then again, so are all cars here. And we don’t have the option of the more potent diesel to add for slightly more, so it is basically a wash.

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Total: 78/100

As a closing thought, diesel vehicles this big and expensive still seem a little silly to me from a consumer point-of-view. Yes the mileage is a lot better - in this case for the USA it is 26 MPG vs 20 MPG combined when comparing to the xDrive35i - but at these price points, does saving a 25% on fuel really matter? In the USA (before the diesel took a hiatus), the 35i and 35d were priced nearly the same, but the gasoline engine had 45 hp more (lower torque, but the 35i would still win a drag race). That’s maybe a few thousand dollars over the life of a vehicle that is over $75k when you add all the options. I’d rather have the power. Of course, anything that lowers fuel consumption and gets CO2 out of the air is good for everyone. And fleet averages need to go up. So, I understand the need. And if you need a big, diesel, luxury thing, this BMW really is a great vehicle. I’d like a little more power and a little better shifter, but it does most things right. It isn’t going to fool you into thinking it is a car, and if you’re used to an E39 wagon there will be plenty to criticize. This X5, however, is still way more entertaining and refined than the vast majority of crossovers from the American/Japanese/Korean marques. It has an incredibly smooth diesel engine, great seats and a steering wheel, and the HUD alone makes it worth driving just for the experience.