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Monday, 04/16/01
BMW's X5 sport vehicle has brains, brawn and good looks, too

By BETH STEIN
Staff Writer

Sometimes good things come to those who wait.

That would be the BMW X5 and me.

When BMW made its foray into the sport utility excuse me sport activity market in 2000, X5 test vehicles were in high demand. Hence, I never got a first pass at the X5 4.4i, the V8-equipped debutante with a $50,000-plus sticker. Business moguls and professional athletes take note.

Instead, my turn came with the X5 3.0i, 2001's entry that adds to the lineup an inline six-cylinder engine and subtracts more than $10 grand. Newsworthy modifications.

What you get is still, in my opinion, the best performing sport vehicle out there at a price that better competes with Land Rover, Mercedes, Infiniti, Acura and other luxury SUVs.

The good news

Those of us who review vehicles frequently toss around the term ''carlike'' to describe sport utilities whose easy handling or gentle ride we like. After driving this X5, however, I plan to use the word more judiciously in the future. This sport utility doesn't just act like a car, it is a car. More specifically, it is a sports sedan.

This X5 is in a category unto itself performance-wise. It is sprint quick, has astonishing reflexes, settles down like a luxury sedan on the interstate and comes to a dead stop before most sedans. In other words, the performance characteristics that established BMW's high reputation see little compromise here, yet the X5 manages to incorporate those things you need to get through some mild nasties. It's a remarkable marriage.

The inline-6 produces a considerable 225 horses and 214 foot-pounds of torque. You may give up some of the silk that comes with a V8 here, but you hardly want for power.

BMW also adds a five-speed manual as standard transmission with the 6, something not available with the V8. Mine was equipped with the 5-speed automatic (a $1,275 option) that is as smooth-shifting as they come. But given the X5's other sport characteristics and especially its hearty acceleration, I think shifting through the gears manually would be great fun.

The X5's utility or ''activity'' characteristics, as BMW likes to call them, include full-time all-wheel drive that distributes torque 38% front and 62% rear. That ratio varies depending on how a variety of systems read road conditions.

Push-button Hill Descent Control takes over to help maintain speed down steep grades. Dynamic Stability Control keeps things from getting out of hand in corners. Dynamic Brake Control enhances emergency braking. It's a veritable robot of assistance technology. Yet it manages to leave plenty of grins for the driver.

The X5 isn't all brains and brawn, either. It's a good-looking vehicle, comparable in size to other midsize sport utilities, but a tad wider. Inside it feels every bit the luxury sedan, especially tricked out with leather, navigation system, heated steering wheel and every other imaginable extra as mine was, for an extra $9,200.

What doesn't cost extra, however, is the exceptional headroom and legroom afforded passengers. Even with the driver fully stretched out (and it is a considerable stretch), the backseat remains comfortable.

The bad news

For all that I adore about the X5, there are a few things that really disappoint me. No. 1 is cargo space, or lack thereof. With the back seat up, there is about as much cargo room as the average midsize sedan, 16 cubic feet to be exact. It doesn't look promising for family vacations.

Second, steering feels really heavy when you're making slow maneuvers like parking. I mean really heavy.

I also find the X5's ride to be somewhat harsh. Although it's pure cream on the highway, the typical urban pavement blip jabs the cabin. I didn't take the X5 off-road, but I can only imagine that this would escalate. It's the tradeoff for this vehicle's amazing sport manners on-road.

Finally, I appreciate how valuable these lovely vehicles are and how owners want to protect them. But the security system is too touchy. I couldn't lock my dog safely in the car to run a quick errand without her triggering the alarm. And what good is an activity vehicle if you can't take your dog?

Gas mileage

EPA rated at 15 mpg city, 20 highway.

Price

Manufacturer's base, $38,900; price as tested, $48,810

Is it worth it?

Even with the six-cylinder engine, manual transmission and none of the options mine had, the X5 3.0i is still (A) not cheap and (B) the best-behaving, most fun-to-drive vehicle of its kind out there.

It's not the family travel wagon you hoped for, nor is it the drag-it-through-the-backwoods sport utility you envisioned. But it is more sports car than you ever thought possible in such a vehicle.

Beth Stein's reviews appear Mondays in The Tennessean. She can be reached at steincol@aol.com and also can be seen weekends on TNN's Car & Driver Television.






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