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First Drive

BMW's X5 Oozes Power, Sophistication

July 26, 2000|MITCHELL SAM ROSSI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With the 2000 X5, BMW has hurled itself into the clash of the wheeled titans and the mighty (and ever-growing) sport-utility vehicle segment.

To avoid having its entrant being labeled as simply another gas-guzzling behemoth, the German auto maker has proclaimed the X5 a "sports-activity vehicle," or SAV, a category of its own invention for this not-exactly-a-truck, lot-more-than-a-station-wagon four-door, five-passenger machine.

Yet how does one prove that the folks at Bayerische Motoren Werke didn't just slap their button logo onto someone else's truck, pop in an aluminum V-8, dangle a $50,000 price tag in the window and assume that their automotive laurels would fetch them a slice of this market?

Except for the occasional pothole along Sunset Boulevard, local streets and freeways hardly challenge the X5's claims of responsiveness, stability and comfort. If this SUV--pardon, SAV--built in Spartanburg, S.C., wants us to believe it is a true BMW, there is only one road in California on which to test its mettle: Pacific Coast Highway.

In the confines of Los Angeles, the Coast Highway starts and stops like the morning commute. It changes names and personalities and is often lost under metropolitan sprawl. But at the end of the Santa Monica Freeway, it regains its soul.

Edging the speed limit, we aim the X5 4.4i--the bigger-engined of the two models BMW has introduced this year--toward the darkness of the McClure Tunnel. The city disappears as we tumble through this L.A. answer to Alice's rabbit hole, leaving a wide expanse of sea, sand and sea gulls visible through the vehicle's generous greenhouse.

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As we push north toward Malibu, the X5's distinctive styling--exemplified by the trademark twin-kidney grille and quad headlamps--seems made for this exclusive side of town.

Still, it is like walking a bulldog through a poodle show.

The X5 is thick and heavy, topping the scales at nearly 2 1/2 tons. At each corner it brandishes 18-inch alloy wheels wrapped in wide all-season rubber. The optional sport package offers 19-inch paws and even more tire. Yet the X5's short overhangs and seething power enable it to rally to the front of the stylish traffic.

The interior is BMW-familiar. Tan leather abounds, enclosed by acres of burled wood and accents of brushed aluminum. It is predictably luxurious, with all the expected amenities. Below the center gauges is the on-board computer's LED readout. A button on the blinker yoke indexes through average speed, fuel consumption and a profusion of other data.

The wider track of the X5 offers more interior room than the BMW 5-Series sedans and thus flattens out the dash, removing the driver's totalitarian command of the radio and climate controls.

Three air bags keep each of the front occupants safe. One is an inflatable cylinder designed to protect against head injuries in a side collision. While this is all standard up front, the door-mounted side-impact bags are optional for the folks in the rear.

Farther up the road, the rocky palisades squeeze the Coast Highway until the asphalt has the texture of wind chop. It would be a rough ride for an SUV based on a truck-like ladder frame. The X5, however, employs a stiff unit body-chassis construction, and the rigidity is felt in the vehicle's solid ride and precise handling. Incorporating a fully independent suspension with a multi-link, self-leveling system at the rear, this Bimmer let us enjoy our chai latte at leisure.

U.S. 101 eventually takes over but thankfully remains tethered to the weaving coastline. Traffic thins, and we have the chance to tickle the throttle. With a deep burble, the 4.4-liter, dual-overhead-cam, 32-valve V-8 brandishes its 282 horsepower. Immediately, 324 foot-pounds of torque are converted into forward lunge that is both surprising and delightful.

Finally, the Coast Highway sheds the last vestiges of civilization. We tempt the V-8 again by tapping the center shift lever into a small left gate. The five-speed Steptronic transmission seamlessly switches to sport mode. Another touch of the knob and it becomes an electronically activated sequential gearbox.

Here, an alarm would be a good addition to the X5's on-board computer. Passengers need to be warned that it is time to seal their coffee cups, store their cellular phones and find something to hold on to.

A quick downshift and a tap on the brakes set up the first corner. Soon, the tires are squealing in protest. The X5 dips and pitches less than expected as we pursue late apexes through the coast's picturesque corners.

In the canyons, the morning sun has yet to dry the night's mist from the asphalt, but the threat goes unheeded. The X5's new DSC-X all-wheel-drive combo (the initials stand for "dynamic stability control") integrates BMW's all-season traction system with anti-lock braking and platter-sized disc brakes.

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