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Luxury SUV is roomy with a view

Long or short drives in BMW X5 xDrive35i are pure joy for drivers and passengers

"Our friends think you're nuts to drive in Europe," said my wife. "How are we going to find our way around, especially on those narrow city streets? We don't speak the language and they drive fast."

Mercifully it was too late to change our 10 day circular driving tour through southern Germany and northern Italy, passing through Switzerland and Austria. There was actually less ground to cover than all those countries would suggest, borders were almost non-existent, the highway system is absolutely brilliant . . . and we were driving a BMW (with navigation!).

The X5 xDrive35i proved an excellent touring vehicle, or as BMW calls it "Sport Activity Vehicle," that was perfect for our little party of four.

Good driving dynamics are a must for any vehicle with a BMW emblem on the hood, even a utility type vehicle like the X5.

It drives like a tall version of the 5 Series wagon with a higher seating position, more cargo space in the rear and xDrive all-wheel-drive.

BMW tunes its xDrive system to make the X5 handle with the steering precision of a rear-wheel drive vehicle. In normal driving situations most motive power is sent to the rear wheels. And it cleverly sends even more drive to the rear when it senses the X5 is going around a corner.

Not known for its offpavement prowess, although surprisingly capable, the xDrive system was developed to cope with slippery paved road conditions and also to offer a sporty driving experience.

And we certainly appreciated the extra traction qualities of the system while traversing an Alpine mountain pass (more on that later).

Under hood the X5 xDrive35i comes with a new and more powerful version of BMW's award winning inline 3.0-litre sixcylinder engine. It features twin, low-mass turbochargers, direct fuel injection and electrified accessory drives, providing a nice blend of power (300 horsepower) and fuel efficiency.

The other gasoline engine offered in Canada is a twin-turbocharged 4.4litre V8 in the 2011 BMW X5 xDrive50i. There's also a diesel-powered model, the X5 xDrive35d, with about 10 per cent better fuel economy compared to the gasoline-fuelled six.

Topping the line is the high-performance X5 M, which ups the output of the gas V8 to a whopping 555 horsepower.

The Looks

The X5 maintains that classic BMW look, which includes the trademark twin-kidney grille and dualbeam headlight clusters.

A minor facelift, for 2011, revised the lower front fascia with larger air intakes and the fog lights moved inboard.

The headlights are adaptive (self level and turn with steering) Xenons that are ringed with a cool-looking LED strip that serves as the daytime running lights.

The standard fog lights also double as cornering lights, when the turn signal is activated.

In the rear, X5 has a clamshell-style dual-door setup with a smaller dropdown tailgate. It serves as a loading platform that linesup with the cargo floor and it certainly came in handy when packing or unpacking our heavier suitcases. New tail lights have L-shaped LED lighting.

The Inside

Here's how an early conversation went after picking up the X5: "How do you open the glovebox?" - "Don't know, check the owner's manual." - "Where is it?" - "In the glovebox . . . oh!"

Easy enough after you find it, a remote pushswitch in the centre of the dash.

Other than its raised seating, the X5's interior ambiance is that of a luxury sedan with room for five and lots of room for our group of four. Even the longest drives were no problem due to the supremely comfortable 10-way adjustable driver's seat that had seat cushion extension, for extra thigh support, a two-part articulated seat back and a movable lumbar support.

No complaints from the rear seat users either, who took advantage of separate climate controls and wide flip-down armrest with cup-holders. Only heard the dreaded "when will we get there" chant once . . . and it was in jest, I think.

The dash is a driver-oriented layout similar to most BMW sedans with a large centre console separating the front seat occupants.

The console is also home to an electronic park-brake and shift lever. The latter looks like a conventional (mechanical) shift lever but saves space for important stuff . . . like cup-holders and an iDrive controller, which is a point-and-click rotatable joystick for electrical equipment, such as the audio, phone, and navigation systems. Quickaccess buttons now get you to popular functions easier and faster.


The X5 comes with some great active safety features, a new one being a lane departure warning system.

Any attempt to change traffic lanes without activating a turn signal causes the steering wheel to vibrate.

Even better, in my opinion, was the active cruise control system. In addition to setting speed, you can set the distance that you want to stay behind the car in front. It worked great on the Autobahn, where a moment of inattention at high speed could be a disaster.

My X5 seemed to have parking cameras everywhere. The screen could provide a top, front and side views, in addition to a rear view. All of which helped make the X5 a particularly easy vehicle to park, considering its size.

The Drive

We could not resist an optional (short cut) route on the nav system that took us over a mountain pass, the Italians call 'Passo d. Spluga'. Climbing to well over 2,000 metres (7,000 ft), it was awesome from a driving perspective, although the narrow road with tight hairpins and steep drops probably made my passengers a little queasy.

As we approached the summit the outside air temperature dropped dramatically and it started to rain.

Then it turned torrential and the road became a shallow river at times. With nowhere safe to pull over, until we reached the summit, we ploughed on and the xDrive system did its job and worked like a charm.

The in-line six and eight speed automatic are a really good combination. It can launch the X5 from a standstill with real vigour (0 to 100 km/h in 6.8 seconds) and at cruising speeds it still has plenty of muscle if you need to get pass something in a hurry. The top two gears (7 and 8) provide overdrive ratios to lower engine speed and provide better fuel economy at high vehicle speeds.

The electronic shifter takes getting use to. A button on the side has to be held to select drive or reverse with the flick of wrist. It's not the solid, substantial feel you get with a mechanical shifter, but you get use to it.

We depended heavily on the nav system and my co-driver became skilled at finding routes, places to stop and destinations. Turn instructions and speed limits appeared on a heads-up display directly in front of the driver, which is another good safety feature.

The Score

A utility vehicle worthy of the BMW badge, X5 xDrive35i is the funtodrive sporty alternative.

The Specs - 2011 BMW X5 xDrive35i

Trim levels: xDrive35i, xDrive50i, xDrive35d & M

Sticker Price: $59,990 to $97,900

Power: 3.0-litre twinturbo I-6, 300 horsepower.

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Fuel consumption: 13.0/8.5 L/100 km (city/ highway)

Basic Warranty: 4 years / 80,000 km

Powertrain Warranty: 4 years / 80,000 km

Rust Warranty: 12 years / unlimited km

The Competition

Acura MDX: $52,690 - $62,690

Audi Q7: $53,900 - $69,200

Infiniti QX56: $73,000 Land Rover LR4 $59,990 to $70,790

Lincoln Navigator: $73,100 - $76,100

Mercedes-Benz GLClass: $70,500 - $88,900

Porsche Cayenne: $55,900 - $120,000

Volvo XC90: $51,995 - $59,995