David Thomson takes the new BMW X5 M50 diesel for a test drive and sorts out a bit of sibling rivalry along the way.
Sibling rivalry was the name of the game for the previous generation BMW X5, as its time on sale here came to an end in the latter part of 2018.
For years previously, the X5 had been BMW’s single biggest-selling model in New Zealand. But, as the last edition entered is final year on offer, an all-new third generation X3 arrived on the scene.
Larger and far more broadly accomplished then the model it replaced, that fresh X3 challenged the outgoing X5 on the sales charts for most of 2018. Indeed, it was only with the arrival of the first of the new fourth-generation model at the end of the year that the X5 clearly regained the upper hand.
The early signs in 2019 suggest that the X5 is maintaining the edge, through a three-variant range, comprising the petrol-powered 40i, and a brace of 3L turbo-diesels. Of these variants, the 30d is the entry point to the range, while the mighty M50d stands proud as the flagship.
Whichever X5 one selects, it is going to be a vehicle that is longer and wider than its predecessor. Proportionally, the biggest gain is in width, by a considerable 66mm between generations.
The other major talking point within the range is the latest M50d’s engine: whereas the old M50d relied on a triple turbo system to extract peak outputs of 280kW and 740Nm from its three-litre diesel, the new motor moves to quad turbo-charging and musters 294kW and 760Nm.
Priced at $177,900 ($42,700 more than the standard X5 30d), it was the M50d that BMW supplied for Drivesouth appraisal. And as if that wasn’t enough, the test car carried a further $4590 of extra items, comprising Arctic Grey metallic paint, an electric folding tow bar, and sun protection glazing.
With a particularly wide, deep rendition of the traditional BMW kidney grille and large air intakes under each of its front LED running lights, the detailing of the new X5 emphasises rather than disguises its size increase. Sitting on 22-inch alloys (the biggest wheels ever fitted to an X5), the M50d picks up various items of M-Sport exterior detailing, aero features front and rear, blue brake calipers, and a blue x-signature for its ultra-powerful Laserlight LED headlights.
While the X5’s size increase certainly gives it a substantial physical presence, it is also usefully deployed to boost room in the cabin.
Up front, the seating position is more upright than before, but without losing the luxury semi-saloon feel that has been part of the X5’s DNA from inception.
As well as being accommodated in large, generously bolstered sports seats, those up front have masses of head and shoulder room. The second (back) row of seats gets a useful space-boost too, while boot space is unchanged at 650 litres, increasing almost threefold when the back seats are folded down.
The luxury ambience that characterises the M50d’s cabin is overlaid with a strong performance feel. To this end, the driver’s seat includes adjustable under-thigh support, there is ample burnished metal highlighting, the steering wheel is M-Sport badged (though otherwise quite conventional), and the gearshift knob is patterned in cut crystal. From the large rotary controller for the ICT system to the small volume control knob for the system, key controls and switchgear, it all has a quality feel.
Easy ticks on the creature comfort list include heating for the steering wheel as well as front seats, quad-zone climate control, a panorama sunroof, and premium Harman Kardon sound system.
Interior technology also advances, with the move to a fully digital instrument cluster (not as customisable as those provided by Audi and Mercedes, but fine nonetheless) alongside a new and very clear centre touchscreen. The new version of BMW’s iDrive system includes a clever new voice assistant system, there’s the ability to use your smartphone as a virtual key for the car and — appropriate, given the BMW Connect Drive moniker — software updates for key systems can now be delivered remotely.
BMW has ramped up the X5’s driver assistance packages with the new model. Driving assistant professional takes self-driving capability to a new level, actively working to keep the car in the centre of its lane, rather than simply correcting when it when it tracks towards the white lines. The automatic parking system has been improved, too, and an associated system called reverse assist, that remembers the last 50m of the vehicle’s journey, can automatically repeat it in reverse.
There’s no escaping the fact that with its increased dimensions the new X5 is not, when piloted solely by the driver, as handy to drive in constricted urban environments. Certainly when driving around Dunedin one is always aware of its extra width, not least because of recent steps taken by our city and roading authorities to narrow lane widths on key arterial routes.
However, with reverse assist (not to mention improved surround-view camera displays) parking spaces that were relatively easy to enter, but normally tricky to exit, were negotiated with ease. All the driver has to do on returning to the car is activate reverse assist, and use the brake to control speed as the car steers itself back out of the space inch-perfect.
Round-town journeying on often poorly finished surfaces exposed an underlying brittleness to the M50d’s slow-speed ride. This was hardly surprising given its massive 22-inch rims and correspondingly low profile tyres. Lesser X5 variants sitting on 20-inch wheels should be far better in this regard.
Fat, low-profile tyres also generate a fair amount of road noise on the worst of our coarse-chip highway surfaces, but this point aside, beyond the city limits is where the M50d really shines.
Looking for a relentlessly effective long-distance cruiser? With benefits of a luxurious cabin and high-riding driving position, instantly yet effortless responsive engine and transmission, and a high level of cornering composure, the M50d ticks most of the key boxes. Economy is reasonable for a car of this size too, and the benefits of the X5’s xDrive four-wheel-drive system comes top of mind as shorter days and the end of daylight saving signal the slide towards winter.
Pressing over twistier routes, the positive impact of features such as active suspension damping and roll stabilisation and the XDrive’s torque-vectoring system are even more apparent.
So, too, are the abilities of a drivetrain which can propel the M50d from rest to 100kmh in a shade over five seconds.
One of the keys to the M50d’s smooth yet relentless power delivery is the sequencing of the four turbochargers: one pair operate low-down for initial response, while the other pair activates later to maintain trust through the midrange. Indeed, the only slight issue with the way in which the mighty engine performs is a somewhat anodyne exhaust note.
The transmission is seamless, to such an extent that the provision of paddle-shift controls is almost superfluous. Sure, I played with them on test, but there’s little the driver can really do manually to improve on the gearbox’s judgements for press-on driving, especially operating in sport mode.
Massive levels of grip under both acceleration and hard cornering are a further stand-out feature of the M50d, though one does eventually reach the point where the car’s more than two tonnes of mass overwhelms that lateral grip of the tyres. The M50d’s electrically assisted steering is keenly accurate, too, albeit lacking a little in feel.
All-up then, the M50d represents a fine introduction to a highly capable new X5 range. It may not be the most well-rounded of the three variants on offer, but driving enthusiasts will savour its dynamic focus.