2019 BMW X5 First Drive

Trivia question: Which vehicle does BMW expect to perform Olympian feats again and again? The answer lies in the cities chosen for the launch of the original vehicle in 1999 and subsequent generations in 2006 and 2013.

It is the X5 midsize crossover, which BMW launched in Atlanta, home to the 1996 Summer Olympics. It was a podium moment for the brand as BMW’s first foray into SUVs. The automaker used Athens, birthplace of the Olympics, to launch the second-generation X5, and for the third generation it was Vancouver, host of the 2011 Winter Games.

For the fourth generation, which arrived in in dealerships November 10, BMW reprised its international launch in Atlanta to assess how far the vehicle has come, some 2.2 million global sales later. The X5 has become the middle child in a family that now extends from the baby X1 and compact X3 to big brother X7 and the anticipated X8.

When BMW introduced the X5, it called its athlete a “sport activity vehicle” to emphasize its on-road prowess over off-road ability. BMW fans have embraced the SAV moniker, with the X5 becoming the highest-volume crossover in the lineup (yes, more than the X3), even approaching the mighty 3 Series sedan/coupe as the brand’s volume leader.

That said, BMW stalwarts might want to drop the SAV branding, given the new generation’s increased competence off-road. This added capability can be attributed to its migration to the new CLAR architecture.

The 2019 X5 is a Cerberus. One head remains a performance beast, with a 3.0-liter turbocharged I-6 or 4.4-liter twin-turbo V-8 and eight-speed automatic transmission. The second head is a surprisingly capable off-road beast with underguard protection, enhanced off-road modes, and xDrive all-wheel drive. The third head is the luxury beast with obligatory leather and wood trim.

Design-wise, this generation is distinguishable by a larger, restyled kidney grille and adaptive LED headlights or optional laser lighting. Taillamps wrap around for a 3-D look. The wheel arches are more angular, too.

North America gets the xDrive50i with the 456-hp, 479-lb-ft V-8 or xDrive40i with the 335-hp, 330 lb-ft I-6. Our drive was limited to the latter powertrain, and we found acceleration with the I-6 impressively strong, with a satisfying snort in Sport plus mode.

A performance plug-in hybrid with a six-cylinder engine will come later. A decision has not been made on adding one of the 3.0-liter diesels at a later date.

The X5 is downright fast, and its optional active steering contributes to stability at high speeds, where the X5 likes to live. Little steering input is needed and is met with quick response. At slow speeds, when the rear wheels steer in the opposite direction, the vehicle is highly maneuverable. BMW also appears to have fixed its mule-kick start-stop system, but it can still be turned off.

Brakes are subtle, providing full stopping force without grabbing. The X5 and 8 Series are the first to get BMW’s integrated brake-by-wire system, which forms the basis for autonomous braking and other self-driving systems.

The new suspensions will be shared with the forthcoming X7 and X8 large SUVs. The base suspension has standard dynamic damping, and the optional adaptive M suspension has roll stabilization and active steering to keep the X5 lively in corners with minimal body roll and understeer. The two-axle air suspension works to further differentiate the ride experience from Comfort to Sport modes. Ride height drops 0.8 inch in Sport mode and adjusts up or down 1.6 inches for loading. If you like your rubber thin, 22-inch wheels are an option.

But the biggest X5 improvement lies off pavement. The 2019 model marks the rollout of the optional off-road package with enhanced modes for snow, rocks, sand, and gravel, plus a rear-locking differential. Push a button to raise the suspension for better ground clearance. When the engine control unit detects water, the kidney grille closes and ride height is locked in place. If the SUV senses wheel slip on a rock, it adjusts the suspension to reduce the load in that area—the same principle relieves pressure on a flat tire.

Further helping off-road explorers, cameras allow you to see the trail when your eyes cannot. It takes a few minutes to get used to the orientation on the screen, but it’s easy to read with a crisp image of obstacles ahead. Active steering employs rear-wheel steering to tighten the turning radius for squeezing between trees where even a Jeep would have had to back up.

Hill-descent control worked seamlessly on a tough off-road course where you would expect to find Land Rovers, not BMWs. The hills were steep and rugged enough to make the X5 slip, but the system corrected again and again, keeping the crossover carefully on track. Trust the engineers in Munich on this: One driver panicked at some minor slippage, used the brake, disengaged the system, gained speed, and hit a vehicle at the bottom.

So yes, the X5 is surprisingly capable. But it also remains a luxury vehicle. Creature comforts include massaging seats that are heated and cooled, as are the cupholders. The steering wheel and armrests are also heated. There’s a wireless phone charger and soft-close doors. North America does not get the Sky Lounge panoramic moonroof with imbedded LED lights, but a regular panoramic roof is standard.

For loading cargo, you can open the top, bottom, or both parts of the split tailgate by pushing a button. A super-slick option coming in January is a power cargo cover that rolls back and disappears in the floor between the second and third rows. The cargo area has anti-slip rails and a deep storage bin in the back for the third-row seat, which will be available in December.

There are a lot of coaches and trainers helping this athlete compete safely. Driving Assistant is standard. Extended Traffic Jam Assistant provides hands-free driving at up to 37 mph while a camera monitors your eyes and tells you to take over the wheel if you don’t pay attention to the road. The X5 has cross-traffic alert, will adjust to changes in speed limits, and has rear collision prevention and emergency braking. Parking assistance goes a step further: It memorizes how you drove into a spot and will steer you back out.

However, the steering assist is a bit harsh in jerking the X5 back into its lane. The settings can be dialed back if you dig through some menus, but even the lighter response was more forceful than most.

The X5 marks the debut of iDrive 7, with control functions via the touchscreen, iDrive controller, voice commands, and gesture. Clever interior design allows you to rest your hand while adjusting one of the two 12.3-inch screens. BMW’s use of gesture control works—maybe too well. My drive partner was animatedly talking with his hands—and inadvertently changed the radio station and volume levels on the optional Bowers & Wilkins Diamond Surround sound system (available in December). A large head-up display makes following navigation a breeze—which was good because the map of Atlanta on the touchscreen was so busy as to be almost indecipherable.

The xDrive40i starts at $60,055, and the off-road package adds $3,950. The xDrive50i starts at $76,745.

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