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Future Classic Friday: BMW X5

Published 04 May 2018

If you know your E-numbers then you’ll know that the original BMW X5 was known internally as project code E53.

It was a bold step for BMW. The company’s first foray into an entirely new market, which has evolved to become one of its staples, with the current range including the smaller X3 and X4, the current X5 and the gargantuan but ugly X6, with rumours of an even bigger X7 due to appear soon.

In many senses, BMW was early to the party, predicting an evolution of the car market that would see increasing demand for performance-oriented SUVs. Indeed, in order to explore its options in the SUV market, it’s rumoured that BMW’s 1994 takeover of the ill-fated Rover Group was partly to learn all it could from the engineers behind the iconic Land Rover brand about engineering such vehicles. Whether these rumours are true, or the fabrication of Rover apologists, however, has never been determined.

Unveiled in 1999, the X5 was, for a while, the most desirable 4x4 on the market, despite the fact it wasn’t actually that sensational off-road. It was capable over rough surfaces and slippery tracks, but it was no Land Rover, a fact that poured foam on the suggestion that it was stealing Land Rover’s technology. Indeed, the only Land Rover-developed component it had was the brand’s Hill Descent Control.

BMW X5 (3)

Where it excelled, however, was in BMW’s traditional territory. Despite being an SUV, the X5 was a great road car, and in that sense it had a major impact on the car market. Smaller SUVs such as the Honda CR-V and Land Rover Freelander had already proven it was possible to build an SUV with car-like dynamics, but the X5 took it one step further, by creating an SUV that was truly sporty.

It had the power to match, too. The 3.0-litre six-cylinder petrol and diesel engines were fairly punchy, but the 4.4-litre V8 was something else – lustrous, warbly and powerful, it gave the X5 a distinctively muscular character that defined it as something a bit special.

Then there was the M-developed 4.6iS, which American magazine Car and Driver gloriously described as ‘the car that kicked the Mercedes ML firmly up the fanny’, the f-word in question being a bum in American parlance, before you send in letters of complaint.

Unsurprisingly, the X5 was a big hit, despite being one of the vehicles that kickstarted the whole ‘Chelsea Tractor’ image that would wind up the world’s environmentalists. By 2004, it had become BMW’s third best selling model, behind the 3-series and 5-series.

BMW X5 (2)

It was, then, a car that was right for its time and bang on target, no matter what negative perceptions it developed. For a while, it was the car of choice for footballers’ wives and city bankers, which brought with it perceptions of the 1980s yuppy image, but if anything in a more negative context.

And to look at it that way is to denigrate the X5 a little, as if you look at it from a pure engineering perspective, it was a terrific car.

In addition, it was also a trendsetter. Today, there’s a myriad of premium SUVs to choose from, and while traditionalists may argue it was the Range Rover that created the luxury SUV sector, which in fairness, it probably was, it was the X5 that introduced decent driving dynamics. Often copied, never bettered, despite what the purists say.

Indeed, just five years later, the Range Rover Sport appeared. An SUV that was developed to have peerless road dynamics. Whisper it, but Land Rover probably learned more from BMW than the Germans did from the Brits…


James0075    on 8 May 2018

Nice but early versions look like it borrowed parts, engines and interiors from an E39 5 series parts bin.

Nothing wrong with that as that was an excellent car.

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