Sometimes I get just so sick of Editor-At-Large Sam Smith. We have the same arguments over and over and again, like an old married couple squabbling over the right way to load the dishwasher for the thousandth time. The worst part is that he stubbornly refuses to admit it when I'm right and he's wrong.
Here's an example: What's the single most important quality that a modern sporting car can have? If you ask Sam, he'll give you this long, twisty answer chock-full of words like responsiveness and balance and flingability. He will bore you to death talking about "you can feel the diff working in Turn Blah Blah" or "that point right off the center of the steering where you can feel the caster" and a bunch of other crap that doesn't mean anything to me. Sam is very complicated.
Me? I'm simple. I believe in one thing and one thing only: the lap time. I want to go as fast as possible around a track. I don't really care if I do it with big wings or wide tires or suspension geometry. I don't care how a car's power-to-weight ratio is calculated—as long as it's outstanding. My unashamed goal is to win every non-competitive trackday in the United States and I don't care if I bring a gun to a knife fight as long as my hand never goes out the window to point someone else by. In my world, the stopwatch talks and all of Sam's pretty words about spring rate and shift effort can walk somewhere else and have a nice tea party somewhere without me.
Even a stopped clock is right twice a day, however, and that must be how Sam and I found ourselves on opposite sides of the fence for once when we tested the BMW M2 against the 228i, M235i, 1M, and E30 M3 in this month's cover story (On newsstands now!). He loved the way the M2 made big power and low lap times around the Thermal Club's North Course. I argued for the superiority of the 228i's steering feel and the brilliant way in which the lower-powered car lets drivers operate at the ragged edge of its very predictable limits. Eventually one of us was able to convince the other one, and we had a brief moment of cherished unanimity before Sam started babbling about how a KTM Adventure 990 is more fun to ride than a Kawasaki ZX-14R. What a ma-roon. There's no reasoning with the man.
As it happened, the M2 and its rivals weren't the only Bimmers that Sam and I drove around the Thermal Club that afternoon. BMW had also loaned us a bright-red X5M as a airport shuttle and on-track photography platform. I used it early in the day to take our photographers around the North Course so we could all learn the track a little bit before firing up the other cars, and before we knew it we'd upped the speed from "leisurely" to "grab that handle above the window NOW so you don't wind up leaning into the passenger footwell and throwing up."
I'm not exactly a fan of unibody SUVs. They weigh a ton—more like two tons, really, sometimes more like two and three-quarters tons—they're all unforgivably tippy, and most of them have no purpose in life other than to demonstrate their owners' unstinting attitudes towards conspicuous consumption. Anything an SUV like the X5 or GLE-whatever can do, a real wagon can do better. If somebody gave me an X5M for Christmas, I'd drive it to my nearest BMW dealer and ask if I could trade it for an M5, which is really cool, or an M6 coupe, which is even cooler. (Preferably one with just two doors.)
The moment that I gave the X5M full throttle on the way out of Thermal's final turn and felt all four wheels gripping the track with a tuned-up Nissan GT-R's worth of raw shove, however, I knew that I was going to have to respect this big red wagon even if I didn't like it very much. Obviously it has monstrous power; that's part and parcel of the "M" brand identity in 2016. I also figured it would stop and turn reasonably well, because the brakes look like they came off a 747-800 and the tires are nearly as wide what you got with the 2003 Viper SRT-10.
What I didn't quite expect was the sheer joy baked into the X5M's chassis. It doesn't try to match the supersedans like its M5 stablemate in terms of body control or rapid response to steering input. Instead, it displays a puppy-like eagerness to roll into a turn then bite. Call it Clifford the Big Red SUV if you must, but here's the funny thing: The geometries and distances of the X5 platform make it impossible to button-up the dynamic behavior in 2016 BMW M-brand style. Instead, what you get is a sort of loosey-goosey behavior at the limit like what you got with the M5 of thirty years ago. I have a lot of seat time in those old cars and much of their character, from the upright throne seating position to the hilarious way the headlights dive for the pavement under trail braking, survives in this massive truck.
At lunch, I suggested to Smith that he drive the X5M. "Is the timer hooked up?" he inquired. Then he went out to rail the thing around. It was obvious from the second lap that he was trying to set a serious lap time. Which he did.
Then he brought the X5M back to pit lane, all popping and clicking and hissing as the five-thousand-pounds- of steel and aluminum tried to shed some heat into the ninety-three degree air, and he started talking about loading up the outside tire and how the electronic steering was doing this and that and all of his Sam business about the un-measurable dynamic qualities of the vehicle. But all I could see was the lap time. It was good. Like, really good. Like, enough to run the M2 head-to-head. In fact, once you adjust for the air temperature at the time, it might even be quicker than the M2.
"If the lap time is all you care about," Sam laughed, "then this thing is a superstar."
"Well," I responded, "um. . . maybe the lap time isn't all that matters." The more I think about it, however, the more I think that there is an exception to every rule. So the X5M is my exception to the rule that lap time is the most important thing. Here's the problem; it's also great fun to drive, in its own way. Maybe Sam's right and I'm wrong. For once in our lives. I'll get back to you on that. After I get a chance to drive the X5M again.