The biggest problem new BMWs face is old BMWs. Among enthusiasts, a new 3-Series can't live up to the E30 or the E46, and why does BMW bother with new M5s when it already achieved perfection with the E39? It's a line of complaint that nags even the most important people at the company. Just look at the frustrated comment BMW R&D head Klaus Fröhlich made at the launch of the new 3-Series.
"All the Australian, UK and American journalists say 'ooh the E46 CSL was the last real 3-Series,' he told . "I do not want to hear that shit anymore."
The X5 doesn't have this problem. Despite the fact that it was introduced almost 20 years ago, alongside so many beloved BMWs, the lineage of the X5 is never viewed through the same rose-tinted lens. There are a number of reasons for that, but ultimately, it's because the X5 was the first BMW that told enthusiasts in clear terms the company wasn't exclusively interested in sharp-handling sports-sedans seemingly tailor-made for them. It showed that BMW's interpretation of "The Ultimate Driving Machine" was broader than its biggest fans thought.
Throughout its history, the X5 never had to atone for any supposed sins BMW made in enthusiast eyes. It's been free to be whatever BMW wants. Approaching the 2019 X5, you don't think about the first generation; you just wonder if it's better than last year's.
The X5 is not a small car, weighing in at over 4800 lbs, but the 2019 X5 can actually handle. That's thanks largely to optional two-axle air springs, an electronically controlled locking rear differential, rear-wheel steering—where the rear wheels steer opposite the fronts at low speeds for added agility, and in the same direction at high speeds for increased stability—and a staggered set of low-profile Pirelli P Zero summer tires. On a backroad, the X5 doesn't magically transform into a sports-sedan—it's far too numb and big for that—but it doesn't amble along like a truck either.
BMW will offer a 4.4-liter V8 with 456 horsepower for the X5, but we had to make do with the six-cylinder 40i model with 335 hp and 330 lb-ft of torque at the X5's launch event. The engine is BMW's now-familiar B58 3.0-liter single-turbo inline-six, which truly is one of the sweetest motors in any mainstream car today. It's smooth in a way the V6s and inline-fours in the X5's rivals could never be, with linear power delivery up to redline and a broad torque curve. Some have justifiably argued that BMW lost the plot when it came to chassis tuning and steering feel, but it never forgot how to build a great inline-six.
Like so many other BMW mills, this engine is paired to ZF's almost-ubiquitous eight-speed automatic, which is calibrated to perfection. BMW really are the masters of this art.
BMW owned Land Rover when the original X5 debuted, so it made the conscious decision to orient its SUV towards on-road performance. Things are different today, so a new, optional off-road package attempts to put the X5 in Range Rover territory.
The X5 is very much a new-school off-roader, where computer controls replace traditional locking differentials and transfer cases. BMW set us out to sample the system on a fairly challenging course through the woods with rocks, mud and steep grades to deal with. The X5 had no trouble with any of it, not so surprising since BMW reps scouted the route beforehand. But the fact that it did so on run-flat summer tires is. These are the last tires you'd want for off-roading, but clever traction control and ABS programming meant that there were no issues.
Accomplished though it may be, it goes without saying that the woods are not the natural home for the X5. The suburbs and highways surrounding Atlanta were much more appropriate. The X5 continued to excel with a supple ride—even on 21-inch wheels—and well-programmed semi-autonomous tech like adaptive cruise control and lane-keep assist. Some time in the passenger gave me a moment to appreciate the open-pore wood that proved a highlight in this lovely interior.
The X5 features a new version of iDrive that offers more configurability than before, a new digital gauge cluster with the speedometer and tachometer moved to the sides to make room for more information in the middle. I didn't get a ton of time to mess around with all this stuff, but it worked well without ever being obtrusive.
In fact, a lot of the X5 blends into the background. The only thing that really jumped out at me was the engine, but even it seems to hide behind a ton of sound-deadening. It's a car that just goes about its business in a quiet, competent way.
Funny enough, that's what the original did too. BMW brought out a couple of virtually new first-generation X5s it keeps around at its Spartanburg, South Carolina factory. We snuck away from lunch for a few minutes in a 2003 4.8is, then the performance flagship for BMW SUVs. It didn't make us misty eyed as other BMWs of the era perhaps might have, but it's a nice truck. Reasonably sporty, luxurious, filled with tech that was impressive for the time and the high driving position that helped it become one of BMW's biggest sellers.
In fact, getting in the 2003 X5 felt eerily familiar after spending the morning in the 2019 model. The new car is, of course, years ahead in terms of tech, capability and handling, but they don't feel worlds apart.
It's strange. Enthusiasts complain constantly about BMWs not living up to their predecessors, while hiding in plain sight is the X5, which does the original proud. Maybe BMW enthusiasts will never be satisfied. Oh well. At least X5 customers will be.