Review: The BMW X5 Diesel. Over Hills and Through Snowy Ass Woods.
“Did you tell anyone we were coming here today?”
“I was just going to ask you that! And…..no, I didn’t. Did you?”
We shared a long silence, both mentally flashing forward to a broken car, freezing temperatures and no food. We were 7,000 feet above sea level on the Wheeler Pass trail in Nevada. It was snowing, so the pointy rocks- which ranged in size from grenade to tool box- were becoming hidden from view. We were wearing jeans and hoodies. The closest thing to “supplies” were a tire repair kit, 2 half-full Monster Rehabs and stomachs full of Pahrump’s finest Subway. Popping a tire on this 2011 BMW X5 diesel would surely result in cannibalism, and Thad is bigger than me.
Let me back up.
The Optima Ultimate Streetcar Invitational was coming up. We couldn’t go to SEMA so we planned to meet Matt at the track in Pahrump the night before. Modern diesel cars had caught my interest during a shoot for The Car Show when Matt tried to drive 800-mile a Mercedes E350 Bluetec from Mexico to Oregon on one tank. I wanted to further explore new diesels, so I reached out to BMW. They had an 2011 X5d for us…in San Francisco. Oh well. A diesel SUV made perfect sense to me on paper. Thrust and efficiency with lots of space and the ever-sought
which I don’t care about high seating point? I bought my ticket.
I loved the original X5 and was happy to see BMW stayed close to the original design. It’s like an old band that’s been fine-tuned for a modern audience without losing their early sound. It still looks like an SUV (SAV in this case), with short over hangs and good ground clearance (8.7″, same as a Jeep Grand Cherokee). Aside from a tiny badge on the side and a low red line on the tach, there’s nothing advertising it’s a special X5. I actually wish it were more obvious in the hope it would convert some people. But we wouldn’t want anyone to know our car uses that dirty, different fuel, would we?
Hidden behind that small badge is a 3.0-liter Inline-6. With 2 turbos it brings the gift of torques; 425 of them at 1,750RPM. It has to move 5,192 lbs with 265HP so 0-60 takes just under 7 seconds, but it feels much faster. No one will complain, because most people equate feeling torque with speed. (For proof, drive my mom around, just bring Xanax and ear plugs.) Controlling it is a 6-speed automatic and despite lacking paddles it’s responsive enough. I used the stick-controlled manual mode a lot to downshift, saving fuel and brake pads.
The interior is the BMW style we’re familiar with, this time done in soft leather with wood accents. It feels spacious and well-equipped; Luxurious without feeling like the off limits white living room at grandma’s. It’s perfect for a car that runs and rides as smooth as this. I was happy to see the iDrive has evolved from its original pond scum to functioning helper monkey. In the X5 I had no problem synching, adjusting or NAV-ing. Did I mention the stereo BUMMMPS?! God damn it’s like a home theater system from Beats-By-Dre. I don’t seek out nice sound but I absolutely appreciate it and any audiophile will be quite content.
One of few complaints goes to the seats, which don’t have enough lower back support. It was like sleeping on a bed that’s barely too firm. In 2000 miles, I wasn’t uncomfortable but it wasn’t like home. For an example of what home feels like, sit in a Mercedes.
Our car also came with the optional Heads Up Display. That’s good, because the steering wheel blocks the speedo from 40-120mph. I’m 5’11” but unless I wanted to drive with the wheel up high and feel like an 8 year old the speedo might as well be gone. I guess in Germany you’re either going under 40 or over 120. Bastards. But without that issue I wouldn’t have spent so much time looking at the HUD, which was excellent. With NAV arrows, cruise control status and speed it’s the perfect tool on highways and helps in canyons at night too. Even if they fix the wheel issue I’d use the display.
Altogether I was reminded why BMWs are expensive, and it felt worth it. My introduction to the X5 came with a 5-hour drive down to Los Angeles, and despite my mom’s best efforts (she rode with me) I found a way to enjoy the car.
Jump forward a week, and it’s the Friday before Optima. The plan was to drive to Spring Mountain Motorsports Ranch to meet Matt. Thad had convinced me we should leave early and “explore Pahrump.” Bullshit. I knew what he was doing. When he first heard, “X5” he suggested “exploring” Wheeler Pass, a 24-mile off-road trail that runs from Pahrump, NV to a spot just north of Vegas. He’d mentioned it almost weekly.
(You see, Thad is a dreamer; brilliant yet sometimes disconnected from reality. He once asked if we could get a new car by telling the manufacturer we intended to break it, calling it a “durability test.” He was serious.)
(A quick spin of Wheeler Pass trail via helmet cam.)
I said no. “It says it’s safe for production vehicles!” he said, showing a picture of an FJ Cruiser, failing to recognize the difference in the cars. “You’re always ranting about how crossovers and whatever have no spine, right? Let’s find out.” He had a point. I didn’t want to take a car I didn’t own as nice as this off-road but I love a driving adventure of any kind. I’d spent too much of my youth exposing borrowed cars to the elements to ignore the fun in his idea. Together we’re like 10 year olds: One builds the ramp; the other rides his bike at it. Well, it is Nevada. It will just be a sunny dirt road surrounded by more sun and dirt.
We arrived in Pahrump at 10:30AM. “Let’s just check the road out, what else are we going to do?” I felt like a guy that agreed to go to a strip club but said I wouldn’t open my eyes and given the option between spending 8 hours in Pahrump or risking press access and death I choose the latter. We agreed if it got too hairy, we’d turn around.
Wheeler starts as a fire road heading directly between two small mountains. The X5 handled this with flying colors. It felt completely attached to the road, even at 60MPH. A rocky hill several hundred feet tall presented itself. Torquey engine, AWD, let’s see what you got. Even without knobby tires or locking diffs or some name referring to a desert (check out my new Sudanihari!) the X5 chugged up the hill. Wheel spin was there but it confidently clawed up with surprising composure. The torque from the turbo-diesel made the car feel like a giant chair lift. 28MPG highway (observed) and now this? I am a fan.
We got out to look back down. Things look steeper from the top. Like the climb, the descent was drama-free. Hit the hill descent and it takes care of things while you steer. Taking your foot off the pedals while off-roading is the definition of counter-intuitive but it works incredibly well. We arrived safely at the bottom with a new confidence. This wasn’t just a traveling movie theater for kids or a booster seat. This thing was legit. Feeling brave, we headed up the road.
Then it started snowing.
Thad was elated. “Snow! First snow of the year! How awesome is this!” I wasn’t. I like snow driving more than sex but this wasn’t even really a road. This was a 10-foot wide off-camber minefield and each mine was wearing the name tag of BMW’s press agent. Anyone who has driven a crowned road on ice knows where your car wants to slide. In this case that would be down the big mountain into the abyss known as “You fucking idiots.” Yay snow. Another element added to his idea. But, amazingly, the tires didn’t even notice the snow. The car just, drove. We cautiously pressed on.
The road changed from road with light rocks to rocks with light road. Long ago, a rock the size of a pomegranate seed once went between my tread and popped a tire; That thought haunted me for the next 6 hours. I crept forward as slow as possible in order to put the minimal amount of force on the tires. Thad and I worked as a team, spotting obstacles and deciding the best path.
Our primary concern was clearance. Ground clearance is to rocks what bullets are to killing zombies; you can’t have too much. But between the AWD system, careful wheel placement and hill descent, the X5 was fine. Hell, it was practically asleep. Each passing mile encouraged us; I still expected something impassable around each bend.
Off-roading in the snow is a very cool experience. There’s a stillness around you, making you feel more alone. The road looked like cookies and cream ice cream; a white blanket dotted with the tips of brown icebergs. Off-roading usually involves sunny drives with the windows (or top) down. This was almost submarine-like. Using the parking cameras, sensors and side mirrors, we could see everything around us. I love you, electricity.
The summit finally came. 7,700 feet. Halfway. We were giddy with excitement. I thanked the car. This quiet, fuel-efficient cruiser was as steady and bored as a Sherpa on a stair-master. The question was: turn around or continue? Foolishly, my parents let me read books like Into Thin Air and Call of the Wild. Would Jack London quit half way and turn his $50k luxury truck around? Hell no!
The snow fell harder, with bigger flakes. Ironically, the inside was as comfortable as a 4-star hotel. Seat warmers, soft leather,
SPICE radio soft Jazz. 100 years ago people risked death on this road. Now we’re doing it in a car that treats your ass like an old Italian barber treats your face before a shave. Incredible. It was here that we realized we hadn’t told anyone what we were doing. We had BMW’s SOS system if we needed it, but it was more a moment of realizing how stupid impulsive we can be.
Downhill brought the challenge of momentum. I’d like to reiterate the skill of descent mode. Snow, wet rocks, didn’t matter. The car can react faster than your foot. I only took over when 4MPH felt too fast for particularly nasty rocks, or to stop and survey our next move. Snow? Rocks? X5 no care.
And then, suddenly, the snow lightened up, the clouds dissipated, the rocks shrank. A fence, mud, tire tracks! We were out. We had gone 24 miles over a snowy, rocky mountain in a vehicle usually reserved for trips to Whole Foods and personal training sessions. We passed an F-150 and the driver’s face mimicked our thoughts, “The hell these boys doin’ here?”
We had come here to find out if there was any “utility” left in the world. Crossovers are the new SUV, and I was convinced they were only as capable as a passenger car. But this 2011 BMW X5 is better than previous generations. I felt confident on highways, in canyons and over rocky, snow-covered gremlins. The 3.0 liter I-6 TT is just a phenomenal motor. It’s great everywhere. With all that torque I’d even say it’s fun. On cold days, upon startup it’s barely louder than a gas engine and only near idle. Thanks to smart people diesels are now clean, quiet and even more efficient. People worry about finding diesel, but 28MPG gives you a 600 mile range and that’s plenty of time to look. V-8 torque, 4-cylinder efficiency and inline-6 smoothness; It is the perfect engine for not only this kind of car, but plenty more.
No one will take their X5 where we did (sadly), but I’m glad I did . I like knowing a car can handle more than I ever want to. It’s like knowing how to throw a punch. Ours was priced at almost $60,000, but I could easily do without options like the cameras and sunroof. For around $50,000, you get a car that can do anything people might think of, and do it well. Top to bottom, this is a great car.
- Zack K