It’s fairly safe to say that when the experimental Lohner-Porsche became the world’s first four-wheel-drive car in 1899 its designers did not anticipate that exactly a century later another prestigious German manufacturer would launch a rather more successful 4WD that was — in one respect — technologically less advanced. That earlier car was powered by an electric motor fitted to each wheel, which is the sort of technology that manufacturers such as BMW, makers of the X5, are now beginning to look at.
Meanwhile, we can all feel pretty content with the offspring of Herr Rudolph Diesel (d.1913, presumed lost overboard from the Antwerp–Harwich steamer) that powers the current X5. The 3-litre lump is lively, flexible and frugal, offering 38.2mpg combined, 0–60mph in 8.3 seconds, a top speed of 134mph and emissions of 231g/km.
But figures are for those who figure. In the real world, looks and feel are what matter and the latest iteration of the X5 continues to justify the reputation it won on launch in 1999 as the driver’s SUV. Its £43,980–£58,175 price range puts it in a field crowded with quality — Range Rover Sport, Porsche Cayenne, Mercedes, VW, Volvo — and you’d need to drive them all for a proper comparison, but it’s hard to imagine any is more practical and road-friendly. It got the unanimous feminine vote in this household, not only because of the feelgood factor when arriving at Badminton.
What first strikes you about this shapely 5/7 seater is that it is obviously a BMW: spare, conservative, a clever mixture of flat and curved surfaces, a neat waistline, a touch of controlled aggression. The interior is spacious, very comfortable, uncluttered and ergonomically sensible. The sculpted electronic gearshift for the six-speed auto is simple and satisfying, visibility is good, despite fairly thick A pillars, and the whole package goes just where you put it. This is partly because of the 50–50 weight distribution and considerable torsional rigidity, though in the model tested (X5 XDrive 35D 10 Year Edition at £53,075) the multiple clutch distributes power to the axle that needs it most. Thus, you can go into a bend at the normal 60–40 front-rear distribution, and as it senses understeer it will change to 100–0 to help you round. And vice versa. Tricks like this mean the X5 doesn’t feel like other SUVs.
Not that it is one, according to BMW. They prefer to call it an SAV — Sports Activity Vehicle (for the origins of such terms and much else about related species see Giles Chapman’s authoritative SUV, The World’s Greatest Utility Vehicles, Merrell Publishers). They’re also keen to stress that only a third of the 62,872 X5s sold in the UK are used on the school run and that 86 per cent are bought by men in their forties.
I don’t blame them. This is a quality, capacious all-round car with excellent road manners. Despite the fact that BMW owned Land Rover when they designed it, and thus had on tap the world’s greatest repository of 4WD engineering, they made the X5 distinctively one of their own, intended to do best what it does most — driving along roads. Off-road it wouldn’t beat Land Rover up the Eiger but it was happy in Badminton mud and would be fine with the horse box.
Niggles? Well, only that. The engine was louder than anticipated — not too intrusive but a quiet, slightly tappety clicking — and I’d opt for the smoother ride of standard 18- inch wheels rather than the 20-inch, although they come with run-flats. Whenever you reverse or park you’re assailed by bleeps, but you can switch them off. That’s all. I’d have one.