2019 BMW X5 first drive review: The Trojan horse of tech

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To look at it, you could be forgiven for not immediately realizing that this 2019 BMW X5 is new. Unless you’re an automotive enthusiast, you might not have spotted its upsized kidney grilles with drag-reducing active shutters, its more elaborate headlamps, or noticed its front bumper’s air guide slots that route the passing atmosphere around the wheels to curb drag.

Indeed, while the 2019 X5’s exterior changes are subtle, much of what’s under the skin is actually quite revolutionary for the brand. There’s a new underlying modular platform, CLAR, that’s shared with the forthcoming 3 Series .

And yes, there’s also a new electronic architecture that enables the fitment of next-generation iDrive infotainment. Plus, there’s a spate of new advanced driver assist systems, all of which combine to help futureproof BMW’s most important vehicle for increasing levels of electrification and automation.

Oh, yes. I did just call the X5 BMW’s Most Important Vehicle. If isn’t already, it almost certainly will be within this fourth-generation’s lifespan. While that mantle has arguably been held by the automaker’s 3 Series range since the early ’80s, today’s new-car market is tilting ever more toward crossover SUVs.

To that end, the X5 isn’t just the paterfamilias of all BMW utility vehicles, it’s the become the nexus of a brand historically best-known for sporty driving. While BMW won’t say it, the X5 is very likely the company’s biggest profit center — if not worldwide, certainly in the US and Canada. BMW has sold 2.2 million X5 SUVs since the model’s 1999 inception, making it a cornerstone of the Roundel’s global business.

Slightly bigger britches

While the new X5 looks similar to its predecessor, it spans 1.1 inches longer, stands an inch taller and wears shoulders that are 2.6 inches broader than before. Despite the dimensional increases, the new X5 is still firmly in the pocket of the midsize premium SUV segment, where it competes with a murderer’s row of talent, from the Audi Q7 to the Mercedes-Benz GLE , along with strong but less-traditional picks like the Acura MDX , Land Rover Range Rover Sport and Volvo XC90 .

Initially, in North America, all X5 models will be AWD, with power coming via an updated eight-speed automatic transmission featuring new software, a broader ratio spread and redesigned torsion dampers for improved efficiency and smoother gear changes.

This is hardly revolutionary powertrain hardware, but it needn’t be — the outgoing X5 was a willing co-conspirator in everything from the Costco run to serenely blitzing down the Autobahn at triple-digit speeds, and these changes should do nothing to endanger that reputation. BMW quotes 0-60 miles per hour in 5.3 seconds for the xDrive40i, which is plenty quick.

If you’re a performance glutton, there will also be a turbo V8 model available when the 2019 X5 launches on November 10, and it conjures up 456 horsepower and 479 pound-feet to reach 60 mph in just 4.6 seconds, metrics that should slake the power hungry until the inevitable X5 M performance model arrives.

BMW has yet to detail the 2019 X5’s fuel economy figures, but if anything, they’re likely to be a skosh better than last year’s models. (For reference, the 2018 xDrive35i netted 18 miles per gallon city, 24 highway and 20 combined).

Strong first impression

My on-road time was rather limited for this early X5 drive opportunity, but there was very little to complain about dynamically. I found noise isolation to be very good on the region’s generally smooth (if sometimes coarsely grained) surfaces, with velvety power delivery, a compliant ride — even on my tester’s optional 21-inch wheels — and accurate, well-weighted steering. In some X5 models of the past, the latter could be unnecessarily heavy, but BMW has wisely resisted that temptation here.

IAS is a standalone option ($1,150), but for full effect, buyers may want to pair it with the X5’s Adaptive M Suspension option, which includes swivel motors that act on the anti-roll bars to flatten the chassis in cornering.

Surprisingly willing to play dirty

Among the 2019 X5’s updates to its running gear, its new Off-Road Pack may be the most unexpected. Even US BMW officials I spoke with said they didn’t know if X5 many customers have been asking for augmented rough-and-tumble abilities, but for 2019, buyers will have the option to fit a new Off-Road Package ($3,950) that includes an electronically controlled rear limited-slip M Sport differential, two-axle air suspension, four off-road drive modes (xSand, xSnow, xRocks and xGravel) and front and rear skid plates. The air suspension itself offers up to 3.2 inches more ground clearance than the base setup.

The X5 may not be as inherently capable off-road as something from Land Rover, but it isn’t as far off as you might expect, either.

All the screens, all the tech

The 2019 X5’s cabin is at once all new and immediately familiar, and that’s a good thing. Fresh touches like available crystal switchgear ($650), heated/cooled cupholders and additional open-pore wood choices up the luxury quotient, yet current X5 owners will feel right at home.

The success of the new X5 may well come down to how comfortable new owners get with iDrive 7 infotainment, which is radically revamped. While the old system’s functionality relied overwhelmingly on its rotary knob, this new system will likely have users tapping and swiping on its 12.3-inch touchscreen as often as they use the multi controller.

Whereas the old iDrive screen was divided among six panels (three of which were visible at any given time), the new setup uses a left-side menu bar with shortcuts and the driver’s choice of three different pane layouts.

In fact, the driver can define up to 10 pages of widgets to suit their preferences, including things like weather, news and online search via the 4G LTE hotspot.

The main map screen can become overly crowded with information, but it’s possible to pare back things like points of interest to make it clearer. And if BMW’s interface doesn’t do it for you, Apple CarPlay is included (as a subscription service — the first year is free, but then it’s $80/year thereafter), and the Bavarians still aren’t on speaking terms with Android Auto. Juicing up your devices should be easy, though, with available wireless charging as well as USB-A and USB-C ports.

Cloud connected

There’s quite a bit of personalization possible with iDrive 7, which is why it’s nice that BMW Connected Drive’s can match driver preferences to a cloud-based profile that can be carried from vehicle to vehicle by key or smartphone.

With this tech, you don’t have to set up your presets and shortcuts from scratch every time you get into a new BMW. (The Germans are clearly prepping for a future that involves car-sharing and subscription services ).

BMW’s Open Mobility Cloud also facilitates connecting the X5 to the driver’s other smart devices, including Google Home, Alexa-enabled devices and smartwatches like the latest Apple Watch .

You can keep the lane-keep, BMW

If there’s a fly in the X5’s ADAS ointment, it’s that its lane-keep assist is a bit hyperactive and in need of further calibration. Like an annoying backseat driver, it proved simultaneously overly vigilant and occasionally heavy-handed in its machinations on my drive. If the driver drifted a little too close to a solid painted line on the road, it tugged at the steering and its new by-wire braking, abruptly pulling the vehicle back in line — even when there was no real reason to be concerned.

This wasn’t just my experience — my co-driver noted the same phenomenon, as did other reviewers on our program.

Tiptoe through the options list

If the X5’s long list of available features have you picturing a dizzyingly expensive SUV, remember, it all comes down to how disciplined you are when ordering. The well-equipped base 2019 X5 starts at $60,700 plus $995 delivery, but my comprehensively accoutered tester cost over $81,000 as tested.

If you can avoid the option list’s myriad nice-to-have-but-ultimately-unnecessary extras like the Off-Road Package and Integral Active Steering, this new X5 can actually come across as quite fairly priced.

While not perfect, the 2019 X5 seems well placed to bridge the BMW of today and the increasingly autonomous, electrified BMW of tomorrow.

Editors’ note: Roadshow accepts multiday vehicle loans from manufacturers in order to provide scored editorial reviews. All scored vehicle reviews are completed on our turf and on our terms. However, for this feature, the manufacturer covered travel costs. This is common in the auto industry, as it’s far more economical to ship journalists to cars than to ship cars to journalists.

The judgments and opinions of Roadshow’s editorial team are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.

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