I have long suspected that pickup trucks operate in largely the same capacity today as full-size American sedans did in the ‘60s.
If that’s the case, I think there’s an argument to be made that performance SUVs are filling the gap that muscle cars left when the oil crisis of the ’70s buried them like dinosaurs. Which is to say that I’m coming around to the idea of something like the X5M Competition, but I think it could be a little more like muscle cars—by which I mean worse.
There’s a lot to like about the X5M. There’s oodles of power, neck-straining acceleration, a lot of space, and some good looking interior fixings. In fact, there isn’t much to dislike. I just think that BMW hasn’t quite gotten the balance quite right.
A Good Foundation
Where does the power come from? Well, it comes from the heart, which in this case is 4.4-liter large and endowed with 8 cylinders. These are fed with enormous amounts of air being pressurized into the cylinders by a pair of turbochargers. The whole thing produces the power of 600 horses, unless you get the Competition version, as I did, which gets you another 17. As for torque, the engine produces 553 lb-ft from 1,800 RPM up to 5,690 RPM.
These are impressive numbers and, indeed, just the kinds to impress your friends with. Jump in with a buddy in the passenger seat, two more in the back seats, and all your golf clubs and you can make their old neck injuries from their football playing days flare-up. Moreover, you have a pretty good chance of breaking somebody’s clubs, too, because the X5M gets to 60 mph in just 3.9 seconds and another tenth faster if you, as I, are in the Competition model.
Engine: 4.4L V8 Turbo
Output: 617 hp, 553 lb-ft
Transmission: 8AT, AWD
US fuel economy (MPG): 14/19/16
CAN fuel economy (L/100KM): 16.6/12.1/13.8
Starting Price (USD): $105,100 (inc. dest.)
As-Tested Price (USD): $118,300 (est, inc. dest.)
Starting Price (CAD): $126,980 (inc. dest.)
As-Tested Price (CAD): $145,8300 (inc. dest.)
Pulls in the X5M are ridiculous and violent, as is the exhaust note, which yowls and howls out of a pair of 100 mm tailpipes. That said, though, a funny thing happens over about 45 mph. The speed stops being quite so violent and becomes a little less exciting. Of course, the first time you mat the throttle, you end up going way over the speed limit almost faster than you can react. The M sport heads up display quotes numbers that, were they on a ticket, would make your insurance provider rub their hands greedily. But then you do it again to show and it’s a little less exciting. And then you do it again and it’s less exciting again.
The diminishing returns, I think, stem from the simple fact of how high off the ground you are. It’s been said a million times, but when you’re in a go-kart, with your head about two feet off the ground, the sensation of speed is quite stunning. Thirty miles per hour feels like a million. In the X5M, though, your head is nearly 6 feet off the ground, so the sensation of speed is lessened enormously. The X5 is also quite large, which again separates you from the experience of speed. The X5M is a deeply fast car but it kind of doesn’t matter. It’s like asking for Wagyu beef well done. It doesn’t really matter once you’ve burned it.
That’s not to say that fast SUVs are by their nature bad, it’s just you’ve got to know what you’re working with and I’m not totally sure BMW has accepted this fully. To continue with the food metaphors, I always find Beyond Meat burgers disappointing because they promise something that they can’t deliver. The word meat is in the name but not the meal. On the other hand, black bean burgers are delicious because the burger can focus on tasting good instead of tasting like meat. I fully accept that big, powerful SUVs can be the car world’s black bean burger. With the X5M, though, it feels like BMW wanted to make a Beyond meat burger.
First, there’s the ride. It’s very stiff, which is fine under different circumstances, but which I don’t love here. Yes, it can be altered, but not quite enough. It is by no means back-breaking, but it is trying to convince you that you’re in a race car. Thanks to testing at Mirimas, France; Arjeplog, Sweden; and Nurburgring, Germany, the X5M certainly doesn’t feel like it’s going to fall over. In fact, thanks to chassis bracing, stiffer engine mounts, and an Adaptive M suspension, it feels very taut and stable.
Double wishbones with forged upper control arms keep everything where it belongs, despite this car’s 5,424 lb curb weight. You can even mess with the front camber if you’re brave enough, to keep the front end tracking correctly. It’s all very impressive and, honestly does a very good job of keeping the X5 steady through long sweeping corners. Its big tires and stiffness, though, combine to make something that is less than ideal on rutted or bumpy roads. The wheels follow ruts with shocking commitment and though the suspension isn’t exactly back-breaking; it is a little disappointingly stiff when you look around and see $115,000-worth of interior accouterments.
It’s not that I think people are wrong for asking their SUVs to perform, it’s that I don’t think anyone is really tracking with three kids and a partner. What I do think people are doing is passive-aggressively drag racing modified Golfs between the lights to quietly assert their dominance over the road. You don’t need camber adjustments to punish Golf owners for being smaller than you. And this is where I think BMW could learn something from Muscle cars. Leave the racing to the Pony cars and the tiny Porsches whose small engines pierce ear drums. You can have snarling V8 rumbles and big beefy highway pulls and kids whose lunch stays correctly inside.
Verdict: 2020 X5M Competition
What the BMW does get right is its interior. When I showed my brother the car, he went silent for a minute and then said “I’ve never seen a car that’s dripping in this much money.” Acres of leather, soft-pile carpeting, a loomful of carbon-fiber, and enough aluminum trim to build a bridge all greet you as you step in through the door, which itself is projecting a cascading light display onto the ground. The seats move in a million directions and massage you—a feature that I’d rather have than not, but which is kind of disappointing. This is kind of an aside, but I always find massaging seats disappointing. It feels more like ziplocks are inflating at different points on your back than a massage because, in essence, that’s what’s happening. That’s not a BMW problem, though, I’ve yet to sit in massaging seats that actually come close to relieving any tension. And nor does the rest of the X5M.
It never quite loosens up. Even in its softest settings, it’s still a little stiff, a little taut. Sure it has loads of room and it’s always ready to punch you into the back of your seat, but I think I’d prefer it slightly if the softest mode was a little softer. Then the overwrought tension of the M mode would feel more special and would make a little more sense. Then it would be like your friend who can handle themselves surprisingly well when things get heated but are actually a teddy bear with friends. Best of both worlds. The X5M is a little too much like the friend who’s always self-consciously talking about how their hands are considered weapons. It’s fine, I guess, it’s just not exactly the best of any two worlds. Is it even the best of one?
Become an AutoGuide insider. Get the latest from the automotive world first by subscribing to our newsletter here