(Special thanks to BMWBlog for featuring this piece as well.)
There's a lipstick sunset
Smeared across the August sky
There's a bitter sweet perfume
Hanging in the fields
The creek is running high
-- John Hiatt
To support the lavish lifestyle of a part-time car blogger, I spend more time than I care to admit traveling by air, hither and yon, as part of my day gig. Thus, the annual car trip my wife and I take over the Christmas holiday is one to which I look forward with abject delight, an opportunity to commune with the landscape and the country with the level of detail and intimacy that automobile travel offers in a unique way. Plus, road-food.
Last year, our trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico, began by air and ended up, unplanned, in a return drive home behind the wheel of a rented Hyundai. This year, we planned our trip to The Land of Enchantment a little better and decided to outfit ourselves with a little more style, performance, and comfort: A BMW X5 xDrive35d.
The third-generation of BMW’s largest SUV (until the X7 arrives sometime soon) debuted in 2014 and received a subtle mid-cycle refresh for the 2017 model year. (For the record, this particular vehicle is a 2014 model, but the changes from then to now are minimal enough for any conclusion to still be valid about the X5 you can currently buy. Why a 2014 version rather than a current-year model? Simple. This is my wife’s personal trooper and it was parked in the garage. So there.)
The lower-case “d” in the xDrive35d’s name (which looks to me like a string of letters and numbers a person should consider using for excellent computer password discipline) means “diesel” and that one little letter makes all the difference. In this version of the X5, BMW installs their excellent 3-liter direct-injection diesel inline-6 engine, both turbocharged and intercooled, which makes a modest sounding 255-hp and a stump-pulling 413-lb of torque. The single turbocharger is prone to modest turbo-lag when pulling away, but it’s a smoother engine overall and entirely loses the vaguely agricultural feel and sound of the outgoing twin-turbo model. With abundant torque, the X5 performs passes on the highway and around town with alacrity, which more than makes up for the relatively languid 0-60 time of 7.3 seconds. This is one of those “real world” vehicles that drives and feels much quicker than it is, which in a 5000-pound SUV is a delightful trait.
Diesel vehicles have always been a study in contrasts. Parsimonious yet brutal. Green yet butch. Coveted yet utilitarian. Ubiquitous yet exotic. (I’m speaking about diesel vehicles in America, of course, where the percentage compared to gasoline is minuscule. In Europe, where diesels have been the preferred form of locomotion for decades, none of the applies; diesels just are.) My wife has had two successive versions of diesel-powered BMW X5s, and I remember clearly when we had our first test drive in the earlier model. She was standing next to the vehicle when I started it up, and as its barely-perceptible ticking sound echoed from the engine bay, she paused, smiled, and said, "It sounds like being in Europe." It surely is an evocative truck.
(And to that point: Is the X5 a truck or a car? It all depends on your definition of "truck" I suppose. I'm old-school in the sense that I still tend to equate a truck with a vehicle whose body is bolted to an underbody frame; it has nothing to do with the presence of a cargo bed. Thus, anything with a unibody construction shouldn't qualify. To wit: A Toyota FJ Cruiser or 4-Runner is a truck; a Toyota RAV4 or Highlander isn't. But here's where it gets sticky. I also tend to think about it in terms of weight, and anything like the X5 that weighs north of 5000 pounds and has ground clearance enough not to bog down in snowy or muddy ruts should, in my mind, qualify. So, while the X5 is as unibody as they come and all gussied up to boot, this version is also a diesel, and, well, truck. If that makes no sense to anyone, well, it’s my “it doesn’t make sense” and I’m going to own it. So there.)
The drive took us not on the romantic (and crumbling) Route 66 of lore (which we can reach from our home with little fuss), but mostly on state highways and byways nonetheless (which often mirror, or even incorporate, parts of the historic route. It’s a route that reinforces the notion that Jesus Saves (a message that seems to support a great number of billboard owners). And it’s a route that makes the point that every small town in America considers their own downtown historic.
(An aside: If you want to know the difference adequate state road funding for road maintenance makes, drive west on Hwy 56 from Elkhart, Kansas, into the Oklahoma panhandle. The road goes from billiard table smooth, with an ample shoulder and creamy asphalt, to a pockmarked surface of craters and peeling layers of patchwork, as if the roadway developed a terrible case of adolescent acne; all of that in a quarter-mile of state DOT transition. Well done, Kansas. WTF, Oklahoma?)
The X5 surely must qualify as one of the best road tripping vehicles available, starting with the seats, which are supportive, massively adjustable, and comfortable in the extreme. We started the day with an uninterrupted 300-mile blast before nature intervened, and my lower back and hips (two typical problem areas for me thanks to an old motorcycle crash) didn't make so much as a peep. The heaters are well modulated and evenly distributed, and the Nappa leather is soft, supple, and pliant. Can we even remember hot spots in once-decadent seat heaters? And don’t even get me going on the magical wonder that is the heated steering wheel. Gloves are so passé. (My only complaint has to do with this vehicle's oyster colored interior, which offsets its general loveliness by being nearly impossible to keep looking fresh. Since every piece of clothing my wife and I own seem to be either blue or black, the light oyster likely wasn't the best choice. Alas, sometimes we must suffer for beauty.)
The diesel's torque makes short work of highway passing. At one point while my wife was driving, I felt a surge of acceleration and glanced up. She was passing a Toyota Highlander with verve; I saw 107 on the speedo before she backed it off (a bit; my wife is a charter member of the alacrity club), but amazingly, the diesel was turning over at a languorous 2400 rpm. Pressure combustion is fun.
The undulations of the landscape transform from gentle rolling in the Kansas Flinthills, to bone-flat in Southwestern Kansas and the Oklahoma Panhandle, with the scrub brush growing ever thornier the further west you go. New Mexico announces itself with a massive lump on baby-mountain as soon as you cross the border at Clayton, NM, (elevation 5056’) making a clear statement that the Plains are finished and the Rockies are about to dominate. The air takes on an ever-more translucent sheen, as the altitude grows and the volume decreases and the light radiates all the more warmly in the thinning air.
The X5 is a startlingly isolated highway performer as well. Even at speed, on small state highways with their inconsistency of pavement, the noise that enters the cabin is a minimal, dull groan, just enough to let you know that movement is taking place. It might not be quite at the level of an Audi A8 or the big BMW 750 I spent time with earlier in the year, but for a vehicle with as much internal volume (and potential acoustic resonance), the isolation of the X5 is impressive. Nice touches like the insulated (and massive) moonroof slider and retractable cover for the cargo area tamp down random sound waves even further. At Springer, New Mexico, we turned south onto I25 and immediately enjoyed a fresh blacktop job courtesy of NMDOT. The cabin got early quiet, and as I set the cruise on 85 and turned up the volume on the new Radiohead album, the only encroaching sound was a dull whoosh. The big AWD Bimmer readily gobbles up distances.
And those distances will inevitably outlast the biological stamina of the driver and passengers. Even at a rather rapid pace, the X5's computer showed that we'd pull over 550 miles on a single tank of diesel, and that's without really trying to stretch the distance. This thing will go all day, drive all night, and well into the morning. The beef jerky and Red Bull inevitably runs out before the fuel.
The styling of the F15-chassis X5 is to my eyes at the top of the heap for contemporary luxury SUVs. It’s a large vehicle, to be sure, but parked next to its marketplace compatriots, it’s amazing how the thing shrinks in comparison. While the Range Rover may win the prize for ultimately being the stateliest, the X5 manages to be at once sporty yet substantial, taut yet subdued, the roofline athletic and gently swooping, especially noticeable when parked next to more bloated truck-like creatures such as Tahoes and Escalades or the torqued-box creations from Mercedes-Benz and Infiniti. Some of the midsized competitors, like the Jaguar F-Pace and upcoming Alfa Romeo Stelvio, as absolutely dialed in in the styling department, but the X5 still stands out against its larger brethren.
I've written about BMW's xDrive all-wheel-drive system before, but in the X5 it serves as the perfect accompaniment to the Continental ExtremeContact DWS all-season rubber. I'm of the belief that "all season" generally means the tire doesn’t do anything particularly well, and with most of my own vehicles I insist on separate sets of tires and wheels for the two seasons, but in the X5 the xDrive system conspires with the versatile rubber to perform superhuman feats of traction with minimal fuss. Two inches of snow with a thin layer of ice underneath? No worries. A flat stretch of pavement in the Summer's heat and a triple-digit speed possible courtesy of a trusty Valentine One? Gotcha covered. I suppose I can see getting V- or ZR-rated Summer performance tires for your X6M for those silly SUV days at the track, but for the 99.8% of the rest of us, an xDrive-equipped car with all-season shoes is pretty much always going to get the job done.
We stopped in Las Vegas, NM, to top off the tank and stretch our legs before the final pull into Santa Fe, and as we stepped out of the truck, the sun dipped below the horizon line and the vista exploded into one of those quintessential Southwestern lipstick sunsets, both giddily and lonely at the same instant. Trees and shrubs lost their definition and became black silhouettes, while a joyous explosion of color was pushed down by graduated blues and blacks, wisps of clouds swirling and dissolving into the colorful morass. I remember a science teacher in junior high school, I think it was, teaching us about the colors of the visible light spectrum (“ROYGBIV”), and every single one of those was illuminated in the strata above the horizon while I pumped diesel into the X5's tank. The air immediately turned 5-degrees colder as the last vestiges of light faded to blue-black. It was still and stunning; this is why we journey by car.
Now for the pachyderm in the room: Is the X5 xDrive35d the swansong for big diesel SUVs in the US? Maybe not, but the diesel circus tent is winding down just as surely as Ringling Brothers’ recently did. The causes are manifest but can be distilled down to primarily two: Electricity and Volkswagen. The benefits and attractions of diesel engines largely distil down to fuel economy and massive torque. Electric motors (and hybrid powertrains) essentially mimic both of those traits and do so without the added (and significant) penalty of relying directly on fossil fuels. Which brings me to…
Volkswagen, whose shenanigans with their software-based “cheat” system, which spoofed clean diesel engines while spewing nasties out of the tailpipe for years, has tarnished the entire diesel engine industry. While Volkswagen shareholders shell out unprecedented fines here in the US and in the rest of the world, and while the FBI rounds up Volkswagen execs for very public perp walks, Mercedes has already dropped diesels from their lineups and BMW has slowed production (and availability) of those powertrains for the American market. Audi, Porsche, and their sugar daddy VW have, of course, followed suit. Dear Volkswagen: Thanks for screwing it up for everyone.
So, where does that ultimately leave the X5 xDrive35d? It’s powerful, elegant, sure-footed, and useful. It’s also a miserly, luxurious, jack-of-all-trades treat. But it’s one I fear may also be at the apex of a diesel-burning era. If inclined, get one while you can.