BMW X5 4.6iS: The X5M that wasn't developed by M
This is where performance SUVs started for BMW
To say that the X5 has been a success since day one is an understatement. Twenty years and four generations later, BMW built over 750'000 SAVs (yes, they insist on calling them Sport Activity Vehicles), and they are not ready to stop as the SUV segment is still growing strong. When the automaker from Munich saw how successful Mercedes-Benz's ML-Class was becoming, they immediately wanted a chunk of this market they weren't familiar with.
BMW wanted their "SAV" to be good both on, and off-road. Back then, the manufacturer was the owner of Rover and wanted to capitalize on it by proposing a true BMW with Land Rover off-road capabilities. The execs from Munich had to respond as quickly as possible to the ML-Class threat and challenged the design team to come up with a full-scale model in only six weeks. Frank Stephenson, the designer of the original X5, said he drew the first sketches of the car in two hours while sitting on a plane. In 1999, BMW's first SUV was launched and started its production on US soil. However, BMW soon faced another problem.
By the same year, Mercedes-Benz launched the ML55 AMG, a 342 horsepower SUV that introduced the performance SUV segment. BMW could not just stay here and observe. In 2001, BMW released the X5 4.6is, a car equipped with a V8 engine that made 345 horsepower (how convenient). This first performance SUV attempt had bigger 20" wheels, more aggressive rear and front bumpers, and larger brakes.
Then again, the development of the X5 4.6is is kind of a funny one. When the ML55 AMG came out, BMW did not really believe that there was a market for performance SUVs, however it really kicked-off in the US. Even though the 4.6is wasn't developed by BMW's M division, it can actually be considered as the first X5M. Why didn't the brand from Munich want to involve M in the first place? Think about it, luxury SUVs were still quite a new segment for them, and they did not really know how it was going to develop. Having a fat, heavy, and high SUV with an M badge could have jeopardized the whole sports brand. Eventually, in 2009, on the second-generation X5, BMW finally introduced its first SUV with an M-badge, and the rest is history. Rumor has it that BMW turned to Alpina who had developed a 4.6-liters V8, as they did not have enough time to develop their own solution.
Compared to the ML55 AMG, the X5 4.6is was a fundamentally better car to drive. Unlike the Mercedes-Benz's light truck-based-body-on-frame, the X5 has a unibody chassis that offered better driving dynamics on the road. However, the X5 wasn't only great on the road and performed beautifully off-road thanks to the help of Land Rover. BMW a mix between the E39 5-Series and the Range Rover, and I think they succeeded.
The X5 4.6is still feels quick after all these years. Mated with a 5-speed automatic gearbox, the 4.6-liter V8 can go from 0-60 mph in only 6.5 seconds and reach a top speed of 149 mph (240 km/h). In terms of design, I think the first generation E53 X5 might the best looking SUV BMW has ever created. Style is subjective, so I'd be happy to hear which generation you think is the prettiest.
Inside, it's pretty much BMW from the early-2000s. Straight to the point. You still get a tiny and basic colored infotainment system with GPS on the center console, which I think looks rather cool. The seats, which are in supreme condition in this particular car, are comfortable, supportive, and perfect for this type of vehicle. Today, this 20-year old luxury seems pretty rudimentary, but it's a nice way to remind ourselves how luxury was done back then.
With the X5 4.6is, BMW helped to define the sporty SUV segment by offering a car that was excellent on both off and on the road. Even though they didn't invent fast SUVs, they clearly refined them. Today, nearly all automakers, from Seat to (soon) Ferrari, offer a performance "off-roader". Hate it, or love it, they are here to stay, and you can thank the BMW X5 4.6is for setting the ground for sporty SUVs.
I would like to extend my gratitude to my friends from Private Car Collection. They have been nice enough to let us review their car. They have a pretty cool collection of cars that you can see on their Instagram account, or Facebook page. Without them, this article could have never been possible.
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BMW X5 4.6is