BMW always seems to have great driving event Father's Day weekend in the Boston area. The venue Gillette Stadium's (where the New England Patriots play) massive parking lot. The indoor area had couches to relax on, a small snack area with excellent brownies and chocolate chip cookies to give you enough energy for the event, a display of a BMW racing car, and a small putting green with free golf tees:
There was a cutaway of the X5 chassis with descriptions of the reinforcements they added (note that it still has a relatively large D pillar that limits visibility, but it handles rear end collisions better):
Outside was a old demo of the X5's ability to climb with only one wheel with traction, hill ascent braking, hill descent, and entry/exit angles:
along with the usual demo of being able to climb an obstacle without all the torque going to the wheel with no traction:
The autocross was done on two separate courses (they split each session into a blue and red crowd). The two tents are visible in the photos below. There was also a the Susan G Komen tent with pink flags where you can test drive BMW's lineup and BMW will donate money towards the foundation for every mile you drive:
As you may have noticed if you looked carefully at the cars, the event was a different format than previous X3/X5 events. Instead of just focusing on the X3/X5 and having a friendly team rally competition to see which team was the best, BMW actually brought a few competitors that people could push through the same course. The competitors BMW used were the ML500 with the Sport Package and the airmatic suspension, the Lexus LX470, and the Volvo XC90 V8 with the Sports package. The X5 was the V8 version. You alternated between X5, competitor, X5, competitor, etc. until you test drove all the competitors. Each time you drove, you got to do two laps in each car (you ended up trying the X5 3 times). Once you finished, everyone did a comparison in the tent. Afterwards, you could hop in with the instructors as they did hot laps (picture 3 X5's going at full speed with half a car length between them) in what felt like a wild amusement park ride :-)
Of the competitors, the Lexus LX470 was voted unanimously as the worst performer. It wallowed like a land boat. The ESP was loud (click/clack) and aggressive (and you get a dinging noise from the dash when it kicks in to warn you that you're pushing it too hard :-) However, it had the largest interior of the bunch. I found it extremely hard to push through corners without kicking in ESP, although the brakes seemed decent. Acceleration was hesitant (you could feel almost a 1sec gap between stomping on the accelerator and the engine revving).
The next worst was a tossup between the ML500 and XC90 (mixed feelings from the participants). The XC90 felt like it drove flatter than the ML500, but because it is mostly FWD until it needs to kick power to the rear wheels and it's front heavy, it's cornering ability was not very predictable. Your seating position feels lower than the rest (feels more like a station wagon), so that may have explained why it felt flatter.
I originally thought the ML500 was crippled by not having airmatic, but it turns out anything w/ the Sport/Comfort button has airmatic. As I've noted in the W164 M-Class driving event writeup, the non-airmatic suspension wallows too much, even when coupled with "sport" mode; I'm surprised the ML500 w/ airmatic still has so much body roll. The ML500 was slightly more predictable than the XC90, but I was embarrassed when I took out the most cones of anyone in the session when I pushed the ML500 into a corner a bit too hard :-) The ML500 did feel more refined than the others when hitting the uneven pavement on the course.
How each SUV feels is visible in the cornering behavior on the track:
The X5 easily was the best autocrossing SUV/SAV at the event. I was surprised that it feels larger inside than the ML500 even though they're roughly the same size outside. The X5 was several hundred pounds heavier than the competitors, but their new V8 engine (no diesel unfortunately) made up for it with 350HP and 350 lb-ft of torque using an interesting variable intake/exhaust system. It also has configurable sway bars that help keep it flat (BMW claims they added some roll to make it feel normal on curves instead of just cornering flat). The X5 no longer relies solely on braking to drive torque to different wheels; it includes a center differential to push torque 100% to front/rear and the braking system is only used to control left/right slippage. They've added other technologies like a heads-up display of speed and navigational indicators (not visible if you have polarized sunglasses as is the case w/ most HUD displays). The power steering system is not just speed-variable, but it seems to vary boost depending on your braking and dynamic body roll situation; I found it slightly disorienting at first and oversteered like crazy because it seemed more sensitive than even a variable assist system, but it was very intuitive and responsive on the following laps. In sports mode, the engine also revs higher through curves because it thinks you'll punch the throttle when you get out of it (I also noticed this a lot more at the X3 event). The new X5 is a much improved version of the previous X5.
Since Mercedes has decided to go for the Sports segment with the W164, the X5 is definitely more considerable competition than it was for the W163 which was in a different segment. The only SUV that might be able to best the X5 is the Porsche Cayenne IMHO. The other "competitors" that BMW brought were in different segments. The LX470 is for people who want something larger that can go off-road (the LX470 has a disconnecting stabilizer bar for more wheel articulation and a body/frame design with a low range transmission). The XC90 is more for the person who wants a station wagon that can handle snow slightly better with the increased ground clearance (in the same category as the Acura MDX and Lexus RX300). The X5's pricing is comparable to the W164 M-Class and the interior materials seem comparable as well. The X5 has a 3rd row of seats which the W164 dropped, although it wouldn't fit adults comfortably for very long with the minimal legroom:
The largest X5 negative is maintanability. You're pretty much stuck with getting it serviced at the dealer for large amounts of money because of the layout of everything under the hood. Because it's a unibody car, they stuck the engine down as low and back as possible to get the center of gravity low (no frame to bring the center of gravity lower) and centered to make it feel balanced. As a result, you have to disassemble quit a bit (like the airbox over the engine) to change spark plugs or replace timing belts or the battery; I thought the W164's battery under the passenger seat was bad, but this is much worse as you can see from these pictures:
Surprisingly, there is also no diesel version yet. A lot of SUV buyers are looking for slightly better fuel economy nowadays instead of ultimate performance, but the X5 is more about ultimate performance. Porsche Cayenne buyers should definitely look at the X5, and W164 owners should as well, provided you can stomach the maintenance costs (BMW does provide free maintenance, including wipers and brake pads for the first 4 years though, which neither MB nor Audi do any more).