The new 2010 BMW X5 M performance crossover is the sort of vehicle we don't want to like, especially since we hold the "M" badge in such high esteem. BMW's Motorsport division has built its reputation on a stellar string of highly focused driver's cars, but now its engineers have gone and slapped an "M" on a brutish luxury SUV. Big, heavy and tall, the X5 M would seem to be the antithesis of every M car that has come before. And yet there's no doubt that BMW has masterfully created one of the best sporting SUVs to date.
BMW has dabbled with high-performance X5s before (it all started with the 2002 X5 4.6is), but this is the first time that the crossover SUV has received an official M treatment. As with other M cars, the X5 M gets an exclusive engine (shared with the mechanically identical X6 M), this time a twin-turbocharged, direct-injected V8 that develops a massive 555 horsepower and 501 pound-feet of torque. Notably, this is 5 more hp than the gonzo Porsche Cayenne Turbo S puts out. A sprint between the two is likely to be a wash -- no small accomplishment for the X5 M given that it costs about $40,000 less.
Also on tap are a number of modifications to make the X5 M handle more like a sport sedan. Standard 20-inch performance tires and a special sport-tuned suspension with adaptive dampers certainly help, but then, a number of crossovers have such features these days. The X5 M's trump card here is what BMW calls "Dynamic Performance Control" (DPC), a sophisticated torque distribution system that works in conjunction with all-wheel drive to send power wherever it's needed most. In hard cornering, for example, the outer wheels receive more power, which counteracts speed-sapping understeer.
The rest of the 2010 BMW X5 M is pretty much just like any other X5, with a high-quality interior, comfortable seating and plenty of luxury-oriented features such as a hard-drive-based navigation system, a rear entertainment system and the latest (and actually functional) version of iDrive. The beefy V8 also gives the X5 M a substantial boost in towing capacity to 6,600 pounds when properly equipped -- another first for a BMW M model. The only notable omission is the ordinary X5's optional third-row seat, which is nowhere to be found on the X5 M's features list.
The X5 M stacks up impressively well to the competition in its freshman year. In addition to the various V8-powered Cayenne models and the four-seat X6 M, the X5 M's rivals include the Infiniti FX50, the Land Rover Range Rover Sport and the Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMG. The Infiniti does zero to 60 mph in 5.5 seconds (versus the X5 M's 4.7) while undercutting the BMW by $25,000; the Range Rover Sport Supercharged has a new 510-hp V8 this year; and the Benz boasts a wicked naturally aspirated 6.3-liter V8. But at the end of the day, the X5 M is simply one of the best high-performance SUVs on the market. Turns out the Motorsport division's magic works on 2.5-ton crossovers, too.
BMW is best known for coupes and sedans that blend performance, comfort and luxury into an intoxicating stew of automotive goodness. Understandably, then, there was some apprehension when the German manufacturer announced plans to build an SUV in 1999. BMW loyalists fretted that it would be an affront to everything they had come to know and love about the brand. But in the decade since, the BMW X5 hasn't just proved itself worthy of wearing the blue-and-white Roundel -- it has almost single-handedly defined the luxury crossover SUV segment.
The 2010 BMW X5 adheres to the same principles that made it a leader in the first place. Performance is as prominent as ever, thanks to a taut suspension, all-wheel drive and a choice of three very capable engines. From the base 3.0-liter inline-six cylinder to the torquey turbodiesel and creamy 350-horsepower V8, the X5's under-hood options will appeal to a wide range of drivers. A luxurious cabin with top-notch materials and admirable build quality furthers the X5's desirability, as do exceptionally comfortable front seats.
Building on these strong credentials, the 2010 model receives some welcome improvements to one of its biggest past liabilities -- the often-reviled iDrive control system. Previously saddled with an outdated earlier version, the X5 gets the latest generation this year. The new iDrive greatly simplifies operation thanks to new physical shortcut buttons and revised on-screen menus. The optional navigation system also sees an update with improved graphics and usability.
With the BMW X5's strong foundation and continual improvement, it's easy to see why it still ranks highly among our editors. But it is certainly not alone in this segment. Other luxury crossovers like the Audi Q7, Infiniti FX, Mercedes-Benz ML-Class, Porsche Cayenne and Volkswagen Touareg provide competitive performance and quality, and the Acura MDX adds a bit more utility. Still, for loyal BMW drivers or those who just enjoy driving but need the functionality of a crossover, it's hard to beat the 2010 BMW X5.