No-one was more surprised than me to see a white BMW X5 parked up in the Hertz LAX facility, as with the exception of a small number of 328i saloons, the Bavarian marque does not feature in the Hertz US fleet. My surprised became delight when I discovered that not only was the car not allocated to anyone, but that Hertz class it as a “YH”, which is the same category as that 328i, as well as the Cadillac CTS and Toyota Avalon. The daily upgrade charge over the Group C car I had booked was a very reasonable $40 a day, so it did not take me more than a squillisecond to decide to take full advantage and to end this US odyssey with what promised to be, by some margin, the best rental car of the trip.
After a restaging of Noah’s flood, the following morning dawned bright and sunny and having taken the interior shots of the car, I headed out, enthusiastic about driving this machine. I got all of 2 miles on the 105 freeway when I heard a “bing” from the car’s on-board monitoring system and a message popped up advising that there was a problem with DSC and xDrive, with an exhortation to “drive moderately” and to go to a dealer. Gutted, I turned round, back to Hertz, pessimistic of the chances of getting a replacement X5. Sure enough, they had not got one, and their instructions for BMWs on fleet are that Hertz mechanics do not touch them. Then, just as a very bland Camry was being allocated to me, I spotted another white X5 arrive in the returns area. A few minutes later, it was cleaned and ready for me to try again. The very sharp eyed among you may wonder why the interior shots show a brown interior, whereas the exterior shots evidence a black one. That’s the reason why. What was wrong with the first car? Who knows. It had only done 750 miles, so either there was an early production gremlin, or the warning system itself failed. Regardless, I was happy to be out on the road in what seemed liked the rental car bargain of the trip.
The X5 is one of those cars that needs little or no introduction. Although there were howls of protest when the first generation E53 X5 model was launched in 1999, it has been a massive success for BMW, and must have contributed sizeable profits as well as revenue to the Bavarian corporate coffers ever since. The second generation car, E70, arrived in 2006, and whilst visually similar to the first model, represented a thorough reworking of the car, including the option of seating for 7. Whereas in Europe, almost all X5s these days are sold with a diesel engine, the xDrive 50i and X5M having very minority appeal, in diesel-averse America, the petrol engine still rules the roost. US market. American X5s are now offered in xDrive 35d format, but it is the petrol cars that are far more common, with a choice of three models: xDrive 35i, xDrive 50i and the X5M. The latter pair share a 4.4 litre V8 engine, which develops 400 and 555 bhp respectively, whereas the xDrive 35i, in accordance with BMW’s naming system where the numbers in the model name no longer correlate to the capacity under the bonnet has, from 2011, the N55 3.0 litre turbo in-line 6 cylinder powerplant which puts out 300 bhp. It is coupled to an 8 speed automatic gearbox. My test car was an xDrive 35i, with a badge on the lower part of the front doors one way of being able to tell, as well as the sight of a six cylinder under the bonnet providing further confirmation.
Put the quasi key in the slot to the right of the column, foot on the footbrake, and press the “start” button, and you hear nothing. The engine really is that quiet at idle. It was only the fact that the rev counter shows the engine is spinning that gave you the confidence that the car would indeed now move. At moderate speeds, the X5 remains very quiet. Push the accelerator harder though, and both speed and noise levels increase, both of them pleasingly. Acceleration is strong, almost regardless of starting speed or revs. The engine remains super smooth no matter how hard you work it. The consequence of doing this, though, is that you can see from the fuel consumption gauge just how thirsty the X5 will now become. Economy is not a strong point of this car, which is hardly surprising given its size and weight. I achieved just 18 mpg (US) – which is just 21.5 mpg Imperial, and it requires premium grade 91 octane fuel. Given that a lot of the test mileage was undertaken at a steady cruising speed on the freeway, I have to declare this as poor – it is far worse than my 10 cylinder S6 can achieve, and it is not exactly parsimonious. Work the engine harder, such as by taking it up into the canyons and mountains up above Los Angeles, as I did, and the consumption gets even worse. That said, the X5 did well on those roads, belying the fact that it is an SUV, as the handling is truly impressive for such a large car, with minimal body roll. Whilst it might not be quite like a 3 series or 5 series to drive, it truly is not far off, and I really can see why this car has been praised for being very unSUV like to drive. The cause is helped further by the steering, which is really good. Well weighted, and with good feel, and further made pleasurable by the lovely leather covered steering wheel, this car really is good to drive. The latest X5s come with an 8 speed automatic gearbox. This is really smooth in operation, and it was really hard to tell when it shifted from one ratio to another. If you fell like trying yourself, you can do so, by pushing the left to the lever, then you can flick it back to change up, or forwards for a down-shift. The brakes were also good, with appropriate weighting for the pedal. An electronic parking brake is operated by a small button on the centre console. It is not all good news, as the ride could be better. Whilst fine on smooth surfaces, it did less well on handling small ridges and bumps which are so common on California’s roads. Nonetheless, this was a very pleasant car in which to cruise on the freeway back from a day out near Palm Springs. It is a large car, but it is not unduly difficult to position on the road or to manoeuvre, as the mirrors are generously sized, there is plenty of glass, and the test car featured all round parking sensors which showed the area for concern on a graphic of the car on the display screen on the dash.
Even if there no badges inside the car, one look would have you in no doubt that this is a BMW, as it manifests the house style to perfection. Everything looks well conceived, and is beautifully finished from good quality materials. The main dials are covered by a single cowl. The centre of the dash contains the display for the iDrive controlled functions, and there is the latest unusually shaped transmission selector in the centre console, all of which look very familiar. The lower half of the dash is trimmed with a fabric which colour matches the door casings and seats, and there is a trim finisher across the middle of the dash and around the transmission selector area which in the case of the test car was a moderately dark wood effect. Everything is clear and easy to use. There are only two dials, for speedo and rev counter, though smaller gauges for fuel level and instant fuel consumption are set in the base of them. A digital display area between the two dials provides odometer, trip computer displays and for a large array of warning lights. Typical BMW column stalks operate the indicators and wipers, with the former operating on the “one touch” will self cancel after three flashes, hold harder to keep it on principle that has become a BMW house style. The central part of the dash has controls for the audio unit and the climate control, though some of the audio settings are made via the iDrive dial on the centre console. Although familiarity has made the use of this technology a lot easier, I still found it not totally intuitive for some things, such as scrolling through the list of available satellite radio channels. There are a number of other buttons around the iDrive, supposedly to simply operation. There is an electric handbrake lever and hill holder button located in the centre console, too.
Allegedly, one of the reasons why people buy, or indeed claim that they “need” an SUV, is for the amount of space inside it. The X5 is not a small vehicle, and accordingly, it is quite roomy inside. There are seats for 7, with the rearmost row folding up out of the boot floor. I come across many 7 seaters where the back row is barely suitable for anything much larger than a cat, but the X5 third row did not seem too bad. There’s not really good enough space for adults, as although there is moderate head room, and the seats are far up off from the floor to give somewhere for legs to go vertically down, you would still end up with your knees closer to your chest than you might want. The middle row, of course, suffers no such limitations, and there is ample room there for three adults, with generous leg, shoulder and head room available, though the cushion is shaped to favour two rather than three. This row of seats are on a slider, and can be positioned further forward to help those in the rearmost row, if required, and the backrests can be reclined somewhat, as well. Access into the rear most row is eased by the middle row pivoting forwards, but it is still not that easy to get in. and especially to get out of these seats. With all seats in use there is minimal boot space available. With one or both of the rear most row folded into the floor – an easy task done by pulling on a chord release – then there is a decently sized if not huge boot area. It is quite high up off the floor, as I found when I was heaving my suitcase (made heavier thanks to a collection of brochures acquired at the LA Auto Show!), though the fact that the bottom part of the tailgate drops down helps a little. Fold the middle row of seats forward as well, and there is a vast luggage area indeed. Inside the passenger compartment, and there are moderate door bins, a glove box which is not that sizeable, and a large cubby between the seats, as well as a small area under two roller covers in front of the gearlever. Rear seat passengers get pockets in the back of the seats as well as their own door bins. There was an electric close feature on the rear tailgate, which was useful, though even when fully opened the upper tailgate was not completely out of my reach. I was reminded of the height of the car every time I got in and out, though, as the entry point was noticeably higher than a regular saloon and was bordering on needing a step to help those with short legs such as myself. Once installed, though, there was plenty of space and plenty of comfort. Electric adjustment for the seat and steering wheel made it easy for me to get the perfect driving position.
Configuring an X5, as with any BMW, is not the work of a couple of moments, with plenty of choice covering everything from outside and trim colour to the finishers on the dash, as well as a long list of extra cost items. The xDrive 35i is available in three trim levels, which bring together some of the options into defined packages. These are Base, Premium and Sport Activity. My test car was a Premium, and this trim level brings a power tilt steering wheel, heated leather seats, the obstacle detection system, wood inlays to the dashboard, an electric sunroof and 19″ alloy wheels. I liked the sun roof as it is comprises a vast area of glass, with a retractable cover, so you could simply open that to enjoy extra light into the cabin, or you could slide the front part open for extra fresh air, One other refinement were light sensitive door mirrors which were dimmed when they caught the bright lights of cars behind you – not a feature I have experienced before. The Sport Activity package brings with it some different trim, 20″ alloys and a rear spoiler. Satellite navigation is not included, which is why the Hertz Never Lost system was added to the car. The Base car includes the high function CD/MP3/satellite audio unit, dual zone climate control, cruise control, alloy wheels, BMW Assist, adaptive xenon lights linked to the steering, cornering lights, the third row of seats and 10 way power adjustment to the driver’s seat. The xDrive 35i Premium retails for $55,200 in the US, which represents an extra $5000 over the Base car. Considering the extra features included, that is not a bad deal. Be in no doubt, though, that the X5 is not a cheap car to buy, which is why I was so (pleasantly) surprised at the way Hertz had priced the rental car.
When I returned the car to the LAX facility, the entire team of return agents surrounded the car. I was inundated with offers from them to drive me to the terminal. My polite suggestion that I was perfectly happy to go on the regular shuttle bus was rebuffed, and I felt compelled to allow one of them to carry out the favour. Of course, I think the favour was actually more for the benefit of the Hertz agent who got the chance to drive the car further than to the local service bay. I’ve never experienced this before with any car at any Hertz US location, so I think that tells you what the Hertz guys thought of the X5. And who am I to disagree? Although the X5 is not the sort of car that I would want or need to own, there are plenty of people for whom it fits the bill perfectly. Although this car is not cheap to buy, and in petrol form not going to be cheap to fuel, I cannot imagine why anyone who bought one would be anything other than delighted with it. It was indeed a very impressive vehicle indeed.