- The Washington Times - Friday, June 28, 2002

There's a certain inevitability about how automobiles and trucks progress during their lifetimes.
It used to be that successive new models simply got bigger and more luxurious.
Now the operating principle is more powerful and better handling, and it applies across the board with cars and trucks, especially those with luxury orientations.
The 2002 BMW X5 4.6is is such a creation. The Bavarian Motor Works, which builds cars and sport-utility vehicles in South Carolina as well as Germany, stuck with its reputation for dazzling performance when it produced its own SUV.
The result was the X5, the first version of which was powered by a 4.4-liter V-8 engine with an automatic transmission.
That was followed by a more affordable model that was a half-step backwards: A six-cylinder version that could be ordered with a stick shift.
Now there's the 4.6is, which is the high-zoot version of what already was one of the quickest and best-handling sport utes available. This one rips the guts right out of the SUV designation.
Forget utility. It's virtually nonexistent. The 4.6is is a sport vehicle, pure and simple a sports car dressed up to look something like an SUV. It's for people who lust after high performance, who just can't be seen in anything but something that resembles a truck, and who have nearly $70,000 to spend.
Despite that, and its incredibly potent credentials, the 4.6is doesn't quite succeed as a sport vehicle any more than it does as a utility vehicle.
Start with avoirdupois. The 4.6is weighs in at a hefty 5,130 pounds, without people or cargo. With all that bulk, it needs plenty of power just to move it around. But it gets more than that. The 4.6-liter V-8 delivers a robust 340 horsepower, with 350 foot-pounds of torque, or low-rpm pulling power.
That enables it to post a zero-to-60 mph acceleration time of less than seven seconds, with a top speed of almost 145 mph. But its sheer mass exacts a penalty in fuel consumption, with an EPA rating of 12 mpg city and 17 highway. If it were classified as a car instead of a truck, it would have the deserved title of gas guzzler.
It also has a certain poise on twisting roads, with a taut suspension system augmented by air springs in back and gigantic, low-profile, high-performance tires on wide-open 20-inch alloy wheels. As SUVs go, this one is near the top of the stability chart, and it can easily outperform some automobiles.
But it's still a tall, massive vehicle, and as such can't match the handling capabilities of a good sports sedan or station wagon such as BMW's own 540i.
Usually, people buy SUVs because they offer the added dimension, even on a high-performance model, of cargo-carrying capability. But the X5 simply doesn't cut it. There's just 16 cubic feet of cargo space behind the back seat, about what you'd find in the trunk of a midsize family sedan.
On the test X5, the cargo area had the optional ($380) slide-out load floor, which is handy but intrudes into the available space.
The load floor of the X5 is 36 inches from the ground, compared with 30 inches for the Mercedes-Benz M-Class. From the cargo floor to the roof, the X5's opening is 30 inches, compared with the M-Class's 37 inches. The Mercedes obviously has considerably more cargo space.
However, the 4.6is is designed to compete with the high-performance Mercedes ML55 AMG model, which houses a huge spare tire out back. So it's probably a wash. Neither offers much utility.
The base price of $66,845 includes what you'd expect of a vehicle in this price class, including leather upholstery, automatic climate control, stereo with cassette and CD, memory settings for the power driver's seat, antilock brakes and stability control, and heated seats and mirrors.
Curiously, however, side air bags for rear-seat passengers are an extra-cost option.
The test X5 had the optional ($1,800) navigation system, which incorporated the stereo controls and was anything but intuitive. Not only was it illogical to use, it started every session with an admonition of the sort you'd direct at a fourth grader: "Use this system only when traffic and environmental conditions permit. Pay attention to traffic laws and situations. Safe vehicle operation is the driver's responsibility. Always wear your safety belt."
In order to continue, you have to punch the button that says you "accept" the warning. BMW is among the most sophisticated car companies in the world and appeals to the automotive cognoscenti in more ways than any of them.
Why it subjects its drivers to a lecture worthy of Dustin Hoffman in "Rain Man" is a conundrum.


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