- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 19, 2007

An oxymoron, by definition, is a figure of speech in which opposites are combined.

A sport utility vehicle, by definition, is a capacious, off-road capable machine with lots of ground clearance and a center of gravity that makes for high seating positions.

Performance, by definition, means plenty of power, sharp handling and great braking, but not generous people or cargo space.

That makes “performance SUV” an oxymoron.

Despite the best efforts of some manufacturers, there’s no way an SUV can compete on performance with a roughly equivalent well-engineered car. That’s why you don’t see tall SUVs on race tracks. Of course, it is possible for an expensive, well-engineered SUV to best a cheap, poorly designed car.

There are a few SUVs, and some crossovers, that manage to dissipate the oxymoronic content of “performance SUV.” The Porsche Cayenne is one. The new Acura MDX is another, as well as the Mercedes-Benz AMG models. And then there’s the subject here — the 2007 BMW X5 4.8i.

Except for the ancient egg-shaped Isetta and a disappointing period back in the 1980s, the Bavarian Motor Works has always been about performance. It simply does not produce mundane machinery.

But to compete in today’s world, with its emphasis on leisure and outdoor activities, vehicle manufacturers have been forced to develop SUVs — or at least versions of them. So BMW delivered the X5, and then the smaller X3.

Not surprisingly, given the company’s orientation, the original X5 erred on the side of performance and shortchanged utility. Though it had excellent performance — for an SUV — and seated five, the cargo area was smaller than that of the 5-Series station wagon, and not much bigger than the trunk space in a midsize sedan.

That changes with the all-new 2007 X5, which BMW calls a “sport activity vehicle.” Though it retains its muscle, the X5 now has competitive cargo space, and can even be fitted with a third row of seats.

There are two versions: the 3.0si model, with a 260-horsepower, inline six-cylinder engine, and the tested 4.8i model with a 350-horsepower V-8 engine.

The 3.0si has a starting price of $46,675 and the 4.8i starts at $55,275.

With a few options, including the third-row seat, a gigantic panoramic sunroof and a rear-seat entertainment system, the tested X5 had a suggested sticker price of $61,825. The price covered all the expected safety and luxury items, including stability and traction control, antilock brakes and “dynamic brake control,” tire-pressure monitoring, hill descent control, side air bags and side-curtain air bags, automatic climate control, heated seats and door mirrors, and 18-inch alloy wheels.

Surprisingly, for BMW, no manual transmission is available on either model. The automatic is a six-speed with a manual-shift mode, with an unusually designed shifter that is mounted on the console and operates electronically.

A small button on top puts the transmission in “park.” Press a button on the side and tip the lever forward and you’re in reverse. Pull it back and you’re in “drive.” Tap it to the left and you can shift the transmission manually, although BMW doesn’t trust the driver and overrides when the computer thinks there’s been a mistake. The parking brake also is operated with a console-mounted push button.

There are a couple of oddities. Unusual in this era of manual-shift modes for automatic transmissions, the X5 does not have shift paddles mounted on the steering wheel.

It does have a keyless ignition, which is becoming increasingly common, but it’s a crude system. You have to insert the remote-control fob into a slot in the dash, much as you would a key, and then press a button to start the engine. To turn it off, you have to touch the button again, press the fob to release it, and then remove it. It’s clumsier than a regular key.

With its orientation toward performance, the X5 has a heavy feel at low speeds — mainly the result of a high steering effort. That disappears as speed increases, and the rear-wheel-biased handling is as good as it gets in an SUV. The suspension system is taut and tightly snubbed, which makes for a stiff ride. However, it also is supple enough to soak up harsh surfaces without any loss of control.

The 350-horsepower V-8 can take the 2.5-ton X5 to 60 mph in slightly more than six seconds. But the penalty comes at the pump, with city/highway EPA ratings of 15/21 miles to the gallon.

From a utility standpoint, the big improvement comes in cargo space, as well as room for extra passengers, partly because the X5 uses run-flat tires and has no spare. The optional third-row seat is easily accessed because the second-row seats flip up and forward.

In typical BMW fashion, the front and outboard second-row seats are more supportive than comfortable. But the support is appreciated on long trips.

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