Having been treated to a week of sheer unadulterated luxury a couple of months ago in the shape of the Range Rover Vogue, I was keen to compare it to the BMW X5 4.6is. Unfortunately, BMW could only offer us the 3.0i, which I immediately felt would be a very pale imitation indeed, weighing in at a little over half the price of the Vogue. With a smaller engine, low standard specification, and comparable in price to the Mitsubishi Shogun, it was generally a pretty uninspiring proposition. So what actually turns up on Thursday afternoon is somewhat unexpected.
The moment the car arrives I quickly finish the article I'm working on and make a dash for the car park. It looks fantastic. Resplendent in 'Topaz Blue' with beige leather, the optional five spoke alloys and aluminium running boards make a remarkable improvement to the base spec, giving it a slight hint of East End 'bad boy'. I load up the car with all my weekend baggage, ready for a trip to Cornwall. Straight away I'm astonished at the similarities with the Range Rover - an identical split tailgate configuration, down to the same button to release the lower half. I climb into the cabin, and become increasingly startled at the similarities; the same entertainment system, the same electronically adjustable steering wheel, the same instruments. I check the middle of the steering wheel, but it definitely says BMW. I come to my senses, and realise the rest of the dashboard is definitely not Range Rover. It's more akin to 1980s BMW 3-series, but although it is not quite up to the standard of the Range Rover, I can forgive it. After all, it is only half the price.
I fire up the engine, which sounds very pleasant, and set out into London, deciding to grab a few photos before starting the trip proper. I instantly notice a strange delay in the gear change. The test car had the optional automatic gearbox, and when applying the accelerator there's a momentary pause before anything happens, which for a start is extremely irritating, but I do grow more used to it over the week. First stop for the photo shoot is the London Eye. Having taken a few pictures I attempt a u-turn, which the car copes with impressively, not even having to mount the pavement. Driving along Whitehall, I decide a picture outside Downing Street would be appropriate. I set up the perfect shot, click the shutter button, and then four policemen who take me for an aspiring terrorist accost me. Before I can explain, I'm out of the car door, they're running a check on the car, the photos have been deleted and I'm given a stern telling off. I decide Sloane Square is probably far more in keeping, and manage to avoid arrest this time. Finally at 4 pm I reach the A4 and mingle with the already busy weekend traffic.
The X5's stereo/satnav equipment is virtually identical to that in the Range Rover (see that review for my general disdain of the system) although it's raked back at a slightly greater angle than in the Range Rover, making it more difficult to see. Fortunately in the BMW, Miss Satnav doesn't seem quite as intent on causing an accident, and generally gives reasonable directions. There's no DSP (Digital Sound Processor) in the X5 3.0i, which is a blessing, but is a £2,200 option, which is by far the most expensive option on this car (as part of the audio package), and frankly a disappointing one for the price.
The slow progress gives me a chance to reflect on the car for a while. As I mentioned, I am amazed at how similar it is to the Range Rover at half the price, but leafing through the options list brings me rudely to my senses. This car has been specced up to the gills, and at a considerable cost as well. I'm aghast when I realise that there's almost £10,000 of extra kit in this car. Suddenly it doesn't seem quite such a bargain. Nevertheless, it is a league above the likes of the Mitsubishi Shogun I drove a week earlier.
The X5 does its best to make the journey pass as pleasantly as possibly, but even in this luxury, it's never going to be much fun leaving London on a Friday. The roads are crammed full of weekend holidaymakers, all apparently heading to exactly the same destination as me. I'm getting bored by Reading, so I turn off to the services and pull into the car park. As I climb out, a busload of school children walk past the car, many making decidedly admiring exclamations about it. This is a good start - it's already passed the street cred test with flying colours.
Once I reach Exeter, the traffic eases up, and the last hour is positively agreeable. I've already been impressed by the handling, but towards the end of the trip as I finally hit the country lanes, I begin to discover how much better on the road it really is than the Range Rover. There's significantly less body roll, and the suspension is clearly optimised for road use. The X5 handles much more like a car than a cumbersome off-roader. In fact apart from the driving position, one could easily be forgiven for mistaking it for a standard 5-series. Finally I arrive, but this car feels just a little out of place in Cornwall. The first Range Rover, after all, was actually launched here, and the new Vogue still wears its green wellies with pride, while the BMW feels just a little uncomfortable masquerading as a country boy. As I open the door, the interior illuminates gently from every direction, giving the effect of a rather exclusive theatre. Despite the awful traffic I arrive feeling great - it's been an extremely comfortable ride. As the door clunks closed and the interior lights dim to nothing I look at the car feeling immensely proud of it. And it's not even mine.
The next morning I take my parents for a ride into Plymouth. It's not their sort of car, but they enjoy the ride nevertheless. Carrying passengers for the first time highlights two problems. The audio quality for rear seat passengers is terrible, and playing with the fader only loses all the bass in the front. Secondly, and far worse, travelling at over 30 mph with any of the windows open, particularly the rear ones, creates an unbearable buffeting. It is impossible to put up with this for more than a few seconds, making the air conditioning absolutely essential for pretty much any summer journey.
The engine is the new generation M54 straight six, shared with the 3-series, 5-series and Z4. It has variable valve timing as well as astonishing servicing statistics. The gearbox oil is there for life, and the first change for the air filter and plugs is at 62,000 miles. The familiar BMW Service light is present, and the car's engine management system now has the ability to "determine oil quality according to the way the car is driven". Although this makes me slightly suspicious, the estimated time before a change is between 14,500 and 18,500 miles, which is still excellent however much the electronics are fiddling the books.
In the afternoon I decide to venture off-road. This is the bit I've really been looking forward to, renowned to be the thorn in the BMW's curvaceous flanks. And I know just the place. Off a little back lane out of Hessenford there's a track leading up into a forest that fits the bill perfectly. It's a beautiful afternoon as I head off down the lane with sunlight glinting through the trees. I reach the beginning of the track, and raising the suspension I tentatively dip a wheel off the road. It's always unnerving driving through mud as it feels as if the car's travelling diagonally and the wheels are spinning. The track heads into the thick of the forest, and we slowly negotiate branches, ruts and rocks. The hill becomes steeper, and suddenly reaches a peak. I approach it diagonally, and there's suddenly a fearful clicking as the nearside front wheel lifts off the ground and freewheels before locking up. Suddenly the car lurches dramatically, and there's more clicking as the rear wheel lifts into the air. Everything feels a little fragile, and I'm beginning to wonder about the wisdom of all this.
I get out to survey the situation, and climbing back in suddenly wonder at the sheer stupidity of the beige carpet. Hang on, what am I thinking? This carpet was meant for Chelsea! After more mud I eventually reach a 3 foot wide boulder in the middle of the path, clearly signalling the end of this mini adventure. Next up is a 1/4 mile reverse followed by a seven-point turn over the peak of the hill. Much clicking, grinding and graunching later the car is pointing in the right direction, but I'm somewhat worried what BMW are going to say if the car is delivered back to them in pieces on the flatbed of an AA truck. I proceed back out of the forest to the main road to an awful grating from one of the brakes. This really isn't good. I inspect the wheel in question, but can't see anything amiss, so I set off, and after a few seconds the noise goes away. I'm grateful I've got the photos, as I really don't want to risk things any more. I head home via a jet wash, and suddenly the sorry vehicle is transformed into an urban warrior again.
Saturday evening is more in keeping with the car's intended environment - a night out with the lads. As usual I'm the designated driver, so the 'Bimmer' takes us down to St. Austell. We manage to fit six people in despite slight discomfort for those in the back, but then it's only designed for five... The X5 has the desired result - everyone is hugely impressed, the stereo's pumping and outside the club this is definitely the car to be seen getting out of. Later we pile back out of the club and into the early hours of the morning and head for the nearest kebab shop, but when everyone decides we'll eat them in the car I get decidedly touchy. A high-speed cruise home at two in the morning is absolutely divine. These are the roads I grew up on, and I know them like the back of my hand. At some points I actually forget I'm in a 4x4 it's so incredibly stable. This does come at the cost of a slight bumpiness now and then but this is utterly forgivable, given such unexpectedly good handling. The next morning I survey the damage. There is kebab grease on the door trims, C-pillars and seats, but they easily wipe clean.
Sunday is a quiet family day, and egged on by my brother, I venture off-road again onto Downderry beach. This is way too much fun, and this time the car copes extraordinarily well. My only regret is that there's no one around needing their boat towing out of the water.
The trip back to London on Monday afternoon is uneventful, but still thoroughly enjoyable. As I head back through London a few hours later, I instinctively know that this is where we belong, and pulling into my road after a blissful four hours drive, everything seems just right. We're both home.
I never thought I'd end up comparing the bottom-of-the range X5 to the top-of-the pile Range Rover, but this article consists of little else. The Range Rover is the original, and it manages to hold onto that. Driving it is always an event, whereas the X5 is a slightly more every-day occurrence. It feels like a pretender, but then for a little over two thirds of the price it really can't be criticised for that. In fact it comes so damn close that it can only be complimented. Those people in the know, who can afford 110% of the car for 140% of the money will opt for the Vogue every time - and if I had the money I'd be one of them. But in the meantime I would be very happy with the X5. Very happy indeed.
Sounds like a BMW... it is a BMW. While not being quite as gutsy as the Range Rover Vogue it is half a tonne lighter, which makes it feel considerably sprightlier.
Surprisingly good for only a 3-litre engine, it pumps out 231 bhp and 300 Nm of torque. The gear change could be smoother though.
It is a well-known fact that the X5 is the car for the road, and that the Range Rover is the car for off the road. The X5 could be mistaken for a standard 5-series it is so well behaved on the road. Off-road it feels a little fragile, though surprisingly capable.
The BMW managed around 20 mpg over the week we drove it, which may be much better than the (larger engined) Range Rover, but still rather thirsty.
The steering is nicely weighted, although I guess this is partly because of the fat tyres. Lovely to drive due to the high-up driving position. The gear change is pretty good apart from the annoying delay.
The X5 is now an all-too-common sight on the streets of London, but still very attractive nevertheless. It makes the Range Rover look boxy in direct comparison, but when on its own, it loses out to the Range Rover's classic looks. Several people commented that it looks uncomfortable - like a 4x4 with a BMW nose and tail stuck on it.
Good, but not amazing. The dashboard is a little too '80s BMW for comfort, and it doesn't get anywhere close to the artistic masterpiece in the Range Rover. Well appointed in the spec. it was provided in, although the standard 3.0i is rather lacking in equipment. The seats are lovely, but not as adjustable as in the Vogue.
It's got it all: ADB-X, ASC+X, EBD, DSC and HDC, plus enough airbags to give everyone the most comfortable landing possible whichever way up it is.
This is clearly the bottom of the range car, but then considering the price, it's not half bad. If you like toys though, you'll be plundering the options catalogue, and this is an expensive exercise. For me the wheels and running boards would be essential, and PDC (Parking Distance Control) would be a very useful addition.
Road test: 2003 BMW X5 3.0i
Story and photography by Adam Jefferson.
|Technical specifications: 2003 BMW X5 3.0i (figures are for car equipped with auto)
Price at time of story: £33,955 (on the road - the test car had extras amounting to £9,600)
Max speed (mph): 126 mph.
0-62 mph (seconds): 8.8.
Urban mpg: 16.1.
Extra urban mpg: 27.4.
Combined mpg: 21.9.
CO2 (g/km): 310.
Six cylinders inline, mounted longitudinally - petrol.
Cubic capacity: 2979 cc.
Bore x stroke (mm): 84.0 x 89.6.
Valve gear: Four valves per cylinder. VANOS valve drive with roller-type rocker arms.
Max power (bhp): 231 at 5900 rpm.
Max torque (lb.ft): 221 at 3500 rpm.
Test car was fitted with optional five speed EH automatic transmission with Adaptive Gearbox System (AGS) and Steptronic control.
Front: Double-joint spring strut front axle with brake dive compensation and thrust bar with anti-roll bar.
Rear: Integral rear axle with anti-squat and anti-dive with anti-roll bar.
Brakes: Anti-lock brakes. Ventilated discs all-round.
Wheels: 17 inch alloys.
Tyres: 235/65 R17.
Length (mm): 4667.
Width (mm): 2180.
Height (mm): 1715.
Wheelbase (mm): 2820.
Front track (mm): 1576.
Rear track (mm): 1576.
Kerb weight (kg): 2170.
Fuel tank capacity (litres): 93.