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Since the original E53 BMW X5, more and more competitors have shed their offering’s pure 4WD image and gone down a similar route as the flagship BMW SUV. Luxury SUVs these days are less about off-road capability and more about appearing big, imposing and prestigious. Spacious interiors and high seating positions are valued more than off-road capability.

While the X5 was not the world’s first monocoque SUV, it was certainly the first that had good driving dynamics. The SUV used to mean you traded driving dynamics for the privilege of sitting high up above other road users and feeling like your car could tackle any terrain. The X5 showed a new way to approach the SUV. These days, it’s hard to imagine an automotive landscape without vehicles like the the X5, Mercedes ML-Class and Range Rover Sport. Even Porsche makes an SUV now.

When the second-generation BMW X5, code-named the E70, was first unveiled, I had the opportunity to test drive it in Athens, and came away impressed with the new car’s looks and drivability. Lots had changed compared to the original E53 X5.

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It had an all-new platform, and thanks to the new double wishbone suspension and an optional Adaptive Drive system featuring a variable anti-roll bar, something that looks like it’s supposed to be big, lumbering and clumsy turned into a machine befitting of the term Sports Activity Vehicle. Big improvements were made to address the E53’s most common criticisms, such as the lack of interior room.

Fast forward a few years later, and I find myself in a completely different continent – this time North America, in Vancouver, Canada to be exact – looking at the latest version of the BMW X5. Viewing the third-generation vehicle parked in front of the Fairmont Pacific Rim hotel with my own eyes for the first time, the feeling is certainly different from that of when I saw the E70. The new F15 X5 looks very much like the E70; BMW took a more evolutionary approach with the car rather than a revolutionary one.

Mamak stall conversations between auto enthusiasts about the new X5 will undoubtedly involve how BMW has given the X5 what appears to be a big facelift instead of a full model change. Talk is one thing but is that actually true? Let’s have a closer look.

Despite looking similar, the new X5 now looks sharper and more modern compared to the outgoing car. Every panel is new, and the X5 gains a lot of the latest BMW design cues. Perhaps the simplest way to describe it, which I can bet a lot of people will use as well, is calling it an X5 with a 3-Series face and ass slapped on. There are optional LED headlamps, which both our test cars were equipped with.

We drove both the BMW X5 xDrive50i and the xDrive30d models in Vancouver – the xDrive50i is the white car, while the xDrive30d is the grey car. Similiar to the E70, the cars are differentiated on the rear with round tail pipes for the diesel, and trapezoidal ones for the V8.

The lower-most sections of the car that wrap around the wheel arches as well are finished in plastic for that off-roader look, but like the outgoing E70, the F15’s M Sport package swaps this for body colour and different, more aggressive bumper designs. The kidney grilles are now larger, though the car gets active upper and lower flap control for better aerodynamics and engine bay warm up. The kidney grilles now do not raise with the engine hood when its lifted.

The front bumper has Air Curtains at the edges, which take in air at the front and channels them around the front wheels. This stream of air then exits the front wheel arch through the Air Breather vents on the side fenders behind the front wheel. The Air Breather vents look far more integrated into the F15’s side profile, compared to the awkward tacked-on look on the 3-Series Gran Turismo.

There’s also a new aerodynamics feature at the rear – Aero Blades, which are the vertical spoilers flanking the rear windscreen that meet with the integrated roof spoiler. These Air Curtain, Air Breather and Aero Blade features are supposed to be functional to improve drag coefficient, which is 0.31 Cd on the xDrive30d.

Although it still had a fresh exterior, the E70 X5’s typical seven-year life-cycle left it with a dated looking interior compared to other BMW models currently on sale. While new BMW interior design features, such as Black Panel displays with colour multi-info displays and huge iDrive screens, debuted in cars like the F10 5-Series, the E70 LCI that launched after it continued with an old school analogue metre panel and a smallish iDrive display.

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Significantly updated, the F15 X5’s interior introduces many firsts for a BMW interior. The basic layout is basically the same as the old X5, as it is with all BMW cars actually. Like certain elements of the exterior, the interior design is rather 3-Series inspired, which surprised me a little, as I expected something a little more mature looking and simple, similar to the theme of the F01, F07 or F10. It’s either that simpler theme was more of a half-way point in transition to this new design scheme, or BMW decided that the X5’s active positioning called for a funkier interior.

The interior layout is designed with multiple horizontal layers, with the large iDrive screen sticking out of the centre of the dash like a big tablet. For cars equipped with the high-end Bang & Olufsen sound system, there’s a centre channel behind the iDrive screen that rises up when you turn the ignition on.

The X5 uses two different dashboard trim now – the lower section of trim running across the dashboard is now permanently piano black, while the upper section is the one that changes between various wood designs or aluminum hexagon print for the M Sport. The dash in both of the cars we tested were covered with lots of nice leather and stitching, but we’re not sure if it’s standard.

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The X5 also gets configurable ambient lighting – you can choose between blue, white or orange ambient lighting, or even pick from pre-determined colour combinations which show in three different sections. This, combined with the multi-layered design seems a little fussy at first, but after a while it grows on you, and the ambient lighting really looks good in the dark on a lighter interior shade.

There are other improvements to the interior of the F15 compared to the E70. The push-button flip-up glovebox lid is now gone, replaced by a more conventional glovebox design. The door pockets have been redesigned to be a lot more usable.

Something fresh that’s going to appear in future BMWs from now on are the new dedicated lock and unlock buttons positioned next to the door open handles on the front passenger and driver doors. Good idea, but because of where the door handle is on the F15 they seem positioned very far forward, pretty much right next to the traditional X5 double-stacked front air-con vents.

This means the centrally-positioned lock button below the hazard light button on the dashboard is gone, replaced by a button that controls the car’s driver assist systems. This driver assist button is configurable and can be used to activate or deactivate the car’s various driver assist features, such as the rear-end collision warning and lane change warning systems. Individual controls of some of the assist systems such as the front camera activation is positioned near the gear lever.

The electrically-operated split tailgate can now both be opened and closed with a dedicated button for the driver, positioned above the wing mirror adjustment controls on the driver’s door. The key fob, which has an all-new design, can operate the tailgate as well.

The big tablet-like iDrive 10.25-inch screen uses the latest operating system, which has a new colour scheme and a fast processor. Menu screens are fast and smooth, with plenty of interesting animations. There’s the option for built-in internet access for iDrive, but I don’t think we’ll get this in Malaysia. No loss – system can still access the internet through tethering via your smartphone.

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The iDrive controller is also new with a touchpad on it, so you can key in addresses by writing letters with your finger. Right-handed drivers will find it easy to use in a left-hand hand drive car, but in a RHD car a right hander will have to use his left hand. Input is very accurate, but you just have to remember to use all capital letters instead of how one would normally write.

The iDrive display has a new feature called xDrive status, which combines a compass as well as a cool 3D display of your X5 with information on roll and pitch. If your X5 has torque vectoring, there’s an additional display that shows you which wheel is getting what amount of drive torque, using arrows of different sizes.

The top view function which the E70 had was extremely useful – it displayed an aerial view of your X5, helping you maneouvre it into tricky parking spaces. The system utilised three camera feeds – two side cameras on the wing mirrors and the reverse camera, and in real time stretches the image to make it look like you’re looking at the car from the top. However, the top view was U-shaped, showing the side and rear views only. With the F15, you now get a 360 degree view of the area around the car, thanks to the addition of a camera feed from the new front camera.

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All the big changes are up front – everything in the rear seat onwards are very similar to the outgoing E70. There are small revisions – the F15’s rear bench now splits 40:20:40 instead of 60:40 with the E70, and there is the option for shapely comfort seats similar to rear seats of the four-seater version of the X6, which can slide front and back by 80 mm and recline by up to 10 degrees. There’s also the option for a new rear entertainment system, which features tablet-lookalike screens and a DVD player.

Interior space pretty much feels unchanged from the E70, which is a little disappointing, especially since there’s no such model as the X7 above this car to limit legroom growth for those who want a little more interior space. The option for Comfort seats feel a little less effective than it could have been in this case – if you have tall passengers in front, legroom at the rear is going to feel lacking.

The general impression that BMW gave off at the press drive was that the E70 was so good that it pretty much reused the same formula and had to look really hard at areas that it could improve on. Based on exterior looks alone, it would appear to be a conservative revamp at first. But if you dig deeper, there has been lots of re-engineering done under the skin.

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Let me tell you what the problem was with the E70. When I test drove it in Athens, it was an incredible machine that could seemingly defy the laws of physics. It was comfortable, yet could corner nearly flat. The E70’s Adaptive Drive system made short work of body roll, with its electronically-controlled variable anti-roll bars using electric motors to pull the car’s axles straight. In a straight line, the anti-roll bar would disconnect, allowing high levels of comfort.

The problem is, an E70 X5 without any of the fancy active systems didn’t behave like anything near to the model tested in Europe. It was still very good around the corners, but the element of comfort was missing. Our Malaysian-spec’d E70 X5 is equipped with a non-active suspension system. Only the 4.8 litre model had the fancy stuff, and even then with the LCI facelift that model was phased out. Because we get the seven-seater model, it has the rear air springs to maintain ride level to ensure optimum damper behaviour. But the air springs didn’t help much – it rode hard, and this was made even more prevalent with our country’s crappy roads.

It would appear that in the quest to make the E70 X5 the ultimate driving SUV, the X5’s development team completely forgot about how to make the X5 with the baseline suspension drive comfortably. To get a bit more comfort, you had to pay to get the more advanced suspension systems. That’s fine in other countries, but in Malaysia where the specs are fixed, there really is no option to add any kind of active suspension system to get increased ride comfort.

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This was the same issue with the first-generation X3 as well – its ride was just too hardcore; BMW softened up the car with the second-generation. For the F15, the same tweaks are made. Increasing comfort and refinement was a very high, if not the highest, priority. Although the F15 rides on pretty much what is an evolution of the previous car’s platform, significant changes were made to the suspension system.

If the E70 started off sporty with comfort being optional, the new F15 reverses that. BMW aimed to make comfort a standard feature, and you pay more to get more drive dynamics. This makes sense, because it can reach out to a far wider buyer profile, which should increase sales and help the company’s coffers.

So what exactly did BMW change with this suspension overhaul? For starters, the front suspension geometry was completely revised – the lower spring pans now sit closer to the axle. The springs are softer, matched with the appropriate damper setting as well. The bump stops have also been improved.

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The rear suspension gets similar tweaks to springs, dampers and bump stops. The suspension top mount is now called a ‘three-way damper joint’, which is supposed to have contributed significantly to the new car’s more compliant ride. Tried and tested, the new X5 is now significantly smoother over small, but high frequency, road irregulaties.

The F15’s basic suspension uses steel springs, fixed dampers, and steel anti-roll bars. Models with the seven-seater option that adds a third row of seats adds air springs at the rear to this setup for automatic ride height control. With the above mentioned revisions, this setup is already supposed to be more comfort-biased. However, I cannot vouch for this as of now, as the two models we tried during the drive did not come with this basic suspension.

There are an additional three suspension packages which you can upgrade to. Firstly there’s the Comfort suspension package, which swaps the fixed dampers for adjustable dampers and equips rear air springs across both the five-seater and seven-seater models. This allows the Comfort/Sport/Sport+ mode button to affect the suspension settings. The xDrive30d model we drove was equipped with this configuration.

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Then you have the Dynamic suspension packages, which upgrades the fixed anti-roll bars to active anti-roll bars, which uses a motor in the middle to increase or decrease anti-roll bar twist force as needed, and can even completely disconnect the anti-roll bar for increased straight line comfort. In addition to this, the package also adds Dynamic Performance Control, which equips the rear axle with torque vectoring ability, allowing power to be shifted between left and right wheels of the rear axle.

The top of the line suspension package is the Professional package, which basically combines the Dynamic and Comfort packages, so you get everything – the adjustable dampers, the rear air springs, the torque vectoring and the active anti-roll bars.

For the F15 M50d model or an F15 which is upgraded to the M Sport package, the equipment from the Comfort package is included, but also adds bespoke M Sport settings for the springs, bump stops, anti-roll bar, and EPS steering. There’s also an M Sport Professional package, which is based on the Professional package, but with M Sport settings for everything.

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That sounds like a total of six different suspension settings, but get this – BMW has been so obsessed with fine-tuning the suspension for the X5 to ensure a balance of comfort and driving dynamics, that there are different suspension settings depending on what you equip your car with. And I’m not just talking about ordering the different suspension packages. Adding equipment like a better sound system, a third row of seats or Active Steering will also trigger a change in suspension part numbers.

According to BMW driving dynamics specialist Dr Daniel Nowicki, every 25 kg change in weight at the front or rear axle calls for a different suspension setting in the new X5. In total, there are a total of 114 different combinations of suspension settings in the new X5, something BMW has never done for any of its models before. There are more suspension combinations for the single body-type X5 than the entire 3-Series range, which has multiple body types.

We took the xDrive50i out in the first leg of our drive, traveling over 200 km along the Sea to Sky Highway in Vancouver. The V8 fires up with gusto, and is actually louder than I expected it to be. It’s definitely louder in the X5 than in the F10 550i. According to BMW, this is intentional, because they wanted the V8 to show off its sporty character.

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There’s a bit of lag when you drive off, but from then on the 4.4 litre V8 pulls strongly with a very wide torque curve. Power delivery continues to build up high in the rev range and reaches a peak of 450 hp (up 43 hp over the E70) at 5,500 rpm to 6,000 rpm, so the engine feels very similar to a large normally-aspirated engine. Based on the peak torque figure of 650 Nm (up 50 Nm over the E70), that’s the equivalent to a 6.5 litre NA engine.

Zero to 100 km/h takes just five seconds, which is half a second faster than the equivalent E70. Thanks to new EfficientDynamics features and improved aerodynamics, fuel consumption has been reduced by a significant two litres per 100 km – combined consumption is now rated at just 10.5 litres per 100 km.

The xDrive30d, powered by a 3.0 litre turbodiesel six-cylinder, actually turned out to be pretty quiet – I actually found the V8 to be louder. There’s certainly more soundproofing and refinement in the F15 xDrive30d than in the E70 xDrive30d.

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According to BMW, the quieter diesel engine is aimed at a different kind of buyer than someone who would have bought the V8. I’ll certainly miss the louder roar of the E70’s xDrive30d – it’s a very special sound despite it being a diesel, because it’s a six-cylinder; way better than say a 320d or 520d.

In the F15 X5, the 3.0 litre inline-six turbodiesel does 258 hp at 4,000 rpm and 560 Nm of torque from 1,500 rpm to 3,000 rpm, which is an increase of 13 hp and 20 Nm over the E70. Fuel consumption has been slashed by 1.2 litres per 100 km to 6.2 litres per 100 km, while 0 to 100km/h takes 6.9 seconds – about 0.7 seconds less. Throttle response and get-go urgency is better than the V8 – it starts off pulling stronger and with less lag, and the gearbox’s eight-speeds matches the short but strong torque curve perfectly.

The eight-speed automatic gearbox is as usual one of the best in the business, if not the best – smooth, quick shifting, and it rarely hunts for gears. The auto start/stop function works smoothly with both engines. The X5 uses the latest revision of BMW’s auto start/stop system, which was released sometime in July 2013; the revised system should be making its way to other BMW cars soon.

From December 2013, a few additional engines variants will be released – an xDrive35i and sDrive35i with 306 horsepower, an xDrive40d with 313 hp, and a four-cylinder turbodiesel powered xDrive25d and sDrive25d with 218 hp. The sDrive models have no xDrive, so they are rear-wheel drive. Personally, I don’t find there to be a need to go for anything more than the xDrive30d, unless you’re into being excessive or perhaps you’re worried about diesel quota issues being an annoyance. It’s just right for the X5.

The new F15 is brilliant around the corners, despite the car’s new-found ability to glide smoothly over the rough stuff. The torque vectoring system minimises any possibilities of understeer. You actually need to get used to the idea that the X5 has this kind of handling ability at first, because I find the high seating position and the stronger feeling of weight transfer actually discourages you from enthusiastic driving at first, but once you know what the car is capable of, you’ll be okay.

Like most new BMWs, the steering system is now based on an electric power steering system instead of hydraulic. Steering weight is much lighter now; unfortunately, I thought it to be a little too light at highway speeds, and switching the car’s driving mode to Sport mode doesn’t seem to fix this. It’s not that the steering isn’t precise or anything. It is. it’s just that someone who upgraded from an E70 would probably feel the same thing I felt, that the E70’s steering weight feels better at highway speeds. The M Sport package is supposed to add a heavier steering, but I don’t see why BMW has to force someone upgrade to the M Sport package for this – it should be easy to just tweak the EPS calibration when you switch to Sport mode.

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Other than Comfort and Sport modes, there’s also the ECO PRO mode. Based on Comfort mode, it dampens the throttle for optimum fuel consumption to counter lead-footed driving. The mode also activates the gearbox’s coasting function between 50 km/h to 160 km/h. Coasting mode shifts to neutral, so the car can glide along without losing speed to engine braking.

The iDrive navigation system also has a new ECO PRO mode, where if used instead of the traditional shortest or fastest route, takes you through the most fuel efficient road to your destination. There’s also the Proactive Driving Assistant, which uses GPS data to let the driver know ahead when he should lift off the accelerator to slow down, such as when there’s a lower speed limit up ahead. This allows less forward momentum to be wasted on braking. Of course, all of this assumes the availability of decent map data.

We also went through an offroad section at the Olympic Park, which took about half an hour. We climbed a rocky hill near a snow-less ski jump course. We used Hill Descent Control most of the course, which worked great – you just set what speed you want (we used 12 km/h) and let the car go down a steep hill without using the accelerator or brakes – just steer and the car will maintain the intended speed. The X5 made it all look so easy and we went through the course without a hitch, which is way more than anything a typical X5 owner would put it through.

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Most impressively, even during some pretty rough sections of the course, not a single thing in the X5’s cabin creaked or rattled, which I consider to be another improvement over the E70. Granted, this could be because we drove the five-seater model without the rear comfort seats, so the rear bench is fixed without sitting on seat rails. The comfort seats and the seven-seater option calls for more complicated seat mechanisms. A simpler five-seater setup means less moving parts in the cabin, so there’s less to go wrong. The current E70 seven-seater can get pretty creaky and rattly in Malaysia.

The offroad course wasn’t particularly challenging – I’ve driven through more hardcore grounds back in Malaysia (the Ssangyong Actyon Sport media drive from a few years ago comes to mind, or even the Range Rover Evoque drive in Australia, which included driving across a river), but then again BMW did not even once talk about the car’s offroad ability throughout the entire course of the press event, so perhaps it didn’t want to put emphasis on the car’s offroading capabilities too much.

This isn’t a vehicle you buy and then boast about its offroad ability. The most you’ll probably do is go through some minor floods, creatively park the X5 in busy areas, or perhaps bring one side of the car up on a curb to turn left at a junction blocked by cars lining up to go straight. There’s only air suspension at the rear, so there’s no ability to raise the car’s ride height like with a full air suspension vehicle. There’s also no low ratio gearbox, like a hardcore 4X4 vehicle.

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The X5 is currently offered in Malaysia as either an xDrive30d or an xDrive35i. We expect these engine options to continue with the F15 X5 when it eventually gets launched here. BMW Malaysia doesn’t really exactly offer the 50i engine in any car other than the 750i, but based on previous launches they might offer it as a halo model for a limited time after the SUV is launched, if any really deep pocketed people are interested.

I wish that at least the Comfort suspension pack is offered here as standard, but based on past record, higher spec’d suspension systems aren’t the fashion – the CBU X3 was initially offered with dynamic dampers, but these were eliminated from the spec sheet when it went CKD.

The E70 X5 still looks very fresh, so existing owners may not feel a strong urge to upgrade as compared to other replacement models, but they might change their mind after a test drive if it feels as comfortable in Malaysia as what I felt overseas – both in terms of specs and how it handles our local roads.

The new X5 certainly raises its game and has become a more balanced and refined vehicle – new members of the X5 ownership club would probably be very pleased with it, and the softer drive will appeal to a far broader market, but existing E70 owners will have to get used to the steering!

GALLERY: BMW X5 xDrive50i

GALLERY: BMW X5 xDrive30d

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