Look at the product portfolio of every major premium carmaker out there and you’ll find that they are almost overrun by SUVs. Rugged-looking yet resolutely road-biased, these vehicles appeal to a broader audience and, as such, form a very important part of these brands’ plans to take over the world.

But it wasn’t always like this – the premium SUV was almost unheard of 20 years ago. Sure, there was Mercedes-Benz with its body-on-frame M-Class and Lexus with its RX, but for the most part premium brands stuck to building traditional sedans, wagons and coupés. That is, until the original X5 arrived in 1999.

Yes it was big, yes it was heavy, and yes purists hated it (not nearly as much as when they found out BMW was going to make a front-wheel drive car), but it showed that Munich didn’t need to be confined to its traditional clientele of 20-something yuppies and ageing businessmen. Never mind that as an off-road-style vehicle, it couldn’t actually go very far off the road – it was a hit, and the rest, as they say, is history.

But the X5 is now at a crossroads. It’s a victim of its own success, as the ultra-competitive segment is packed with up and coming rivals that are either quicker, more comfortable or better to drive. To fend off all comers, the new G05 X5 has to be the consummate all-rounder, doing everything just as well, if not better, than the rest. Has it succeeded? We flew all the way to Atlanta to find out.

The X5 has never been small, but the G05 is a proper giant. It’s now just under five metres long (4,922 mm) and over two metres wide (2,004 mm), making it 36 mm longer and a whopping 66 mm wider than before. It’s also 19 mm taller at 1,745 mm, while its wheelbase has grown by 42 mm to a whisker under three metres (2,975 mm). If BMW needed to make space for the X7, this car certainly didn’t make the job any easier.

In the metal, however, the sizeable increase in dimensions doesn’t translate to a bulkier look, and that’s because of the pared-back design that is sharper and more athletic than that of the old F15. Further masking the car’s sheer size is the double kidney grille which, in keeping with BMW’s latest design language, has been supersized to almost cartoonish proportions, joined in the middle through a single chrome surround.

This grille is flanked by a pair of slimmer trapezoidal headlights, which are now available in Laserlight form for the first time (Malaysian models get adaptive LED units with U-shaped daytime running lights instead). Along the side, the shoulder line now features a kink in the rear doors to emphasise the rear haunches, while the lower accent line flows downwards from the Air Breather vents in a similar fashion to the X7.

At the rear, there’s one big change – the LED tail lights lose the pronounced L shape that has defined BMWs for decades, and many in the office feel that the car looks a little more anonymous as a result. Still, it’s a handsome look, with slimmer three-dimensional lenses that frame the indicator, brake and reverse lights. The G05 is the first BMW to get the option of 22-inch wheels, although ours measure a more sensible 20 inches.

Previous-generation F15 BMW X5 (left) versus new G05 (right)

Inside, there’s been a concerted effort to increase the wow factor and close the gap to Mercedes’ stylish cabins. Like many new BMWs, the X5 adopts an angular, geometric design that incorporates plenty of electroplated chrome trim around the air vents and door panels. You also get the option of multifaceted crystal glassware for the control knobs and the electronic gearlever, as well as the 7 SeriesSky Lounge panoramic sunroof with imprinted ambient lighting – all of which contribute to the glitzy ambience.

With the new design, all the switchgear has been clustered in a clear and logical fashion – the climate controls are now right below the air vents, while the buttons for the drive modes and vehicle settings are all grouped around the gearlever. Having since spent some time in the new 3 Series with a similar setup, I can confirm that the controls are intuitive and fall into hand easily, although the usage of buttons (instead of knobs) for temperature and even the lights introduce a steeper than usual learning curve.

Perceived quality has also been improved thanks to the use of higher-quality soft-touch materials, including a Sensatec faux leather-wrapped dashboard on most models. All this conspire to make the G05’s interior feel more inviting and luxurious, whilst maintaining a modicum of BMW’s businesslike charm.

The technology on board has been given a comprehensive revamp with the introduction of BMW Operating System 7.0. The new interface features a customisable home screen, incorporating larger tiles that provide more live information at a glance. As standard, you get the range-topping Live Cockpit Professional package that throws in twin 12.3-inch displays, with the centre display now being a capacitive touchscreen.

Meanwhile, the instrument display features new graphics that push the dials – including a reverse-direction rev counter – to the far corners of the screen. While the layout again takes some getting used to, it does leave space for more information to be displayed, such as a section of the navigation map. All-in-all, the new system keeps BMW in the infotainment lead in terms of clarity and ease of use.

As you’d expect from a car with such a huge footprint, there’s plenty of space no matter where you look, with acres of head- and legroom both at the front and rear. The optional third row is actually useable for adults, even if they’re not especially comfortable, and there’s also a one-touch powered easy-entry function to stop you faffing about with the (powered) second-row seat controls.

Despite the increased size, however, boot space remains the same at 650 litres in five-seater form, expandable to 1,860 litres with the rear seats folded. There are some new features here to improve practicality – both parts of the split-opening tailgate are now powered (not just the upper portion), and you can also specify the five-seater model with a novel cargo cover that slides right into the boot floor electrically.

Globally, the X5 is offered with a range of turbocharged engines that include petrol and diesel straight-sixes, a petrol V8 and M Performance variants with either a petrol V8 or a diesel straight-six with four (!) turbos. There’s also an xDrive45e plug-in hybrid, now with six instead of four cylinders.

The model we’re focusing on here is the one we’re getting – the xDrive40i with a B48 3.0 litre petrol straight-six, producing 340 hp from 5,500 to 6,000 rpm and 450 Nm of torque between 1,500 and 5,200 rpm. It’s paired to the usual ZF eight-speed automatic transmission, and despite being the base engine in the range it is not at all slow. It gets from zero to 100 km/h in 5.5 seconds before hitting a top speed of 243 km/h, whilst also being capable of a combined fuel consumption figure of 9.2 litres per 100 km.

As with the best BMW engines, the six-pot mill is as sweet as the city’s famed peach cobblers. Floor the throttle and you get an immediate wave of torque that pulls this two-tonne behemoth smoothly and without any fuss or drama, and it does this anywhere throughout the rev range. It’s accompanied by a sonorous mechanical growl that makes the perfect backing track, even though it’s not quite as loud as we’d like.

That may be so, but at least it means that the X5 is impeccably refined, whether you’re hustling it along on a good road or simply ambling along on a highway. Like most big BMWs nowadays, there’s very low road and wind noise, and as ever, the gearbox does a remarkable job of working smoothly behind the scenes, whilst also being able to deliver brutal, lightning-fast shifts when you’re racing through the gears.

And now we come to dynamics. The F15 – or at least the xDrive40e I sampled ahead of this drive – moved away from the taut ride and handling we’ve come to expect from BMW. Even though it was fitted with the top-of-the-line adaptive M suspension and rear air springs, it exhibited a curious lack of body control and yet, in its default setting, was too soft to maintain composure over bumps, resulting in a bouncy ride.

Clearly, Munich felt the same way, because the chassis options have been given a complete overhaul. While the front double wishbones and rear five-link setup remain, the X5 now features adaptive dampers as standard (we’ll get the M version of the system), and you can also specify a Professional version of the M suspension that bundles in active roll stabilisation and rear-wheel steering. There’s also an option of air suspension on both ends – not just the rear – and even a locking M Sport rear differential.

The test cars all ride on air suspension and sport rear steering and the newfangled diff, none of which we’ll get, so a proper assessment will have to wait until we get our hands on a local model. That said, this test will give us a fairly accurate grasp of the car’s broader abilities, and it only takes one turn of the wheel to realise that this is a considerably more athletic machine than the one that came before.

Even with what is supposedly the most comfort-oriented suspension option available, the X5 exercises far tighter control over body movements, each bump dealt with greater finesse and poise. There’s less of that heaving motion that is typical of air springs, giving a ride that is altogether calmer – even if this tester’s massive 21-inch alloy wheels do make an ungraceful thump over the occasional pothole.

Pitch it into a corner and the steering responds in a more linear and direct manner than before, even though, as is almost always the case with electrically-assisted systems these day, there’s little to be had in terms of feel. The rear-wheel steering works imperceptibly in the background to make this leviathan feel far more agile than it has any right to be, backed by the towering grip from the diff, all-wheel drive and fat tyres. Even a particularly spirited drive at one point to keep up with BMW’s tight schedule fails to throw it off.

If we were to end it there, we’d already declare the new X5 a significant step up from its predecessor, but there’s more. Because BMW wants to believe people are actually going to use an expensive BMW SUV off-road, even if in reality, to borrow a phrase from my colleague Danny, the only bukit they’re ever going to climb is Bukit Damansara. That’s where the new optional Offroad Package comes in.

Aside from throwing in air suspension and the locking diff, the package also adds front and rear underbody protection and four extra driving modes – sand, rock, gravel and snow – that can be selected via a rocker switch aft of the gearlever. These come with their own settings for the ride height, all-wheel drive power delivery, throttle and gearbox response and stability control intervention.

Across the fairly challenging off-road section that BMW put out for us – more appropriate for pick-up test drives back home than for a luxury SUV – the X5 acquits itself very well. With the suspension raised 40 mm from its standard setting, it traverses steep and slippery slopes with ease, even with regular on-road tyres.

The car will even lift the suspension and close the grille shutters if it detects a water crossing to make fording it easier and safer, and if you ever get stuck, a “touchdown detection” feature will temporarily raise the car another 30 mm to enable you to surmount that particular obstacle. Again, the package won’t be offered over here, but it’s interesting to see the breadth of capability that BMW has engineered into the car all the same.

At the end of the day, building on its already impressive skillset was the only way the X5 was going to overcome its formidable rivals, and the new G05 does so with aplomb. The technology on board may have grabbed the headlines, but they have also improved the driving experience in tangible, meaningful ways.

This car banishes the lumpen on-road demeanour of the outgoing model, all while being more practical, comfortable and refined to boot. For those looking for a family car with a little something extra, this is easily among the most well-rounded offerings in BMW’s stable, and the fact that, in the right specification, it can actually tackle terrain rougher than a school field makes it an even more impressive feat.

But the G05 will also mark the end of the short-lived premium SUV boom in Malaysia, as the incentives for locally-assembled plug-in hybrid models dry up. The regular petrol-engined version is expected to retail at over RM600,000, around the same level as what these full-sized models used to cost before the tax breaks. However, it will come as a shock to those used to the previous xDrive40e’s sub-RM400,000 asking price.

Either way, this latest model keeps the X5 at the sharp end of the segment, as it has been for the past 20 years – and in a market saturated in SUVs, that’s a very good thing. The nameplate may have made purists furious all those years ago, but this latest model shows that, now more than ever, it’s here to stay.

The G05 BMW X5 will go on sale in Malaysia in August. Just one variant will be offered, an xDrive40i M Sport priced at an estimated RM640,000 on-the-road without insurance. Included in the price is a five-year, unlimited-mileage warranty, a five-year free scheduled service package and a two-year warranty. Browse full specifications and equipment on CarBase.my.


GALLERY: G05 BMW X5 press photos
GALLERY: G05 BMW X5 xDrive40i M Sport in Malaysia