the 2014-18 bmw x5 was a nice suv — nice in the way a love interest tells you you're nice before dumping you. it wasn't offensive, but it didn't go the extra mile to stand out among other luxury suvs. and after the swedes reset the mid-size luxury suv benchmark with the 2016 volvo xc90 — 's best of 2016 winner — "nice" simply doesn't cut it anymore. for 2019, the bmw x5 is redesigned from the ground up, replacing a drab cabin with bold styling and adding more tech to the user experience as well as under the hood.
at its core, the x5 gets top marks for how it drives, though perhaps not in the way bmw has traditionally executed the "ultimate driving machine." when it goes on sale nov. 10, the x5 will come in an xdrive40i trim level with a more powerful turbocharged six-cylinder (335 horsepower, up from 300 hp in 2018), while the twin-turbocharged eight-cylinder xdrive50i has a reworked 456-hp used engine ; both have standard all-wheel drive. i sampled the xdrive40i at a bmw press preview in the atlanta area (per 's ethics policy, we pay for our airfare and lodging at such automaker-sponsored events).
volvo wishes the xc90 drove as well as the x5
driving the x5 over the broken pavement and curvy backroads of atlanta's deep, deep outskirts, it clicked: feature for feature, the suv i was driving was closely equipped to the 2016 volvo xc90 we owned for a year and more than 22,000 miles. i was in an x5 with the optional air suspension (now for front and rear suspension versus just rear in 2018), and it was riding on obscenely large optional 21-inch wheels ($1,550), which mirrored our xc90's rim size.
the xc90 doesn't ride objectionably poorly. it's just that the x5 rolls over rough roads with a higher level of sophistication and road isolation. where the xc90's wheels flail over continuously broken road, the x5 remains poised and its ride reassuring, with minimal body movement. big wheels and low-profile tires can make a car ride like hell because there's less tire sidewall (and air) for impact absorption, so every little bump and imperfection on the road transmits through the car, which was an issue with the xc90. my x5's ride was even more impressive because its pirelli p zero tires are run-flats, a style not known for comfort or quietness, and they're huge: sized 315/35/21 in the back and 275/40/21 in the front.
the x5's 335-hp six-cylinder also excels where the xc90's optional supercharged and turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder is "meh" — a grainy-sounding used engine compared with the x5's smooth six-cylinder that makes a delightful sound through electronic augmentation and whoosh-y turbo air induction noises. output increases of 35 hp and 30 pounds-feet of torque for 2019 amplify an already top-notch six-cylinder, making this 3.0-liter feel less and less like an entry-level used engine (at least for now).
the used engine and an updated eight-speed automatic transmission are a splendid complement. the prodigious torque matches well to intelligent transmission programming and smoother, faster shifts. the seamless gear changes approach dual-clutch levels of quickness. this dynamic duo also includes launch control, as in 2018. (it seems unnecessary, but perhaps owners want to impress a golfing buddy with one of those "hold my latte macchiato" moments.) it is entertaining, and the result is an advertised zero-to-60-mph time of 5.3 seconds, down from bmw's claim of 6.1 seconds for the old x5 (without launch control). that kind of acceleration from the x5 is quite fun, and the turbo six-cylinder is responsive with almost electric-motor levels of low-end torque that never leaves acceleration very far behind a press of the accelerator. a non-hybrid, 316-hp xc90 hits 60 mph in a claimed 6.6 seconds, and while i didn't measure the x5 or xc90's acceleration myself, the x5 has more seat-of-the-pants scoot with no mileage penalty compared to the xc90. preliminary epa ratings are 20/26/22 mpg city/highway/combined for the xdrive40i, versus 19/26/22 mpg for the 2019 xc90 with the turbocharged and supercharged 2.0-liter.
less fun, though, is the x5's handling. despite having summer tires wider than a bmw m4's, the x5 i drove wasn't the version with the most performance potential. my test car was the xline model with a new optional off-road package ($3,950) that includes the air suspension rather than the performance-oriented m sport with m adaptive suspension. the standard suspension has adaptive, adjustable-firmness shock absorbers; the optional air suspension is more comfort-tuned and the only version i sampled. its adjustable ride height can be raised up to 1.6 inches higher than the standard setting, and lowered 1.6 inches in the rear for easier cargo load-in. at faster than 86 mph, or in sport mode, the x5 lowers 0.8 inch for better aerodynamics and a lower center of gravity.
the x5 with this suspension competently handled corners but had noticeable body lean and gave the outside tires a workout. while quick, the steering is rather numb and isn't very engaging. the soft steering dampens sporty driving, but it also makes the x5 a joy to drive as a comfy, cushy luxury suv.
another new feature is optional integral active steering ($1,150), or rather, rear-steering where the rear wheels turn — in the opposite direction of the fronts to increase low-speed maneuverability, and in the same direction as the front wheels at higher speeds for quicker handling. i didn't think the x5 stood out in those areas or had a particularly small turning circle, but i also didn't get to sample a car without the feature or with smaller wheels.
the x5 i tested certainly isn't the "ultimate handling machine" as-equipped. perhaps the sportier trims and options will enhance that, but it's fair to say performance-oriented suvs like the porsche cayenne and smaller alfa romeo stelvio satisfy that craving more ubiquitously throughout their various trim levels and versions. these models have two rows of seats maximum versus the x5 with an available third row, which doesn't go on sale until december.
one area where volvo can feel comfortably far enough ahead is on the semi-autonomous driving front. bmw's available driving assistance plus package ($1,700) includes traffic jam assist with extended hands-off time and an automatic lane-change feature, like tesla's auto lane change. i'd like to give these features a more thorough test because initially, they did not work well. i don't know if it was the roads of atlanta or the car, but the x5 didn't center well in its lane but bounced between the markings. the x5 followed the car ahead of me out of my lane, requiring action to take over so i also didn't end up in the other lane, which at the time was occupied by another car. bmw's technology has been well-executed in the 5 and 7 series, which is why i want to give it a second chance.
about that off-road package
bmw previewed its new off-road package by letting us slosh through a hilly and muddy off-road course winding through a western georgia hillside. the package includes the air suspension, a new electronically locking rear differential, front and rear skid plates and an off-road driving mode with selectable terrain settings; we used the rock setting for our off-road jaunt, keeping snow, gravel and sand settings in reserve.
while capable in this particular terrain, the off-road package doesn't turn the x5 into a jeep wrangler. its street tires aren't especially grabby, and as on the street, the steering isn't communicative, which made it challenging to find the ruts with traction when presented with a muddy trail. the experience, while completable, wasn't confidence-inspiring, and there was a learning curve to ascending steep hills where i initially got stuck and had to back down to retry. the instructor told me to give it more gas when the tires started slipping, which was somewhat counterintuitive because i didn't want to dig the back end into a rut, but the all-wheel drive then transferred more torque to the front wheels to give the traction needed to ascend the hill. i thought the off-road mode would have been smarter about giving a more optimal split from the start without gunning the used engine . adding an extra dose of reassurance was the front camera view on the large center display that at low speeds gave a view of the terrain when the windshield was pointed at treetops at the crest of a hill.
interior is snazz-i-fied
new highlights abound on the inside that set the 2019 apart from the old x5. some are optional, like the glass controls, which are reminiscent of volvo's available crystal transmission gear selector. the gear selector, idrive controller, stop-start button and volume dial all have a glass cap that adds extra flair to the interior. a real leather dashboard is a $1,200 option that adds a layer of legit luxury (most are vinyl-covered). standard is the cabin's eye-catcher: live cockpit professional comprises two 12.3-inch displays. one is the center touchscreen for multimedia and vehicle controls that can also be operated by the idrive knob and buttons, and the other screen replaces analog instruments with a completely digital display. bmw is homing in on a fascinating system, mixing a touchscreen with an idrive controller, additional physical dials and buttons plus voice commands and available gesture control.
it sounds overwhelming, but at least bmw now gives you options, unlike the xc90, which has many of its features hidden within a finicky touchscreen. bmw's interface is also new, surfacing common controls that had been hidden in the depths of a submenu. and what i like about having physical controls — other than simply having them — is that it's an opportunity to add more depth to the interior styling. bmw takes advantage of that opportunity with textured vent and drive mode controls plus stylized climate control buttons.
we'll have a more thorough dive into the x5's interior when we give it our full review, but bmw has definitely added more "wow" factor. it does come at a price, with the as-tested x5 — not including the optional third row — priced at $81,230, while our lowly xc90 with standard third row was $66,265 when purchased in 2016. is it worth it? that all depends on how much you value the driving experience — and what type of driving experience you expect.
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