BMW X5 M50i
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Love them or hate them, you have to respect the SUV. In a relatively short space of time, they’ve become the dominant force is the car world, and it seems everyone either wants one, or wants to make one - even those purist companies who swore they never would.
The thing about them is that they now seem to fill every motoring niche - pure adventure machines, urban explorers, daily drivers, luxury barges, performance-focused models; some are also a combination of those things. They’re big, they’re small, and their influence even extends to other car types. The crossover, that other huge seller, arguably wouldn’t exist without the SUV.
And then you get the über SUV. No, not the ones used by Über, the ones that want to impress you with a combination of all the best things an SUV can offer: space, luxury and performance, with the promise of off-road ability. We’re driving one such über SUV - and I don’t want to say it, but I have my reservations.
The BMW X5 M50i, the most flagship X5 you can get without venturing into the M Performance section of the BMW showroom. For a base price of R1,75m, the M50i promises an absolute face punch of power from the softest, cushiest of boxing gloves. For the extra R250 000 worth of extras on our test car, that experience is amped up with addition of a long list of interior and mechanical improvements.
Looking at the full spec sheet, it's hard to not be impressed by the M50i, and that's not even considering the prestige factor that comes with owning a R2m German SUV. So with all that it's got going for it, why do I still have reservations?
I guess it comes down to the fact that I'm really not an X5 fan. I’ve never driven an X5 that I actually enjoyed - objectively, yes, they’re generally capable and they deliver a decent drive, but I’ve never had that moment of looking over my shoulder while walking away after parking one, and I can’t remember ever looking forward to driving one. Even the X50i, with its luxury label and its performance bent, doesn’t particularly excite me.
I think it's got something to do with the styling. Front on, it's a beefy BMW SUV with an extra large kidney grill, and supersized front air inlets that let you know there's some performance to be had. The M50i also has model-specific elements, like the grille and mirror caps finished in what BMW likes to call “Cerium Grey”, But what you and I might call a sort of matte gold.
That’s all fine, as is the profile with its large glass area and overall sense of purpose, boosted by the optional 22” wheels. It’s the rear view that’s a bit of a let down. It follows BMW’s new design direction with strong detailing, but its the slimmed-down LED tail lights that make it look almost generic. Take away the badge and it could quite easily pass as something Korean or French.
But it doesn’t take much to wipe that impression clean from your mind - all you have to do is open the door.
It's got a wide center console and controls grouped in clusters - for example, the aircon controls sit directly beneath the center vents. There's also full digital instrumentation, and a wide touchscreen for the infotainment system on top of the center console. It’s not too dissimilar to similarly prices BMW interiors, but the spec and the finishes in here are spectacular.
Coffee-coloured patterned Vernasca leather for the sports seats, contrasting piano black inlays, topped with glass finishes for the iDrive controller and engine start button. There’s an instant air of luxury that wafts out of the cabin as soon as you open the door; at night, it’s intensified by selectable interior lighting that wraps around the cabin, and the optional panoramic roof with its illuminated diamond pattern adds an extra layer of quality.
The standard spec includes electric controls for the seat, temperature control for the cupholders, 4-zone climate control and roller blinds for the rear windows. Some extra money will buy you a dual-screen rear entertainment system and arguably the coolest option I’ve seen in a while: the Luggage Compartment Package.
BMW have designed away the problem of having to touch the luggage cover - either to open it, close it, or remove it when you don’t need it. Opening the boot automatically retracts the cover; a further touch of a button rolls up the cover completely, then stores the whole mechanism by moving it along tracks behind the rear seats into a compartment in the boot floor.
That crafty boot system and the rest of the interior go a long way to convincing you that, despite this car’s impressive power, it has a very serious mission to deliver a luxury drive. Around town, it’s almost easy to forget this car’s performance focus because everything about it is just so easy.
Standard adaptive suspension smooths out most rougher road surfaces; easy steering and lane-keeping assist combine with and all-round camera system to make manoeuvring the big X as stress-free as possible in any situation. There is a tendency for some sporty BMWs to feel like al they want to do is pick a fight with the nearest car - they can feel on edge and ready to pounce given even half a chance. The X50i is not one of those sporty BMWs - it’s happy to do the family thing and keep it polite.
Until you provoke it.
It has a customisable Sport mode, but you don't even need that in order for it to pounce; just show it a tiny bit of open space, floor the throttle, and you're rewarded with an absolute torrent of power and the kind of acceleration that just defies physics.
Your right foot is linked to a 4.4 litre V8, and it doesn’t take much to get your money’s worth out of it. Within 4,3 seconds of you pulling off, the X50i will be doing 100km/h, courtesy of the 390kW and 750Nm pouring forth from the turbo motor in front of you. It’s pretty stupendous, and the sound from the standard M Sports Exhaust is great as well. Drive is to all four wheel through an 8-speed Steptronic gearbox, with M Sport brakes as standard.
Yes, that all-wheel drive setup is there for added daily stability, but it has a rear-bias and packs an M Sport differential as well. Combine that with the optional rear-wheel steering and you have a winning recipe for an SUV that has responsiveness and cornering ability that is deeply impressive. And not just because of the way it handles itself in the corners, but because you can get a sense of what's going on underneath you.
Just like all big performance cars, there’s not a lot of genuine feel coming through the steering wheel, but the chassis, and that rear-wheel steering in particular, does add a surprising element of feedback and enjoyment.
There is one thing I wish the M50i I didn't have: BMW’s insistence that this car, with its massive power and performance-focused everything will still venture off road. Yes, it does have hill start control and you can fit it with optional air suspension that'll raise it by 40mm. But really, I think it's time that BMW - and other manufacturers of performance SUVs - stopped pushing that particular agenda.
I’m sure with the right tyres and the right underbody protection an X5 M50i can go off-road, but… With such an enthusiastic throttle response, a minimum tyre size of 21” and a price tag approaching R2m, the chances of seeing an M50i in any sort of dirt driving situation is about as fanciful as me actually enjoying the drive in an X5.
I have. I was sceptical about the M50i because of my past X5 drives, but this is a new kind of experience. A crafted interior with luxury and tech in equal measure, and a drive that’s an incredible balance between everyday usability and proper performance.
The SUV may be continuing to evolve and it may be continuing its march to take over the world, but it's going to be hard to improve on this one.
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