By now, the concept of a high-performance SUV with ungodly horsepower, stupendous capability, and a heinous sticker price should be familiar. That reality is itself remarkable; what twenty years ago would have been considered a nonsensical engineering exercise for a nonexistent buyer is, well … let’s just say that today there are plenty of buyers. Finance executives working at BMW HQ in Munich and BMW North America in New Jersey might be gnawing their cuticles with anxiety about how many rear-drive 2 Series coupes would need to sell to justify a new generation; the $128,000 X5 M we recently tested lulls them to undisturbed REM sleep with the promise of sweet profits.
This is the third generation of BMW X5 M and its coupe-ish X6 M sibling; the first was released in 2009 on the E70 platform, while this latest variant is based on the new-for-2019 G05-platform X5. Mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission and all-wheel drive, the burly 4.4-liter twin-turbo V-8 now makes 617 hp and 553 lb-ft of torque in the X5 M Competition and “just” 600 in the plain X5 M. The über SUV comes fully strapped with adaptive suspension, an active front anti-roll bar, an active differential, and a dual-branch M sport exhaust. Extra bracing is there to reinforce the chassis, but most striking is the aggressive strut tower bracing visible under the hood. When your baddest engine looks like it needs its own robotic exoskeleton, best to show it off.
These cars have always been about excess, so the options list is not a place to start showing restraint. Our tester included the Tanzanite Blue II Metallic paint ($1950), Drivers Assistance Pro Package ($1700), Executive Package ($3600), and M Driver’s Package ($2500). The massaging seats that come with the Executive bundle? You’ll dip into those before leaving the dealer lot. The 177-mph top speed that the M Driver’s pack brings will require more runway. (Note: For best results, visit actual runway.)
The look of this vehicle is domineering, particularly with the black exterior trim pieces. Any of these features on its own—big grille, 21- and 22-inch staggered wheels, 68.9-inch height—would look absurd. Together they harmonize in a braggadocious sort of way, not unlike a boulevard full of gaudy South Beach mansions.
The X5 rides on the same modular CLAR platform that underpins every rear-drive based vehicle in the BMW stable, save for the 2 Series. It also demonstrates what’s really important to the firm nowadays. While the 3 Series interior feels soulless and uninspired compared to, say, the Mercedes C-Class, the X5 M convincingly pampers. Gently shut the soft-close doors, climb into the driver’s seat, and you are treated to a lavish array of colors, textures, quality materials, and tasteful utilization of the M tricolor motif throughout. The generously-adjustable bucket seat makes it easy to find a comfortable position, and the large back seat means plenty of space for taller drivers (and passengers). Though the split tailgate is useful, the car is far too tall for convenient luggage loading. Audi and Land Rover have the right idea with their squatting air suspensions.
Although you do get used to it somewhat, the gimmicky M shifter operation is awkward to use and serves no practical nor ergonomic purpose. All controls are otherwise intuitive, save for the curious gesture features, but there are way too many menus in the iDrive system and it’s easy to get lost or distracted in them. And in predictable modern-BMW fashion, there is too much individual adjustability—for the steering, chassis, brakes, and engine—to deal with while actually, you know, driving.
About that. In Comfort mode there is a bit of initial throttle hesitation, but once rolling the transmission operates smoothly and without fuss. Hit one of the red M switches to activate your pre-programmed drive modes, however, and the unfettered Nürburgring blitzmobile shreds through its street clothes with adamantium claws. Stunning back-on-its-haunches thrust. Ruthless torque throughout the rev range. A marvelously deep exhaust note with a dramatic blat upon upshifts. Heroic brakes that are nonetheless perfectly civil in stop-and-go traffic. Whatever unlikely performance specs BMW claims for this 5425-pound turbo tank, we believe them all.
Impressive? Hell yes. Involving? Less so. The driver more or less points the thing at a target and then holds on for the ride. Stiff suspension exacerbates that sensation with notable passenger head-toss over uneven surfaces, along with plenty of thunks and thumps on broken pavement. The prospect of a long road trip in this car would be onerous.
On a twisty road the X5 M is bizarrely even-keeled, while at no point disguising its immense footprint. In fact, the active roll stabilization is so effective that it engenders a kind of dissonant, unsettling equilibrium. Make no mistake, this is an amazing machine that could more than hold its own on a road course. It’s just hard to imagine there being any satisfaction in it beyond the brazen novelty of such a stunt.
It’s hard to wrap your head around the point of the X5 M and what buyer might be fulfilled by such an outlandish vehicle. BMW professes that “Since the introduction of the M1 in 1978, the engineers at BMW M have been driven by a single-minded passion for combining authentic motorsport functionality with everyday usability.” (Emphasis ours.) If anything, the X5 M Competition suffers from excessive single-mindedness. Such a profound flex of engineering capability yields a product that no motorsport enthusiast would consider authentic, nor any civilized luxury customer would consider everyday usable, especially when the standard X5 is so refined. As for passion, the bean counters at BMW can tell you all about it. They’re well rested.
2020 BMW X5 M Competition
Base price/as-tested: $115,095/$128,245
Highs: Titanic thrust, QE2 luxury.
Lows: Zodiac ride, megayacht price.
Summary: The concept of an all-out performance SUV is bewildering, but BMW has no trouble executing it to extremes.