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Old 10-23-2006, 11:05 AM
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new X5 - the Ultimate Mommy Machine

EYES ON THE ROAD
By JOSEPH B. WHITE
Wall Street Journal
October 23, 2006

BMW Focuses on Cupholders: X5 SUV Is Redesigned to Widen Its Appeal; Offers Look at Road Ahead for Luxury Cars

Seven years ago, BMW AG launched a vehicle based on a concept that sounded then like an oxymoron: An SUV with the handling of a sports sedan.

So concerned were BMW marketing executives that people wouldn't get it, they invented a new name to describe their machine: "Sports Activity Vehicle," or SAV.

Fortunately for BMW, affluent consumers world-wide looked past the clunky euphemism -- and certain other shortcomings -- and embraced the BMW X5 for what it was, namely, a manly family wagon with the refined blend of crisp handling and exhilarating engine performance that is as much a signature of the BMW brand as the blue and white propeller logo. In a business where the half life of most new models is measured in months, BMW got away with selling the first generation X5 for seven years. Sales even increased in 2005 over the year before.


BMW hopes its new X5 will have a broader appeal
Now, BMW is starting to build an entirely new X5, which will be shipped to more than 100 countries from its big factory near Spartanburg, S.C. The new X5 represents BMW's most overt effort yet to expand its appeal beyond driving enthusiasts with Y chromosomes.

Capable of carrying up to seven passengers in three rows of seats, the new 2007 X5 is a technological marvel whose most noticeable feature, for many buyers, will be the decidedly un-Bavarian Big Gulp-ready cup holders designed into the center console just in front of the shift lever.

Call it the Ultimate Mommy Machine.

The driver's seat of the new X5 offers a commanding view -- and not just of the twisty mountain roads between Greenville S.C. and Asheville, N.C. You can see a lot about where the luxury vehicle business is heading, too.

Let's start with those cupholders. They are a symbol of just how much competitive pressure now confronts even elite brands such as BMW. Albert Biermann, the project director who led the new X5's development, says one strong request from BMW's U.S. marketing team was "please demonstrate that BMW can execute a cupholder" to U.S. tastes.

Not so long ago, BMW engineers -- like their counterparts at other German luxury brands -- blew off cupholders as just another American vulgarism. Not anymore.

Cupholders are just one way in which the new X5 represents a new level of effort by one of Europe's proudest auto makers to cater to American tastes. Another is that optional third row of seats, which most X5 owners will never sit in unless they are being punished by an angry spouse. Perhaps, in a different world, BMW would have stuck with a five-seat configuration for the X5, rather than add weight and body structure to a vehicle that's supposed to be agile. But the social reality is that well-to-do Americans have to ferry their kids and their friends to soccer practice or school just like everybody else. One of the biggest complaints about the old X5 was that it had less cargo space than one of BMW's 5 series wagons.

Cargo space? In an "ultimate driving machine?" Well, yes. Once you decide, as BMW and its rivals have done, to redefine the luxury vehicle not as a life's reward but as a lifestyle, you have to make room for the kids.

Managing the tension between domestication and self indulgence is what the X5 is all about. The new X5 is 7.4 inches longer than its predecessor to accommodate those optional extra seats and the extra bags. But designer Pierre Leclercq and his colleagues labored over the size and placement of the rear roof pillar so that the presence of a third row of seats would be largely concealed when you looked at the X5 in profile.


Despite weighing more than three tons, the X5 still drives like a sporty sedan, thanks to an array of technology.
The X5 weighs more than three tons. So BMW engineers brought an impressive array of technology to bear on the problem of getting a vehicle this big and heavy to behave like a sports sedan. Mr. Biermann, the project leader, is a suspension expert, with credits that include work on BMW's high performance M cars and race cars. The new X5 is a metal merchant's dream, with a magnesium and aluminum engine block, and big aluminum pieces in the suspension, all designed to cut weight.

BMW will offer on the X5 a package of "active" handling systems under the name "AdaptiveDrive" that will use electronics to minimize side-to-side swaying in corners and absorb bumps in the road. A computer controlled active steering system, a $1,250 option, can automatically help a driver avoid losing control by countering extreme steering moves. BMW's case for this hardware is as much about safety as it is high performance driving, although Mr. Biermann made a point of saying that the X5 can lap the famed Nurburgring race course 10 seconds faster than its predecessor.

On the road, most of this high-tech hardware is invisible. And most people would want it to stay that way. I drove a X5 4.8i with a 350 horsepower V-8 engine but without the AdaptiveDrive technology on rain-slicked highways and byways in the Carolina hills. The X5 is quiet and sure handling while cruising. Hit the accelerator and that BMW V-8 growl swells up to make you feel good about the more than $55,000 it will cost. Just once, I engaged the vehicle's anti-skid brake and traction control system -- and that was because I took a clumsy arc through a tight turn.

The V-8 I drove gets similar gas mileage to the 2006 model with the same size engine. The 3.0 liter six-cylinder engine in the standard X5 is rated at 17 miles per gallon in the city, 23 on the highway -- slightly better than the previous model despite the greater power and weight. BMW says the engines require premium unleaded gasoline.

BMW hasn't surrendered completely to American whims. Teutonic quirks like a shifter that demands you to move the lever forward to go into reverse remain to perplex the uninitiated.

But perhaps the most striking thing about the new X5 is just how crowded the segment it defied convention to create has become.

In 1999, the X5 was a segment of one. Today, even the Internet barely affords space to list all the luxury brand crossover wagons on the market that make claims to sports sedan performance and luxury sedan comfort. Why even Volvo, that brand founded on "safety," last week announced a new XC90 "Sport" model with a V-8 engine and a "sport tuned" suspension at a base price of $49,300 -- nearly $6,000 less than the new X5 V-8 model.

Just a few weeks prior to BMW's launch program for the X5, Honda Motor Co.'s Acura brand rolled out a redesigned version of its popular MDX. Where the original MDX was essentially a minivan that had undergone a gender transformation, the new MDX comes with a 300 horsepower six-cylinder engine -- compared to the 260 horsepower six offered in the standard X5 -- an all-wheel-drive system that varies driving force from side to side and front to back and lots of other techno-goodies. And where does Acura say it tested this vehicle?

Why the Nurburgring, of course.
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