A Year in Bavaria

I can’t quite believe it myself but it has already been a whole year (and a day) since I signed on the dotted line for my BMW X5 and ended my long search for a set of new wheels. The past year has not been an especially eventful one but I have racked up a fair few thousand miles in the black Beemer and on the whole my experience has been overwhelmingly positive. To mark this anniversary I thought I’d give a little recap of my ownership experience in this time, partly to gush more over a car I really love but also to help anyone who may be looking at buying a used X5 or indeed any used luxury SUV.

You've seen my car before but here it is again

You’ve seen my car before but here it is again

I am going to attempt to make this review a little more structured than my sometimes-rambling approach that I have used before. This is because I think it will be easier for people to go straight to specific information and plus will help me to keep things a little organised in what is likely to be a long review!

Introduction:

Those of you have just stumbled across this blog probably aren’t aware of my borderline obsession with cars and the long search I went on in order to find a vehicle which was right for me. As a single guy in my early 20’s with a relatively low income, I am not the typical buyer for the X5 or indeed any kind of SUV – a hot hatch supermini or maybe a sporty coupe would have made much more sense for some people, but being in love with off-road vehicles in particular from a young age meant that there was never really going to be any other choice for me if I intended to be satisfied with my new car. That meant that I had to go into things with my eyes wide open; these are not cheap vehicles to run (more on that later) or to buy, especially when compared to other types of car the same age.

When looking around for what to buy I cast my net wide and looked at everything from Honda CR-V‘s to full size Range Rovers, but despite my wandering eye I really narrowed it down to a few vehicles which I felt met all my requirements to varying degrees. With the Audi Q7 too expensive and Lexus RX400h a little boring, I really came down hard looking at the original Range Rover Sport, second generation Mercedes ML and of course the BMW X5. Assuming you’ve come here looking for advice on buying an X5, you’ve probably reached a similar conclusion to me that one of these 3 vehicles offers the best choice; the Range Rover Sport however was relatively easy to discount as the examples in my price range were all high-mileage and either base spec or blinged out with aftermarket wheels, adding in the reliability of early Sports it meant I havn’t really looked back since. The ML I came very close to buying but really it all came down to spec and running costs – it is a much newer design than the X5 and ultimately looks a little fresher whilst offering a more comfortable ride and safer resale values. However I found that a large number of used ML’s were lacking in either sat-nav or heated memory seats…in retrospect the memory function I don’t use too often but heated seats are a must as is the nav screen, even if it is a little clunky to use in either the Mercedes or BMW. Also because the ML was introduced in late 2005, the vast majority of examples fall foul of the March 2006 road tax regulations and command an annual fee of £500+, versus £300 if produced before that date. Of course later X5’s also attract the higher rate, but there are plenty of slightly older examples available that dodge this…so barring finding the ‘perfect’ ML, an X5 it was for me.

So for those who have narrowed it down to an X5? Well there are a sh*t tonne on the market so you can definitely afford to be fussy – don’t buy the first one you see just because you are impressed with the way it drives/looks. Price points vary massively so you might be looking at a high mileage early V8 model for around £5k, a relative bargain for the wafting ability it offers, or the cleanest diesel models can still fetch over £10k…just be aware that as soon as you drive it off the forecourt that figure will drop massively! The petrol vs diesel debate continues to roll on, especially for vehicles like this, but most cars on the market will have the 3.0d engine which should suit the majority of buyers in terms of running costs and performance. I’ll go into more detail on this later but essentially unless you only intend to drive it around town or have a limited budget/fear of diesels then the ‘d’ is going to be hunky dory.

Design and Styling:

To the untrained eye the X5 can come across as a bit of a brute, and of course for some that is a major part of it’s appeal – back in the day the X5 was the de facto choice for everyone from footballers to wealthy businessmen, and of course their spouses too. For a long time there was nothing to match the X5’s driver or kerb appeal and as such it has become part of the furniture on Britain’s roads; there are at least 3 people at work who have the same model that I do, and running around the streets of North London I can easily spot 5 or 6 without having to look too hard. That means that in some ways it has lost it’s allure as a status symbol, but in the process it has become more accepted and viewed with less negativity than once was.

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One of the last pre-Bangle BMW designs, the original X5 actually has some quite classic lines and in many ways looks like a raised version of the 1996-2003 5 Series Touring (which of course is exactly what it is!) – yet the pumped up detailing and aggressive detailing means that in my opinion the X5 has managed to remain looking relatively modern, especially as subsequent designs have not varied too much from the overall look. Whilst the original was launched in 2000, the late 2003 facelift saw a few noticeable changes such as a larger kidney grille and more swept back headlights, with all important ‘halo’ detailing…admittedly in standard guise the yellow light on these can look a little bit dated but with a simple bulb change I think mine look pretty sharp.

My updated lights look much improved over the yellow-ish standard units

My updated lights look much improved over the yellow-ish standard units

Because of it’s height (and arguably width), a lot of people still see my car as being ‘large’ (or too large even), but as I detailed recently it is noticeably smaller than the current crop of ‘full size’ luxury SUV’s and more similar to vehicles like the Audi Q5 and current BMW X3. I can’t say that it’s always a pleasure to park, especially with it’s heavy steering, but with standard fit parking sensors front and rear (plus an invaluable dipping side mirror) it is not too hard to park even in multistory car parks.

Interior:

The ample exterior size of the X5 is mirrored on the inside too. Cars like the Range Rover Sport and Audi Q7 have been criticised as feeling like a reverse-tardis inside, and while the X5 is by no means the class leader for interior space it has always proved very generous in terms of my personal needs. Now you may think that as a self-proclaimed singleton that of course my needs are not going to be the same as a family’s or a couple with an active lifestyle, but my use of the car has been a little more varied than you might think. In terms of cabin space it has been able to handle 5 adults in comfort for extended motorway jaunts and there is plenty of leg/knee room for rear passengers, plus a handy rear vent system and plenty of cubbies/storage space. Up front also there are massive door bins, a reasonable cubby under the centre arm rest and a decent glove box, alongside cup holders and the usual creature comforts (more on those in a second).

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At 465L, the boot size of my car is unfortunately matched by the likes of the Audi Q3 let alone the Q5 or Q7, but on the whole that is more because of the relatively high floor (due to a spare size spare wheel underneath it) than anything else. It is still able to fit a large Xmas food shop with no problem, and I am sure that with a pram inside there’d be enough room for a normal shop too! Seats down I have been able to fit a lot of rubbish to take to the tip – I havn’t tried a double mattress or anything but several disassambled flat-pack units fit in there without too much problem. The split tailgate design is handy too – it can take a little getting used to but the lower half makes it easy to change shoes for anyone regardless of age, although I have yet to warrant how easy it is for dogs to get in (I will try that next year!).

Decent sized screen but lacking a modern input method-the knobs are clunky and somewhat counter-intuitive

Decent sized screen but lacking a modern input method-the knobs are clunky and somewhat counter-intuitive

In terms of interior design, well as with the exterior these things come down to individual preference but I have always thought that the X5’s interior to be smart and having aged well, especially compared to some rivals of the day like the original ML and Range Rover Sport. Similar to other BMW cabins from the time, the X5’s dash is slightly angled toward the driver for ease of use, and in my car the reasonably large navigation screen and alloy-effect trim make it seem relatively modern. Although it is probably the most common combination in ‘Sport’ models, the black leather and silver trim really helps to hide the age of the car; the wood which can be found in older models and the beige/grey leather can look a little odd and of course although it is still down to personal taste, a car like mine will probably be a little easier to sell (albeit maybe more expensive to buy). One area which hasn’t aged particular well however is the dial layout – which whilst very easy to read lacks the central information screen of most modern vehicles (although this is equally true of second generation X5’s too!).

the rear seats are heated too!

the rear seats are heated too!

Equipment wise of course things depend on what the original buyer specified, but if you get a Sport model (as most will do) then you get memory electric seats as standard with 8-way adjustment, 19″ wheels, Bluetooth (on post 2004 models), dual zone climate and cruise control. I found that most vehicles came with heated front seats also, but mine had the benefit of rear heated seats too which is a nice feature but maybe not strictly necessary. Something I do really recommend seeking out is navigation – the screen is pretty large and seriously helps with configuring car menu options as opposed to using a tiny single line screen in models without the nav unit in – unless you are looking at mega cheap models it’s something you should really try and get! Modern map DVD disks are not too expensive off of eBay either…

In terms of what X5 is lacking, well a lot of buyers will prefer to seek out a model with the panoramic roof, which would be nice but do so at your peril as it has been known to leak and command £1k+ to repair. My car also does without the electronically reclining rear seats or any form of rear entertainment system, which may be handy to parents but for me just look a little tacky. There are only a few features that my car really misses – annoying is the lack of power folding mirrors which would be handy more than anything, and comfort seats with lumbar adjustment would merely be a nice luxury over and above the 8 way seats I currently have. Although my example does have a 6 disc CD changer I am not sure anyone uses CD’s anymore, but overall music connectivity is pretty limited; I went through the effort of having an aux jack added for £20 when I had the amp for my speakers repaired, but there are more expensive alternatives for a more integrated system too.

Performance:

I made the decision to buy a facelifted 3.0d model when I was searching for my X5; the updated 6 cylinder diesel has 218bhp and can reach 60mph in 8.8 seconds from standstill, not bad when the vehicle weighs over 2 tonnes – all of this power is transmitted through a 6 speed ZF gearbox. I’m aware that for most people that explanation will be a little too technical, but essentially the post late 2003 diesels come with more than adequate power for the average driver, with accelerating both from standstill and when overtaking proving effortless – it’s unlikely anyone will ever find the car under powered.

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What does concern me a little is the life of both the gearbox and the turbo…reading around it is not uncommon for either of these to need reconditioning or replacing when the car gets to around 100k miles, a figure I am not too far off. I have no major doubts about the turbo anymore, but if you are not used to the turbo ‘whine’ then it may take a little getting used to, especially under hard acceleration. However my gearbox can be a little sluggish, in particular when starting from cold but also when changing down to first gear if the car comes to a stop – this usually manifests itself in a reluctance to change up or a clunk when dropping down. This of course isn’t particularly good, but taking the car to a gearbox specialist and getting it serviced for £200-300 is a reasonably inexpensive precautionary measure I intend to carry out soon.

Earlier diesels came with a 184bhp version of the same engine, with a 5 speed gearbox instead of the later 6; I suspect the power is just about adequate but the 5 speed is GM based and can suffer a few more reliability issues if not properly maintained. Other drivers may be after more information on the petrol engined X5’s, and although I can’t offer too much personal experience I think that they offer very different ownership experiences; the 4.4 V8 engine is powerful both pre and post facelift, but can prove a little unreliable (especially pre facelift with the GM 5 speed), and the 3 I6 is not particularly powerful, but is a worthy alternative to the earlier diesels thanks to it’s superior reliability (worth noting is that the petrol 6 kept a 5 speed automatic for the duration of it’s existence). Fire breathing 4.6iS and 4.8iS are very different beasts and give Cayenne Turbos a run for their money, but can be money pits thanks to their fancy suspensions.

Ride and Handling:

Without a doubt most people will be surprised when they come to drive the X5, that is if they have had any experience in older SUV’s or ones without any driver focus. What we have here is a vehicle which is undoubtedly endowed with BMW’s renowned handling finesse, or at least they have worked some magic on a vehicle which does not really have much right to handle this car-like. I will openly admit that the only other SUV’s I have driven are the original Porsche Cayenne and the Mercedes R Class, and whilst the Merc was a lot floatier and felt it’s size, the Cayenne was a powerhouse which felt like it had a rocket up it’s backside for most of the test drive. That said it still felt big, but what the X5 manages is to feel overwhelmingly similar to my old Astra hatchback in everyday driving…maybe that doesn’t sound like high praise but considering it weighs double and has a much higher centre of gravity it is meant that way. Steering is pretty heavy, especially at lower speeds, but overall the X5 feels pretty nimble even when negotiating country roads or city side streets…it only betrays it’s 4×4 height when going around corners a little too fast, but not in a way which would make passengers feel unwell.

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The ride is not as happy a story, although by no means unbearable; I have the Sport model which wears 19″ wheels and has a stiffer suspension to help improve that nifty handling. By no means would I suggest seeking out an SE car and if I am honest any smaller wheels than my 19’s will get lost in those immense wheel arches, but you will have to get used to a slightly taught ride when going over pot holes and speed bumps. For those coming from a Range Rover this will be noticeable, but I find it little different to my previous car even though that had 15″ wheels. I would steer clear of cars with aftermarket wheels though, as it will likely of messed up the tracking which is easily messed with as it is and can cause very uneven tyre wear. New tyres by the way run around £150 each for a mid spec Hankook, not too bad but enough to make sure you look after them.

MPG and Running Costs:

Let’s get one thing straight here – BMW X5’s are not cheap to run, neither is any luxury SUV and not least one which is the best part of a decade old. That’s probably not what you want to hear, but the good news is that a well cared for X5 is not the expensive vehicle to run and a sensible owner can run one without bankrupting themselves.

We will start with mpg, but please be aware that my figures are based on the car’s trip computer and as such are a little optimistic! So my average mpg for the last year has been…29.4MPG. That is by no means a bad figure for somebody who mainly uses it to drive 7 miles to work and back plus the occasional motorway jaunt and longer road trip. That said my tank average through the winter has been 25.9MPG, though the best tank I have achieved is 34.9MPG on a mainly motorway run (I got up to 38.1MPG when driving down to Brighton until I met traffic in the city centre!). As I said take those figures with a pinch of salt but they are by no means unmanageable and notably better than the 20MPG that most petrol models apparently achieve. At current prices (115.9/L), a tank of diesel is around £95 and lasts between 450 and 600 miles depending on the type of journey.

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What about other running costs? Well I’ve already mentioned that pre 2006 cars cost £300 to tax per year (regardless of engine choice), and tyres run to around £150 per corner for half decent rubber. Insurance is the only other major expense I’ve encountered so far, and whilst far from cheap it has cost me £750 this year for a 24yo with 7 years NCB and living in London…not awful. My service light still has 2 green lights on and will likely be due in another 6,000 miles or so, I do expect it to be reasonably expensive but I will also ensure to take it to a specialist to make sure that the correct stuff is done. Currently I need the brake pads checked as the car  has told me – once this is done I will update this post with figures but again I am not expecting it to be massively expensive unless I need brake discs too.

Verdict:

So a year after buying my X5 do I have any regrets? Well part of me wishes that I had taken the plunge sooner but then I would not have ended up with the very clean example I ended up buying (even my mechanic said he was impressed at now nice it was). I have a large and practical car with handsome looks, bearable running costs and creature comforts in spades. Of course I always have a wandering eye when it comes to cars and sometimes I eye up newer Q7’s and Range Rover Sports, but if I wanted one of them I would still be saving unhappily. For the money I believe that the X5 is the best used luxury SUV you can buy – yes a Range Rover is slightly more classy inside and a Mercedes ML looks a little fresher, but all things considered the BMW comes out on top.

***EDIT***

So just a couple of things to add here which I’ve remembered – another car I seriously thought about buying was the first generation Porsche Cayenne, and as I mentioned I went as far to test drive a V8 engined Cayenne S a few months before I bought the BMW. It is a worthy competitor for petrol engined X5’s and is usually comparably priced, but the fuel bills would be massive and the diesel Cayennes were not introduced until 2009 and prices are suitably high.

Also anyone looking for advice on owning and running any generation X5 should check out http://www.xdrivers.co.uk – the information on offer there is invaluable, although you may end up panicking and thinking that more is wrong with your car than there is!

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