BMW X5 (E53) – long term test

When I originally started this blog way back in April 2013 I was in the process of narrowing down a new car. Well not a brand new car, but my first ‘proper’ purchase of a car, and something that had felt like years in the making.

After much deliberating (seriously, there was a lot) I decided on a BMW X5 – I had a lot of options but the X5 seemed like the best all-rounder for the money, plus I happened across an excellent one-owner example with a full BMW service history and all the features I wanted.

What follows is a breakdown of my ownership experience in the past 3-ish years, complete with lots of anecdotal evidence for anyone looking to buy an original shape X5 or maybe another similarly aged SUV.

Design & Image

The X5 was introduced way back in 1999 and hit UK roads a year later – one of the last ‘non-Bangle’ BMW designs, it shares a lot of design cues with similar vintage versions of the 3 and 5 Series models and as a result could be described as a little dated, despite this particular shape sticking around until 2007 and still being a familiar sight on UK roads.

However, I’d say that it has actually aged a lot better than many cars of its age and still looks rather sharp from most angles – I’m probably biased, but subsequent X5 models have stuck to a similar design and it’s not unusual to see a well kept version driven by an equally well kept ‘yummy mummy’. Driving around central London over this past weekend, my car didn’t feel out of place surrounded by newer Range Rovers and super cars.

The exception to this rule is any X5 that’s been modified in any way. Its status as both a BMW and an SUV, combined with affordable prices, means that it’s attracted plenty of people you’d probably cross the street to avoid. Anything with aftermarket alloy wheels, lowered suspension or massively darkened windows just looks nasty – it’s likely that it’s not been properly looked after, either.

Interior & Technology

I’m very happy with the X5’s interior, which I feel has stood the test of time very well despite the basic design being nearly 20 years old. The layout is nice and airy, with a large-ish LCD screen displaying radio and navigation and a level of equipment that would put many modern vehicles to shame. My car has heated seats both front and rear, and I paid to have an aux cable installed so that I can easily listen to music on my iPhone.

Of course the screen isn’t of a high resolution, but I bought a recent navigation disk so that the maps are up to date. Arguably the most dated aspect is the lack of a central information screen in the dials – even the second generation X5 doesn’t have this, the small screen underneath the dials doesn’t show nearly as much info as a similarly aged Mercedes ML.

One area where I feel the X5 is more than up-to-date is in terms of practicality. There is plenty of room for four adults and even five are able to sit reasonably comfortable – there is no transmission hump and the middle seat is nice and wide too. The boot has a split tailgate and there’s a good amount of space…465 litres doesn’t sound like much nowadays, but you’ll struggle to fill it up unless you want to put two dogs in there as well as the weekly shop.

Driving

BMW has long traded on its reputation for producing sharp handling cars, and the X5 keeps with this tradition. It may not have been the first luxury SUV on the market, and neither was it even the first to use a monocoque chassis (like all modern cars but some some tough 4x4s), but it was undeniably the first to drive like a well-sorted saloon and not an old-school tractor.

Admittedly I’m no racing driver, and with a high centre of gravity and off-road tech to haul around it’s never going to drive like a Mazda MX-5, but it’s definitely a car that you can just get in and drive without having to make any allowances for the fact it’s an SUV. I don’t tend to push the car, but it never feels sloppy and goes round corners with the same aplomb as my previous car – a regular Vauxhall Astra. I do feel myself tip a bit, but I associate that more with the leather seats than anything else!

My car is a Sport model, which means it has 19 inch alloy wheels and slightly stiffer suspension. In theory this means that it drives better, but in real life terms it just means that the ride is quite hard. This is a problem exacerbated in more modern X5s by the fitting of run-flat tyres, but I’d probably just

Engines and Performance

While many modern large SUVs are solely available in the UK with some form of six-cylinder diesel engines, the X5 has always offered a reasonable amount of choice to buyers. Fans of petrol engines could choose between a 3.0 litre inline-six, a 4.4 litre V8 and a 4.8 litre V8 – I can’t give much proper feedback on these engines, but from what I’ve read they are a.) much thirstier on fuel b.) cheaper to buy c.) generally more reliable, particularly the 3.0 litre.

The 4.8 litre V8 (formerly 4.6 pre 2004) borders on M-car in terms of its suspension tweaks and performance – it serves as a predecessor to the X5 M which appeared in 2009 and definitely has potential to be a future classic. The other two engines are a lot more common and could warrant choosing if you only do short journeys and aren’t fussed about petrol prices – even face-lifted X5s have reached the stage where petrol versions are available for silly money. The 4.4 litre V8 sprints from 0-60 mph in less than seven seconds and with a careful driver should return 20mpg.

Me? Well I did what most people do and chose the 3.0 litre diesel; six-cylinder engines are something BMW does really well and this one is no exception. With 218hp (when new) it’s more than quick enough to keep up with modern traffic, and 0-62mph is dispatched in around 8.8 seconds. In-gear pace is pretty decent too, and if you want more power then it’s not that tricky to find a specialist who can chip your car to return around 250hp (and in the process get better fuel economy, somehow).

The basic design of this engine is approaching 20 years old, so obviously it’s not going to be as refined as modern efforts, but even at motorway speeds noise isn’t intrusive and you’ll struggle to find anything to moan about. The late 2003 face-lift gave the diesel and V8 engined X5s a 6-speed ZF-sourced automatic gearbox; this is the older brother of the much-praised 8-speed ZF that graces most modern BMWs (among others). Most internet forums recommend changing the gearbox fluid at around 80,000 miles to extend the life of the transmission – mine hasn’t been done and is a little clunky/slow witted at low speeds. If and when I get this done I’ll update accordingly.

Value & Costs

I probably paid over the odds for my car, but given that it was a one owner vehicle with lots of kit and a full BMW service history I felt that the premium I paid was for peace of mind. I can’t say that it’s been a completely trouble-free experience, but on the whole I haven’t had many issues. The main thing was all the speakers failing, but that was only £100 to fix (including the aux cable I mentioned before), and I still need to sort the rear screen washer jet (a DIY-job with a £25 part).

BMWs run on a variable service schedule, and I chose to have mine done a little earlier – the service itself was only around £300, but at the same time I needed to have two of the suspension struts replaced as well as another suspension-related issue on another wheel of the car, totalling around £1,000. Thankfully this has been the only work I’ve had done in the past three years.

Rear tyres cost me £150-each, and each year road tax is £295, with insurance being expensive at around £900 even with 8 years no-claims bonus (admittedly with a London postcode). I mentioned before that I’ve toyed with the idea of having the gearbox fluid replaced – at £300 it’s not cheap, but could safeguard against failure in the future.

In terms of fuel consumption, my average in the car has been a very reasonable 29mpg – this is across a variety of driving environments, including motorways, city streets and backroads. It’s a 2-tonne SUV so I can’t really complain too much, and I’ve never seen the fuel economy drop below 25mpg even in sub-zero temperatures on a short journey. The best I’ve seen was 38mpg, on a relaxed summer’s drive to London from Gloucester, although generally I get around 32-34mpg on the motorway.

Verdict

A lot of people questioned why, at age 23, I was so set on buying a used luxury SUV as opposed to a thrifty supermini or speedy hot-hatchback, but I don’t regret it for a second. A BMW X5 is not a car that will suit everyone, but if you’re on a relative budget and still want a posh off-roader then it’s hard to look past a well-kept example.

That’s not to say it’s all plain sailing – the reasonably poor fuel economy, expensive parts and servicing and dated infotainment are all valid reasons to look at a different type of vehicle. Yet if you don’t fancy shelling out £300 a month for a Qashqai and just fancy something cool to knock around town in, reasonable petrol-engined X5s can be bought for a mere £5k.

Others to consider

Although I am very happy with my car, there are plenty of other luxury SUVs you can get for similar money (or a relatively small amount more):

BMW X3

The X5’s smaller brother is cheaper to run and actually has a bigger boot. But the ride is harsh and it looks like the back end of a bus.

Land Rover Discovery 3

The Discovery 3 has room for 7 and is unstoppable off-road, plus its image is much less council estate. As a result, prices for well-equipped models remain high, as do the likely repair bills.

Land Rover Range Rover

The last-generation Range Rover still looks great and shares a lot of parts with the X5. However older versions can look a bit tatty, and if not well looked after are very expensive to keep on the road – plus it’s very slow and thirsty.

Land Rover Range Rover Sport

I was genuinely tempted to get a Range Rover Sport, it has a similar image yet a loftier driving position and better off-road abilities. But the cabin is a bit dated and it’s left lacking in the performance department if you stick with the diesel, the only realistic choice.

Lexus RX400h

The Lexus is incredibly reliable, well equipped and should be cheap to run if you mainly drive around town, but it lacks the sense of excitement found in most rivals – though it is actually quite fast when pushed.

Jeep Grand Cherokee

The Grand Cherokee is a great value alternative to the X5 and most models come well equipped. But the front-end is a bit polarising, and interior plastic quality leaves a lot to be desired, as do driving dynamics.

Mercedes ML

Arguably the main rival for the X5, second gen MLs are comfier, more practical and more powerful than the BMW. However they are slightly pricier to buy, tax and fuel, and for me they lack a little of the wow-factor my car still has.

Porsche Cayenne

The Cayenne is the only SUV which can touch the X5 in terms of handling; it also has a posher badge on the front and can be bought for a similar price. However diesel models are prohibitively expensive, so only worth considering if you can deal with the sub-20mpg of V8 petrol engined cars.

Volkswagen Touareg

Volkswagen’s Touareg shares its underpinnings with the Cayenne, yet is cheaper and also available with a diesel engine – it also has an attractive interior layout. However, it weighs so much that performance and handling are poor, and the excellent V6 diesel version is pricey and drinks fuel (most people opt for the sluggish 2.5 litre 5-cylinder).

Volvo XC90

Classy and practical, the first-generation XC90 made it to 2015 without any major changes. Yet it was always underpowered, and doesn’t really have the right sort of image for a single 20-something male.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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