The BMW X5 continues as the top sporty mid-size SUV, largely because it looks better than the Porsche Cayenne, outpowers the Infiniti FX and is a bit sportier than the Mercedes-Benz M-Class.
That's one reason why sales of the X5 last year totaled 37,598 units, up from 35,225 in 2004 despite a decline last year in sales of larger sport-utilities.
The all-wheel-drive X5 arrived for the 2000 model year as the automaker's first SUV because sport-utilities were hot and it tired of seeing a sport-ute from a rival automaker parked next to a BMW auto in garages.
The latest X5 looks nearly the same as the 2000 model, but horsepower has been increased and other strategic improvements have been made. It's for those who want a sports sedan but need SUV utility.
The 2006 model hardly feels dated and gets a standard onboard computer that previously was part of a premium package.
Prices are high, but resale value is good: A 2000 BMW 4.4i model, which cost $49,400 new, has an average retail value of $24,650. Most vehicles aren't worth much after six years.
The X5 comes as the entry $42,500 3.0, mid-range $53,600 4.4i and top-line $71,000 4.8is. The major differences between these models are horsepower and equipment levels.
The 3.0i has a 225-horsepower inline six-cylinder, while the 4.4i is powered by a 315-horsepower V-8 and the 4.8is is the power champ with a 355-horsepower V-8.
The 3.0i might seem like a horsepower weakling, compared with the V-8 versions, and some might think it's underpowered for the money. But its performance is satisfactory for routine driving. And it's loaded with standard comfort, convenience and safety equipment.
Such items include dual-zone automatic climate control, power front seats, cruise control, wood interior trim, AM/FM/CD player, heated power outside mirrors and remote keyless entry.
Safety features include anti-lock brakes with a brake assist feature for surer panic stops, an anti-skid system (always handy with a tall SUV), front side air bags and head protection side air bags.
I tested the 4.4i, which had stirring acceleration and made the 355-horsepower version seem superfluous. This mid-range model adds items including leather upholstery and a front/rear obstacle-detection system.
The 4.8is adds features including heated front/rear seats, power sunroof and a sport suspension with an adjustable ride height and the biggest (20-inch) wheels.
Top-line features are available as options for 3.0i and 4.4i, and both those models are offered with a Sport Package that contains sport seats, sport suspension and unique alloy wheels. Other options include a navigation system, which takes time to master.
Power with the 3.0i is fed through a six-speed manual gearbox or five-speed automatic transmission, while the two V-8 versions come only with a responsive six-speed automatic with manual shift capability.
Fuel economy isn't a strong point with an X5 because all models are powerful and weigh more than 4,600 pounds.
Still, the 3.0i provides an estimated 15-16 mpg in the city and 21 on the highway and the 4.4i delivers 16 and 22. Despite its extra power, the 4.8is isn't far behind at 16 and 21.
The X5 is rugged and rattle-free. Its automatic transmission has no low-range gearing for tough off-road driving -- not that many would want to scratch its paint or dent its shapely body during such use.
There's no third-row seat, but the X5 has plenty of room for four tall adults, or for five in a pinch. It's high enough to call for extra effort to get in or out, and narrow rear doorways don't help. Once aboard, occupants sit high for a good view of surroundings.
Gauges in the high-quality interior can be quickly read, but audio system and climate controls should be larger. Conveniently located front console cupholders have a sliding cover and all doors have storage pockets, although the console bin provides little storage space. The cockpit is generally quiet, except for tire noise on some roads.
BMW arguably makes the best steering system, although effort is a bit high at lower speeds. Handling is quite good, especially for a tall SUV, with outstanding grip -- thanks partly to the all-wheel drive. However, the brake pedal is touchy; the first half-inch or so of pedal travel gets you nothing, after which the brakes bite hard and cause immediate, sudden deceleration. Consistently smooth stops thus take practice.
The X5 has a firm but compliant ride, with the 3.0i having the most comfortable ride with its softer suspension and smaller 17-inch tires, which have larger sidewall areas to help absorb road shocks.
The tailgate has a handy separate-opening glass area, but the wide cargo opening is rather high and somewhat shallow. Rear seatbacks flip forward and sit flat to significantly enlarge the cargo area.
The X5 drives much like a BMW sports sedan -- you just sit higher. 2006 BMW X5
LIKES: Fast. Adroit handling. All-wheel drive. Upscale interior. Good resale value.
DISLIKES: Touchy brake pedal. Small rear door openings. High cargo opening.