Athens. To me, it always was a city that surrounded a crumbling mansion atop a hill. And guess what, I was right all along. What I didn't know was that the capital of Greece which houses 40 per cent of country's population is surrounded by hills and beautifully paved roads that line the deep blue sea. And another thing that I learnt is that Athenians eat a great deal of cottage cheese and fish and they drive like mad men. As a result – this too I learnt during this trip – Greece has the highest accident rate amongst European Union countries.
Brilliant location then, to launch the new BMW X5 right?
Actually yes. The weather, during early winter, is bearable and the sun shines despite the chill in the air. Try a Google Earth search and you might see the road that lines the calm Aegean sea and you see the rationale. With the original X5, BMW created an SUV that could go around corners like a car and they wanted us to experience the new version on these very corners. Lots of corners.
Right then, I belt up inside the car allotted to me, the flagship 4.8i. Saying that it is powerful is akin to telling someone that Mark Knopfler can play the guitar. Let me tell you, this is a monster of an engine and it can haul 2.2 tonnes of SAV (as BMW insists on calling this, er, SUV) with enormous ease. The V8 displaces 4779cc to develop 255 bhp and 47.5 kgm of torque. Now I can handle that alright, as long as I am driving it on a straight line. In such a scenario the new X5 will do a neat 100 kph in 6.5 seconds flat and touch 240 kph. The problem area was the above-mentioned corners. Powering into one and lifting off a nanosecond late would have meant a shiny new X5 and me taking a nice dip into the blue sea. And did I tell you that the water was cold?
Actually it was not all that bad. With the new X5, it is the first time that BMW has used double wishbone suspension up front. Sports car buffs will know the benefit – more intimacy with tarmac. Combine that with X-drive (all-wheel drive) that allows a 40:60 split in normal driving conditions and Dynamic Stability Control and lots of 'adaptive' stuff, the X5 is more or less a car to drive. A very fast, tall car. Body roll is minimal and turn-ins are precise. Or as precise as it can get with a vehicle that can become a tank if you add turrets to it.
What was hard work though was restraining myself. Burying the throttle was scary and I longed to drive the diesel which I hoped was more in tune with my ability to drive on those beautiful roads. And let me tell you the brand new all-aluminium straight-six diesel was a revelation. This engine features third generation common-rail fuel injection (makes you feel that you were a guinea pig for the first two generations). It develops 235 bhp and 52 kgm of torque between 2000 and 2750 rpm. That, to you and me, should mean a very flat torque curve that makes the car pleasantly driveable at almost any given engine speed. It does not mean the oil-burner is slow by any standards – it is barely two seconds slower than the V8 petrol and can touch 216 kph when annihilating autobahns. See, if you needed to reach anywhere any quicker, you would buy an M5, right? Don't know about others, but after driving both these machines I was convinced that it is the diesel that makes sense on Indian roads. And yes, it won't need an oil refinery to run and has more than adequate power.
I drove the X5 to Marathon village from Athens airport (where BMW had put up a nice media centre). I drove it through towns where it dwarfed Smarts which are abundant in Athens, on squares where it was a breeze to pilot, over fast B-roads which required caution since Greek truck drivers looked like they were on a cheese-and-fish diet too, and then drove through a carefully thought-out gravel road.
The gravel stage made me think of the original X5. It was the first time BMW was making an attempt at an SUV and they ensured that they got it right first time around. And that meant an over-engineered marvel. When the time came to make a replacement, BMW applied the valuable lessons from the first experience and the result is a car that is adequately (and not over) engineered. That means, the indestructibility of the original is replaced with a certain agility that can be best experienced on tarmac. When the going gets a bit tough, the new X5 will not hesitate in showing its vulnerable side. Fair enough, since almost every owner of the X5 is going to stick to good roads. As if to drive the tarmac point home, the X5 also gets active steering – configured specially for it. At speeds up to 90 kph the transmission ratio of the steering is very direct and that means you don't have to cross over arms on the steering wheels when you are attacking tight corners. And yes, it helps while parking too. As speeds mount and directional stability becomes more important, the ratio is optimised accordingly.
Making tall vehicles go around corners and tackle tricky terrain is no longer as difficult as it used to be and the X5 benefits from Dynamic Stability Control which incorporates ABS, ASC (automatic stability control), HDC (hill descent control), trailer stability control, dynamic brake control, cornering brake control, ADB (automatic differential brake which acts as a differential lock) and a CFO (control freak officer). Alright, I made up that last one. Seriously, this car has some brains and it is the first car to use FlexRay high speed data transmission system. Sure it needed that.
It is difficult to re-engineer and design an interior package that looked absolutely contemporary, right? The new car needed one and BMW has gone ahead and done the honours. The highlights are the new iDrive controller and an electronic gear selector lever. The new iDrive is more intuitive (really) but I really had trouble understanding the design philosophy of the gear selector. It works well, but the 'pistol-grip' unit can't be read when you are trying to flick it to and fro (your palm covers the back-lit surface). Sure you will get used to it soon but if you have to select 'drive' in twilight on your first day out with an X5, you ought to be careful. Nit-picking aside, the interior of the new X5 is a comfortable place to spend quality time in. The third row of seats are optional and not exactly meant for adults – but, ahem, like the Audi Q7, it can now be termed a seven-seater.
I normally start a driving impression with the styling of a car and I didn't do that here simply because the new X5 follows the 'why trouble trouble' route. The old X5 was a very successful car and the design brief was to build a car that is wider and longer but one that looked less bulky (See box: I designed that!). The result, like the new Mini, is derivative, but one that builds on the success of the original. Maybe this is what you do when you create benchmarks and then try to improve them. Surprisingly BMW provided only gun-metal grey cars for test duty (very much a BMW colour) and I really wanted to see one in black or white before passing judgement. When the drive was over and the X5s were parked en mass they looked splendid. The plastic bit below the kidney-grille is a distraction but the seven surfaces on the bonnet that leads up to it is a flourish and a Bangle trademark. Add to that the corona rings on the headlamp and a sharply tucked waistline and you can see the design direction for scores of SUVs to follow from Japan in the near future.
The new X5 is a brilliant car that needs to be 'lived-in' to appreciate fully. But a spirited drive on Greek roads was a splendid preview indeed.
A brief encounter with Pierre Leclerque, exterior designer of the new BMW X5
I designed that!
It is always nice to meet up with automotive designers. And with me on this particularly chilly evening in a suburban resort near Athens was Pierre Leclerque. Guys, remember this name – since he is one of the youngest and the brightest stars from the galaxy of automotive designers. He is the kind of bloke who would like to design Ferraris some day and he hates what Audi has done with the Lamborghini Miura concept. I like anyone who has the guts to admit that. And yes, he thinks the Aston Martin V8 Vantage is the best looking car in production today.
We were discussing the X5 – the exterior of which, as you would have assumed, was penned by Pierre. I challenged him to draw the car out in a notebook. He obliged, despite the fact that he had sealed the 'New X5' design work way back in 2002. Still the result on my note pad is phenomenal. 'The idea was to have a new X5 that was not radically different from the old car, since the first-gen X5 was doing quite well as we started designing its replacement. Still we had to have a car that looked less massive but marginally bigger in reality.' And the X5 is just that – it is longer and wider, yet looks like a grown up X3. How much did his boss, Chris Bangle, influence him or for that matter, his work? 'Chris Bangle gave automotive design a new direction with the cars his team created. But he singularly took all the flak for it. Now as the rest of the world is following his direction, it is time he got the credit he deserves. As for the X5, he was there to watch over the shoulder and interfered only when design ideas clashed. And his solutions were always right.'
But isn't the BMW board preferring evolution rather than revolutions these days? Isn't the new Mini, along with the new X5, classic examples? Pierre does not agree. 'Not really, the Mini is exceptional – it is critical that it does not change dramatically for every model change. Its appearance is one good reason why people pay premium money to buy it. And with the X5, it was a challenge to improve a vehicle that created a breed – a breed called the sports activity vehicle. There are big changes, like a bigger cabin with a third row of seats inside and double wishbone suspension that suits tarmac very well – so it was not necessary to alter the exterior appeal. But we have managed to reduce the visual mass despite increasing the size, as I mentioned before'.
Pierre took a sip of the red house wine as the discussion took a nice tangent over contemporary automotive design and even motorcycle design. According to Pierre, the Ducati Monster is where it starts and ends. 'I would like to own one,' he says. Sure, it will look very nice next to a Ferrari which he himself created.