A Premium-spec example of the second-generation BMW X5 has just recently joined the fleet. The boys have finally (after nine and seven and a half years, respectively) gotten too big to comfortably commute in the rear seats of the sports cars, and besides, the 996 C4S deserves some respite after nearly 120,000 miles of daily-driver duty.
Between the Cayenne Diesel already in the garage and this new-to-us X5, we have two competitors that have always existed in close proximity to one another on the full-size luxury SUV plane. These particular two examples are fairly close in mileage as well, the BMW at around 73,000, the Porsche at 65,000. So, after a couple weeks of getting to know the BMW, I thought it only right to let the two rivals duke it out in this column for driveway supremacy.
The newcomer first. “Why this? What do you like about it?” asked the wife at first glance. “The engine,” was my immediate reply. BMW is known for its long history of commendable straight sixes, and the so-called N55 under the hood of the X5 is one of the all-stars on that list. An evolution of the preceding twin-turbo N54, the single-turbo N55 makes the same 300 horses and 300 pound-feet as its predecessor, but with greater efficiency and fewer emissions.[i] It also brings the natural balance and glorious noise of the straight-six configuration; under hard throttle, the X5 gives a gnarly growl of purpose and quickly fires the big SUV up the acceleration curve into the zone of extra-legality. The numbers provide the bite to back up the bark: the X5 does 0-60 in 6 seconds flat and cracks the standing quarter mile in 14.7 at 92 mph.[ii] This dusts the compression-ignition Cayenne, which manages 6.8 and 15.4/88.[iii]
The Bavarian’s steering demands some heft, most noticeably at lower speeds. Once the driver’s brain is calibrated, however, the weighty helm seems appropriate for the near-five-thousand-pound metal beast that envelops the seats. Yet somehow, astoundingly, feedback from the tires still manages to sneak through all that mass to reach the fingertips in a timely and informative manner. The X5 does a convincing 5-series sedan impression around corners and through bends. It does not shy from changes of direction.
Both vehicles change gear via the ubiquitous (and excellent) ZF 8-speed. However, the X5’s driver interface is the better one. The Munich engineers have devised a clever way of keeping on offer the tactile thrill of “shifting gears” while minimizing cockpit space and clutter required for the associated hardware. The BMW’s automatic transmission lever is easy to learn and puts some fun back into the dull world of kid/dog/grocery hauling. If you hear an X5 winding its N55 up into the “loud” category between stoplights, blame that newfangled lever and the hooligan it can unlock in any driver.
The X5 is let down, however, by its multimedia interface, which requires more than an optimal number of user inputs to produce the desired result. It has one or two praiseworthy solutions—making the “radio preset” buttons usable as one-touch commands for just about anything (oft-used phone numbers and navigation destinations are well-served here) was one such trick—but overall the system is cumbersome.
The BMW feels more spacious inside, though, even with the interior swathed in black leather. The feeling of space is no doubt amplified by the dual-panel panoramic roof that stretches back over the heads of the second-row passengers. The glass will physically slide open nearly as far back, lending an almost open-top airiness to the cabin. Lastly, the X5 does not compromise its cargo area by chopping the aft section of roof in order to appear sleeker in profile (as the Cayenne does) and therefore, the BMW will inhale significantly more of one’s possessions—75.2 cubic feet to the Porsche’s 62.9.[iv] [v]
This Cayenne has performed over forty thousand miles of service to my family. It’s a suitable replacement for intra-continental air travel, as far as we’re concerned. Step into the interior and immediately the reasons for the ten or so thousand extra dollars the Cayenne commands on the used market are readily apparent. The seats and leather are a class above the X5’s, and (in this case) boast heating and cooling versus heating-only. The multimedia interface is fast and intuitive. The rear window shades are electrically operated, as opposed to manual. The steering wheel is more finely finished and impressive-looking. The Bose sound system in the Porsche is a vast improvement over the stock BMW system.
Insert the key (you needn’t do this in the BMW – the X5 features a very convenient proximity key and start-stop button) and twist it to fire up the engine. The sound is reassuring but hardly inspiring. The Audi-built 3.0-liter V6 diesel in the Porsche simply cannot aurally compete with a gasoline-shredding BMW straight-six.
As you helm the Cayenne slowly out of the driveway, though, you do notice that steering it is a delight, instead of an exercise, as in the X5. The Porsche takes on the character of its steering wheel: easy, precise, and well-finished. My wife used the adjective “lumbering” to describe the BMW by comparison, but that probably comes from being spoiled by her Cayenne, which seems to magically and gleefully shrink around the driver when pushed. The X5 is happy to carve a corner or two, but reminds you that “Hey, buddy, I’m a lot of car and a lot of tire and a lot of brake here, and whenever you make me do this, I chew through all those things a little faster.” The Porsche grips to 0.94 lateral G’s before it loses traction; the BMW is stability-control-limited to 0.87 G’s.[vi] [vii] In the handling arena, the Porsche emerges a clear winner.
Additionally, while the BMW may be faster than the Porsche from a standstill to sixty miles per hour, it is hard to imagine the same being true from zero to thirty. Whenever you read about the Cayenne Diesel, the most oft-cited word is “torque,” and that is for good reason. All four hundred six pound-feet of twist are available from around 2100 RPM, and that’s early enough to give the Porsche a healthier shove right off the line.[viii] It would be very interesting to drag-race these two SUVs down a runway—I expect the Cayenne would leap to an early lead, and then be shortly later overtaken by the greater horsepower in the X5. In the low-speed around-town commute, however, the Cayenne blends its agility and torque into a potent combo that the BMW cannot objectively match.
The BMW is faster, sounds better, and is more spacious inside. The Porsche is more agile, with better interior execution, and achieves significantly better fuel economy while retaining an edge in low-speed, accessible performance.[ix]
For me, the Porsche is the better of the two, but they are both excellent. The fact is that a five-year-old X5 xDrive35i can be had for just over twenty thousand dollars, while a similar-condition Cayenne will cost quite a bit more…and that makes the second-gen X5 a very strong value proposition as we wrap up the first quarter of 2018.
[i] Jon Yanca, “2011 BMW X6 to Get Single-Turbo N55 Inline-6, 8-Speed Transmission.” Car & Driver, January 2010. https://www.caranddriver.com/news/2011-bmw-x6-to-get-single-turbo-n55-inline-6-8-speed-transmission-car-news
[ii] Steve Siler, “Short Take Road Test: 2011 BMW X5 xDrive35i.” Car & Driver, September 2010. https://www.caranddriver.com/reviews/bmw-x5-review-2011-bmw-x5-xdrive35i-road-test
[iii] Jared Gall, “Instrumented Test: 2013 Porsche Cayenne Diesel.” Car & Driver, January 2013. https://www.caranddriver.com/reviews/2013-porsche-cayenne-diesel-test-review
[iv] US News & World Report, “2013 BMW X5 Interior Review.” https://cars.usnews.com/cars-trucks/bmw/x5/2013/interior
[v] US News & World Report, “2013 Porsche Cayenne Interior Review.” https://cars.usnews.com/cars-trucks/porsche/cayenne/2013/interior
[vi] Gall, ibid.
[vii] Siler, ibid.
[viii] APR, LLC. “APR 3.0 TDI ECU Upgrade (APR STG I – High Output Model).” http://www.goapr.co.uk/products/ecu_upgrade_30tdi.html
[ix] US Department of Energy: fueleconomy.gov. “Compare Side-by-Side.” https://www.fueleconomy.gov/feg/Find.do?action=sbs&id=33124&id=32351