In past writings about rental cars, I’ve said that sometimes you get lucky. Did I get lucky this time? Read on.
I had arrived at Philadelphia International Airport on a hot, humid July day, bound for a few days of work across the river in New Jersey. Philadelphia usually has the best selection of rental cars of any airport I visit very much, and this day was no exception. Sedans, SUVs, pickup trucks, all very nice, even a few models that I knew well and gravitate toward as they work well with me. I was also on the lookout for the new Mazda CX-50, the successor to the CX-5 (my personal car at home), which I’m eager to try but they didn’t have one- that’ll have to wait for another day. Of course I’m also always on the lookout for anything extra-nice, above the usual cut without getting into the ‘special’ cars that cost more. Philadelphia’s selection has impressed me before in this regard, being the only place where I ever snagged a Mercedes (two different times!), and one time they even had a Subaru WRX which I sadly could not take due to the seat’s deep bolsters being too narrow for me to fit comfortably. And this time I spotted another nice up-market car I’d never before sampled: a BMW X5, or more precisely, a BMW X5 xDrive 45e, which is one of the plug-in hybrid versions of BMW’s popular mid-size SUV. Let’s get this out of the way up front: that awkward, convoluted name sucks, and you should aim your raspberries squarely at whoever over in Munich thought it up as well as whoever approved it. THPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPT!!!
The X5 -and let’s just call it that from here onward- looked both swank and sensible, if that’s even possible, and I decided that I should jump on it. I don’t know why, but every rented BMW I’ve encountered has been white, and that count so far has been two 3-Series I’ve driven, a 2-Series that I rejected for being too cramped for me, and this X5, plus another X5 I saw at the rental location near home a week later. I have no idea whether this is coincidental or intentional by some corporate decision but it’s a little un-nerving. Comfy front seat? Check. Room in back for my stuff? Check plus a bit! But will I like it? One thing that disappointed me about the 3-Series cars I’d driven before was that they are WAY too technological. They’re full of screens and soft-touch controls and things that you have to learn how to use, not intuitive at all, dependent on menu after menu, and to be frank about it, this isn’t good in a car that you’ll only use for a few days. I’m sure that if you own it, once you learn and remember how it all works you’ll feel like a first-class starship commander, but for the casual rental user, this can be bad. The X5 is built in this same vein, but I didn’t find it as difficult to deal with this time. I don’t drive BMWs often enough to say that I’m getting better at them, so maybe BMW is starting to get the hint. Well, mostly. I maintain my gripe about the ‘joystick-with-a-flowchart’ philosophy BMW employs for designing the gear selector. Bump the thing in any direction and nothing happens. Hold the button on the side of the knob while you bump it about and something happens- but it isn’t always intuitive. Bump it toward you to select Drive. But it took me a bit to figure out that bumping it forward while in Park will select Reverse, the first few times going into Drive then bumping it forward to Reverse. Then to get into Park there is no bumping, just press the button with the P on it on the side of the knob that faces you. After a while you’ll get good at dancing it through the motions in parking lots, but it sure feels awkward at first.
Back to the positive side, I must mention the seat. It was MUCH comfier than the seat in the 2-series that I rejected a few weeks earlier. It’s rare that I encounter a seat with as many adjustments as this one, and they all worked toward getting the comfort right rather than just being superfluous features for the sake of presenting an air of fanciness. The lumbar adjustment was the least-useful, with the feeling of difference as I played with it being rather vague, but that’s excusable. There is a button that adjusts the narrowness of the bolsters (are you listening, Subaru WRX?) and moving the seatback button up or down changed the height of the head-restraint, although the fore-aft adjustment of it was manual via a button on the side of it. But how many cars give you two axes of adjustment? There is also a thigh-support that can be adjusted outward, but even with my 34-inch inseam I found that all the way in felt the least obtrusive and wondered who could feel otherwise. But once everything was dialed-in, this seat was comfy. The driving-position was good too, and there are two memory-buttons to store your preferences and this includes where you position the electrically-adjusted position of the steering wheel, which also raises and retracts when you shut the car off.
So what happens when you turn the car on? Pressing the START button lights-up the screens (and that includes the entire instrument-cluster), and causes this weird rising sound like the engine of a spaceship in a sci-fi movie coming to life. I guess they needed to give you some kind of audible clue, since the engine does not start to idle, but rather starts when needed after the car gets rolling. The electric motor moves first, giving the sensation of surreal smoothness at low speed. If you pay close attention you’ll notice the combustion engine starting shortly after. About that hybrid system: I only put 105 miles on the car while I had it, never driving more than 20 miles at a time and usually less, so I wasn’t able to see what it could really do- and like most hybrids in the rental-fleets, the battery never had the chance to charge past an indicated 2%. But that was quite enough to boost the power to the wheels during spirited take-offs, enough to make me take notice! I gave a quick scan to some other reviews of the X5 hybrids and the consensus seems to be that BMW’s hybrid system in not really optimal for either efficiency or performance, just sort of existing somewhere in between and in fact producing LOWER fuel efficiency numbers in some cases than the combustion-only X5. The combustion engine is a turbocharged inline six, quite torquey and smooth by itself, as one would expect from BMW as they’ve been perfecting inline sixes since the 1930s. And of course in the four days that I had the car, I never had the opportunity to plug it in and see what the electric side of it was really capable of.
The driving experience itself is quite good. The steering, braking and handling are all really good if a bit on the numb side, but for a large, luxurious vehicle that numbness is part of the experience- after all, you do pay a premium to be isolated from the outside world. The handling really is good though, probably among the best you can expect from a vehicle this large and heavy. Give it the beans in a tight cloverleaf and you can make the tires squeal in protest, but if it gets worse than that it’s easy to pull back into the realm of sensible behaviour. There’s no noticeable torque-steer, hop, or other lack of refinement when you hustle the X5, but how many of the people who buy this car really want to hustle, rather than just enjoy the smooth isolation? This is a big family-hauler after all. And that isolation is nice and quiet too, with just enough engine-sound for the driver to not feel disconnected from the car.
Interiour space is pretty good, depending on your priorities. Like with most vehicles in today’s market, the front seats offer plenty of space to stretch-out and be as comfy as you like. Headroom is terrific, which I say as someone who stands 6′ 4” and is long in the torso, which translates to being tall in a seat. If you’re very tall, you’ll have no problems with the front seats in the X5. The rear seat is good too- I climbed into the left rear seat, right behind the driver seat that was adjusted for my big frame, and found that my legs fit and I had enough headroom- but the legroom was merely adequate for my 34” inseam, not as much as I would expect in such a large car. But for me to be able to sit behind me at all is still excellent. With a smaller person in the front seat, the rear legroom will of course be even better. The rear seat space is related to the cargo-space, an important relationship in any wagon or SUV type of car. The cargo-space is deep and plentiful and it swallowed my gear handily. You wouldn’t miss it if two inches of this space were given-up to add two inches of rear seat legroom, but again, that’s not even a quibble unless someone of at least my size wants to sit behind someone of at least my size. The cargo floor is a bit on the high side, but then so is the floor of the passenger-space. There is a button that allows you to drop the car by an inch or two, which is of a little help if somebody small or frail needs ingress or egress, especially as the sills are a bit wide to step across while also stepping up. While we’re on the subject of up, the X5 has the big huge ‘panoramic’ glass roof that is de riguer in vehicles of this class and I found the button that controls the movements of the glass and the fabric shade to be refreshingly easy to figure out. Less-easy to figure out was the hatch and tailgate. Yes, it has both: a conventional hatch, and also a short tailgate that rises to about 8 inches above the cargo floor. The button on the key opens both most of the time (no apparent pattern to this), and the button on the bottom edge of the hatch closes both. The tailgate has two buttons on it, one of which opens and closes it and the other of which didn’t seem to do anything. This reminds me too, there were two instances when the side-view mirrors randomly reset themselves to positions other than what I’d set them to. I’m sure there are sensible German-engineering reasons for all the things in this car that mystified me, but I’ll never know what they are.
I mentioned at the beginning that it was hot and humid when I had this car, and this brings me to the climate control system. It was mostly easy to figure out, but one gripe I had was that even when the dual-zone front system was in single mode, the two sides still required separate fan-speed control. And the fan-speed was, well, a bit wanting even at the maximum. In more temperate conditions this wouldn’t be such a big deal, but in the sticky, roasting conditions of my visit to New Jersey, it was disappointing. I also noticed that the seats were covered in a perforated leather, which made me wonder if they were cooled. After paging through every seemingly relevant corner of the menus, I found no sign of such a feature, and a quick inspection under the seats revealed no ducts for delivering air to the leather. Disappointing for sure, especially when you consider that my Mazda CX-5, which is one trim-level below the top for its year of manufacture, has both better air conditioning AND cooled seats, ANNNND had an MSRP of roughly half of the X5’s $66000, which I actually guessed would have been higher before I looked it up (and this was probably a more basic-equipped version, so a loaded one would probably give some real sticker-shock). A car this expensive shouldn’t require more than a few short minutes to get its occupants comfy on a tropical day. Another disappointing comparison is the cargo-cover. I don’t know if it’s optional or standard, but instead of rising with the hatch, it must be manually released and allowed to retract if you want it out of the way, then manually pulled back into place; the one in my Mazda is optional equipment but it attaches to the hatch and rises out of the way when the hatch opens, all on its own, zero need for human intervention.
So did I get lucky? Hard to say. Taken in the context of just using it for four hot,sticky days and never quite figuring out how some of it worked, I didn’t get lucky. But for the combination of performance and spaciousness, I got quite lucky. Overall I didn’t hate it, and my complaints aren’t stuff that made me want to scream, I’d be curious to know how an actual owner with a critical eye feels about the X5. But if you see one in the row of rental cars, unless it’s a hot day, GRAB IT!