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There’s a new BMW X5 and a more affordable Range Rover in town. Time to line them up with the benchmark to see where they stand
I was driving the BMW X5 down this road in Pune, and I saw a cop gesturing frantically in my direction. Here we go again — I was in a car with a red tradeplate, and he wanted to see the papers. As I went through the conversation of me trying to convince him this was a test car that was fully insured and legal in my head, I saw who he was waving at. Not me, but the Activa trundling along in front, not giving me room to overtake. As we passed the visibly irritated cop, he gave the confused scooterist an earful, me a sheepish smile and sent us on our way. What in the world? I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been harassed by cops trying to make a quick buck, but this was a first. I could get used to this!
That’s the thing about the new BMW X5. It has monstrous presence on the road. Those massive kidney grilles every one has been bashing are probably what saved me from half an hour of arguing with a stubborn pandu. The new BMW X5 is bigger and badder than the last one. It screams don’t mess with me. It’s also more sophisticated than the last one. I can tell because the previous-generation BMW X5 was one of the first ‘big’ cars I drove as an auto journalist a few years ago — as a back-up driver for a comparo with the Audi Q7. Back then, it was blown out of the water by the Q7 on all fronts, except being more fun to drive. The Q7 had more space, more tech, was way more comfortable and a more well-rounded SUV. We also had the GLS on that shoot, but the big Merc has been completely refreshed and incidentally the ed was in Utah driving it at the same time we were doing this story — so we got something else along instead. The Range Rover Sport, now more affordable than ever, and with a smaller two-litre petrol engine.
There’s no denying the Audi Q7 has been the benchmark in this segment by a mile. It has got the grunt with a three-litre V6 diesel that makes 245bhp and a good 600Nm, delivered with proper enthusiasm. In Comfort mode, it doles out this creamy wave of torque that gently picks you up and hustles you, but slot it into Dynamic mode and it gets a little more committed to that hustling. Refinement levels are phenomenal, you can barely tell that there’s a diesel under the hood and this is further hushed by the sound insulation of the cabin.
What really makes the Q7 special is its ride quality. The air-suspension works like magic, isolating the cabin nearly completely from the road under it. It glides over small bumps like they don’t exist and absorbs big ones with unfaltering confidence. But the beauty about air suspension is that while it can make you believe you’re riding on clouds and jack up the SUV a whole 60mm to go tackle the trail to your farmhouse, it can also dial itself in. The Q7, a 5052mm-long woolly mammoth sans wool, can actually go around a bend without tripping over its tusks. The steering is sharp and it turns in quickly, not just for a car its size but even in isolation. Around a bend, there’s very little roll and the suspension feels properly stable, keeping the SUV very composed. The mild undulations so typical of Indian roads cannot faze it and it remains flat. What an SUV. Now that we’re done with our refresher course, it was time to step into the new BMW.
Oh, the seats, they’re just so bloody comfortable! The BMW X5 has clearly whacked the 7 Series’ seat-spec and anyone who sits in one will be mighty happy about that fact. But the seats are just one part of a much bigger story — the new X5 places a huge focus on comfort, more so than any other X5 before it. Firstly, this X5 is bigger than the last one. Wheelbase is now 42mm longer while also being 66mm wider — both contributing to a vastly more spacious cabin. Acres of leather doesn’t impress in this segment, that is but hygiene. It is the glass in the gear selector and iDrive controller, the electroplated trim inserts, the sunroof that glows with ambient light and the fully-digital instrument cluster that makes the BMW feel really special. The infotainment screen is massive (12.3-inches, if you care), and in typical BMW style, it is canted to face the driver. It may remain driver-focused, but you can still hold meetings with your fellow board members in the back seat without being judged for scrounging on your wheels.
This softening up of the X5 seeps below the surface though. There’s air suspension on all four corners now, which is great because the ride quality is better than ever. Where the old X5 was a bit stiff and juddery, the new one wafts over everything that comes its way. It’s now more suited to off-roading too, as it has finally picked up the suspension lift trick that the rest of the competition has had for a while now. The gearshifts from the ZF eight-speed gearbox are seamless and you barely notice the interruption in torque and the engine is so refined that it feels even quieter than the Q7’s. The BMW’s cabin is beautifully isolated from the outside, be it engine noise, wind noise or tyre noise and in Comfort mode, it is exactly that — very, very comfortable.
It still has plenty of sportiness to it. The sheer grip that this X5 generates is unbelievable — I couldn’t get it to understeer no matter how hard I chucked it into a bend. The tyres are massive. It has 275-section fronts (the Q7 has 235 sections) and Lamborghini Huracan-rivalling 305-section rears — absolutely absurd on something meant to ferry the kids to school. But then again, this is a BMW. The steering is tight, and the X5 really shrinks around you when you’re cornering hard. No matter how composed the Q7 is, it doesn’t do well to disguise its length and you just get the sense that the rear follows the front into a bend. The X5, on the other hand, feels much tighter, pivoting far quicker and as one unit. Putting down all that torque through the all-wheel drive system is not a problem either. The BMW moves like nothing else here, shoving you back into your seat, the nose rising as it hurtles to the horizon — it is the most powerful car here, and being over 200kg lighter than the Q7, is bloody fast for a car its size.
Where the X5 loses out, though, is the suspension. Even in the stiffest setting, it just doesn’t feel as planted as the Q7. There’s a bit of a floaty vertical movement, and it takes the X5 just that little bit longer to settle down after it hits a bump or goes through a dip. Our roads aren’t buttery smooth and this slightly unsettled nature of the X5 can get a bit annoying over time, dulling the sheen of what is an otherwise very well-rounded package.
Yes, I’m talking about the red car and yes, I’m making a commie reference even though the Rangie is anything but an SUV for the people. The Range Rover Sport is an alternative out of left field in this company — it has never been a traditional rival to these cars. The Range Rover badge and the steeper price tag give it more snob value, putting it further out of reach. However, this Rangie now has a smaller engine, making it more accessible than ever.
The Range Rover Sport’s presence is undeniable. The X5 may be the playground bully, but even it knows the Range Rover isn’t to be messed with. There’s a sense of regality around the Range Rover that just cannot be matched by the Germans here. BMWs and Audis… they almost feel commonplace in comparison. While the X5s and Q7s roll up to the lobbies of fancy hotels, Range Rovers roll up to private airstrips. This sense of opulence continues on the inside — Touch Pro Duo, the two 12.3-inch screens that dominate the centre console are quite a sight. Not as easy to use as BMW’s iDrive, but a great way to make the cabin feel special. More cool are the steering-mounted buttons — they’re sensitive to touch and they change functionality depending on the menu you’re at. A neat little trick picked up from the Velar, and it is very welcome.
The two-litre petrol motor is the same one used in the F-Type, pumping out an impressive 296bhp and 400Nm. It’s quick, and sounds entertaining enough though it lacks the downright punch of the diesels here. The boost kicks in at around 2000rpm and it gets the two-tonne SUV to move, but not with the same ferocity of a six-cylinder turbo-diesel. The Range Rover gets a slightly stiffer suspension setup than the rest of the cars here, and though it does have a heavier steering and can corner well, you get the impression that it is a bit tall and prefers a straight road to a winding one. But the Land Rover is the most capable SUV off-road here, without a doubt. You get the Terrain Response 2 system that allows you to select different off-road modes. It’s the only one with all-terrain tyres straight off the line. It isn’t the most obvious SUV at this price, but it certainly makes a strong case for itself with is exclusivity.
The Q7, even though it is a good three years old now, still feels like an SUV that can slug it out with the other big boys. It remains the benchmark for space, ride quality and being the most well-rounded here. Would I pick one over the BMW? Probably not. The BMW can now match the Q7 for comfort, a department where it floundered in the past and even feels more special from the inside. The Q7’s interior is understated luxury, but the X5 and Rangie’s interiors feel like a million bucks. Virtual cockpit was a big deal on the Q7 when it launched, but the competition has caught up and moved forward. The BMW also scores when it comes to emotion. It’s not as raw as the older X5, but despite BMW’s engineers dialling up the comfort, they’ve managed to retain some of its character. The Q7 feels far too sterile in comparison. As for the Range Rover, it makes a bigger statement than the other two but just lacks the outright grunt. A V6-specced Rangie would be great but then you’re looking at a stratospheric price tag too. And while all these three SUVs would elicit the same kind of treatment from that one cop, I’m just going to play it safe and stick to the BMW.