It’s well known that we tend to do things differently at autoX. So, when we got word that the brand new BMW X5 had landed on our shores, we got to thinking about how we could truly put it to the test.
You see, BMW had already flown us halfway across the world to drive it. So, our first drive report all the way from Canada from a few months ago confirmed what we could have guessed anyway – that the new X5 could well be all the car that you could ask for on a daily basis. It’s just the right size, drives brilliantly on the road, and is incredibly comfortable.
When the first X5 was launched back in 1999, BMW coined the phrase ‘Sport Activity Vehicle’ or ‘SAV.’ They made it a point to steer well clear of the word ‘utility.’ And, true to form, the X5 was the first car that showed the world that an SUV could retain the driving characteristics of a sports sedan. It was the one that heralded the avalanche of SUV’s that were more focussed towards the tarmac than the dirt trail. But, does that mean this latest generation is hopeless off-road? Well, that’s what we wanted to find out.
Now, it doesn’t have an ‘off-road’ mode that raises the suspension for greater ride height and articulation, but it does have an incredible drivetrain and chassis. So, instead of attempting some rock climbing with this Bavarian, we thought we ought to settle it how we normally do – with a race!
So, we found a challenging 2.5 kilometre rally stage that had it all – bumps, dips, ruts, drops, decent straights, and some really tricky corners. We also proceeded to put together an interesting trifecta lets just say – along with the X5, we roped in the recent Desert Storm winning Polaris RZR XP 900, and my ex-rally Gypsy. So, while the X5 may be the most powerful, technologically advanced, and expensive – by a long shot – of this trio, it would also be the underdog. Game on!
We started out with a recce to mark out all the really hairy sections and also map the course with our trusty VBOX that’s normally only whipped out at the BIC. With that done, as well as some photography taken care of, it was time to start the clock. The plan was simple – set a time in each of the three to see which is fastest. The Polaris went first.
Now, I’ve driven the RZR a few times in the past – but never like this. This one, as I said before, was the one Raj Singh Rathore used to decimate the competition during the Maruti-Suzuki Desert Storm held earlier this year. The official winner was Sunny Sidhu in his Mahindra XUV. Rathore wasn’t classified in the overall standings because the Polaris isn’t road legal. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that he finished miles ahead. And it’s easy to see why. The RZR is simply unfair competition for any road-going vehicle. It’s purpose-built to go mud plugging. It’s got ridiculous wheel articulation, so you can drive over any obstacle and not even feel it. You can choose between two and four-wheel drive and Low and High range. So, while indulging in some serious off-roading fun, I had it in four-wheel drive and Low range – in which mode it will simply traverse any terrain on Mother Earth (and the Moon as well, if given half a chance). While setting a time on the course, however, I kept it in two-wheel and the transmission in High.
The two-wheel simply allows you to rotate the chassis using nothing but the throttle. On a few of the hairpins, I was going sideways right the way through the entire bend – I felt like I was channelling Vatanen the whole time. It was truly fantastic. This is really the best thing I’ve ever driven off-road! There’s simply no mass whatsoever – which is in complete contrast to the BMW – so the 88 horses are more than adequate. You just tap the throttle, and the Polaris shoots forward. Then it’s just a question of playing with throttle, brake, and steering to carve your way around the course. The only thing I was a little wary of was ending up on my side if I went too fast through the slower corners.
I mentioned previously that I’ve driven the RZR twice before. Well, what that equates to is the number of times that I’ve flipped a Polaris ATV. The first time I was powersliding (read: showboating) for the crowd and the camera, one of my wheels got stuck in a rut and the Polaris flipped on its side. On the second occasion, I came too fast around a sharp bend, while the road was dropping away from me, and again found myself sitting on my side. On both occasions, though, I simply got out, plonked the Polaris back on four wheels and carried on – simple as that! A little more seat time in this buggy, and I would have been far more comfortable. That apart, the Sparco racing seat and four point harness made me feel secure enough to really take advantage of this incredible machine. Since it has no overhangs at all, and the wheels are at the four absolute corners, the RZR responds instantly to steering inputs. You simply dismiss dips and ruts that would slow you in a normal machine, and keep your right foot planted – as you can see from the telemetry chart.
The Polaris was the only machine in which I did two laps – the first one to get accustomed to it, and the second one to set the fastest time of the day. By a mile!
Next up was the Gypsy. The last time I drove this car was the SJOBA rally last year. We ended up finishing, disappointingly, in the middle of the pack in an uncompetitive car – and I just didn’t have the time and energy to really work on the car thereafter to make it competitive once again. So, in came Akhil Ghai of Team Winning Wheels and he took it off me in an instant. He’s since reworked the engine many times over, and is currently in the process of preparing for the mother of them all – the Raid de Himalaya later this year. When I handed it over to him, it already had oversized pistons, a mild high-lift cam, headers of course, free flow intake, and a Race Dynamics ECU. It had all the other standard rally kit as well –roll-cage, racing seats, belts, the works.
Well, Akhil wasn’t quite satisfied. He’s since created a bespoke dashboard, which looks quite cool, and has done a lot of work to the internals as well. The car is still in the middle of being prepared for the Raid, but it was running pretty well all the same. My problem was that the seat was fixed in his driving position, as were the belts. Let’s just say he’s a little larger than me, and I could barely reach the steering, and couldn’t secure myself in the seat either. Yes, that is my ‘racing driver excuse’ for the day.
The Gypsy couldn’t have been more of a contrast to the Polaris. The bumps and ruts that the RZR simply glides over, the Gypsy seems to seek out and crashes into in an effort to rearrange the alignment of your spine. Frankly, I had forgotten how brutal a rally Gypsy can be. You’re fighting the car all the time. You brace yourself for impact – literally by holding the accelerator pedal to the floor. There are times when I’ve actually held my knee down with my right hand so that the bumps don’t dislodge my foot off the loud pedal. But it can also be extremely rewarding on the dirt. We still continue to rally the Gypsy – after all these decades – because its cheap to build and to keep going, but find a proper mountain stage that’s fast and flowing, yet rough enough to decimate a normal rally car, and you quickly find yourself in Gypsy rally heaven.
I’ve had some incredible times in this car – three Raid de Himalayas (the first time we did quite well too), a Desert Storm, an INRC round, and various other rallies and sprints. The trophy cabinet isn’t exactly overflowing, but it isn’t empty either. But, on this day, the Gypsy and me just couldn’t find a rhythm. I couldn’t get comfortable in the seat – and while the Gypsy was ever willing to take a beating, I wasn’t. Getting soft I suppose! We ended up with a time of three minutes and twelve seconds – quite a mediocre time at this track, and a full twenty-four-and-a-half seconds slower than the Polaris.
The X5 went last – for the simple reason that, by then, I would have gotten a good idea of where all the nasty dips and ruts were. Our test car was running 20-inch wheels after all, and I wanted to return the car to BMW with all them still fully round. Now, if I had gone hell for leather, the BMW would have beaten the Gypsy’s time without a problem. The 3.0 litre turbo-diesel engine just has instant response, and it’s channelled to the ground via one of the best gearboxes in the world – the ZF 8-speed. Better still, the power meets the dirt through a very clever four-wheel drive system that adapts brilliantly to every situation.
So, the X5 is actually quite usable off-road – even when you’re trying to clear all but the most dicey obstacles. When you really step on the gas, with the traction control turned off, the four-wheel drive system can actually be quite rear-biased – allowing you to enjoy some powerslides in the process. What impressed me the most, however, were the brakes. Normally when you take a modern car or SUV onto the dirt and attempt to actually slow down from high speed, all you get is ABS chatter through the pedal and very little in terms of deceleration – which, as you can imagine, can be quite disconcerting. No such problem in the X5 though. No matter how hard I braked, the ABS didn’t engage even once – and that allowed me to transfer the weight to the front really nicely to set up for upcoming corners. The speed around the bends was equally impressive too, as the X5’s Lamborghini sized rear tyres (315/35 R20’s) ensured incredible grip – even on the dirt.
Compared to the Polaris, obviously the X5 felt big and heavy. But, switch off your brain to that otherworldly reference, and it actually felt quite comfortable bring hustled around a tight and twisty dirt track. The only problem I faced with the BMW was one of my own making. Since I didn’t exactly want to test BMW India’s generosity – even in the case of only wheels and tyres – every time I came to a bump or a rut that I would completely ignore in the Polaris, or even the Gypsy for that matter, I would slow right down in the X5. And no matter how much grunt I had courtesy of the engine, or how much grip I had when the surface was smooth, there was simply no way of making up the deficit. Nevertheless, the BMW posted a respectable 3:29.9 – which is actually not bad considering the circumstances. It certainly more than held its own and clearly defied the myth that it can’t handle going down a dirt trail.
I certainly left the test incredibly impressed with the BMW’s versatility. The Polaris was clearly in a different league, of course, and I can’t wait for another chance to channel Vatanen once again from its open cockpit. But the RZR had to taken home on a trailer. I, on the other hand, could have driven off the dirt and headed across the entire country if I felt compelled to do so. That’s the beauty of the X5. It’s brilliant on road, and it’s proven that it can take on purpose built machinery off it – for the odd occasion when you find yourself racing a Polaris and a Gypsy on a special stage that is. As you do, sometimes!
Lap Time: 3:29.9 | Top Speed: 69Km/h
Lap Time: 3:12.0 | Top Speed: 74Km/h
Polaris RZR XP 900
Lap Time: 2:49.5 | Top Speed: 85Km/h