• Physical Attraction / #BMW-X5-4.6iS / #BMW-X5-4.6iS-E53 / #BMW-X5-E53 / #BMW-X5 / #BMW-E53 /

    Re-evaluating the bonkers #BMW-E53 X5 4.6iS. Back in its day the X5 4.6iS was one of the fastest 4x4s on the planet, but how does it feel nearly 15 years later? Words and photography: Mark Williams.

    I was always fascinated by physics at school. Chemistry held an interest too, but that was more a morbid fascination with combining substances we were explicitly told not to mix by our mischievous teacher, who would often then turn his back and wander off to the storeroom for five minutes, leaving us with two half-full test tubes; one of fuel, the other of igniter and only one thing left to do. My 14-year-old niece reliably informs me that today’s teachers are a boring lot in comparison. It was the physics classes though which really held appeal.

    Across the corridor, the mysterious art of applying power or force to an object with a certain density in order to motivate it forward grabbed my interest, and that’s something which has never really left me. It’s clearly visible in some of my car purchases over the last 15 years; two-tonne leviathans stretching their legs to the tune of lusty, big capacity V12s which overcome sheer mass through brute force and power. Which brings us neatly to this, the X5 4.6iS.

    I’ve driven several SUVs over the last year or so, and I’ve doubted every single one of them upon first acquaintance. Come the time to return them though, and there’s an uneasy feeling inside which suggests that there is some logic at work here, and hence appreciation of what they can achieve. Logic? Well ask yourself this – would you rather hack up to Scotland in a Fiesta, or something with refinement through size, long-legged cruising ability thanks to a big motor, and the confidence instilled in the driver through being able to see hundreds of yards ahead? If you accept that big cars don’t have to be built in the mould of the 7 Series or S-Class, and you don’t crave the final degree of handling incisiveness which enables you to clip apices time and again, then you begin to appreciate why people buy these things.

    So let’s not think of the psychology at work here and just consider the X5 on merit. Generally regarded as the first in the line of lifestyle SUVs, or SAVs as BMW prefer it (Sports Activity Vehicle, as if ‘Utility’ conjures up off-brand images which keep marketing men laying awake at night), the X5 first rolled down the path previously traversed by later versions of the Range Rover throughout the ’80s and into the ’90s. That is, once the Range Rover had opened the door to a market for luxury off-roaders which spent most of their time on-road, BMW’s boffins got to work. Porsche then followed and the rest is living history, seen every day on the roads and in car parks the world over.


    A few years into the lifecycle of the first generation of X5, the E53, BMW gave us this in 2001. An X5 which gorged itself on a diet of M62 V8 and F1-spec rubber (315s out the back, so make sure your credit card is up to the task when you visit Kwik Fit as decent brand Reifen will set you back 400 quid a corner), equating to two tonnes plus a load more, 347hp, 354lb ft of torque and an attitude.


    The exhausts rumble, the bluff grille sends smaller fare scattering into the inside lane and the owner looks smug whilst trying not to eye the fruit-machine behaviour exhibited by the pump whilst filling it up. But there’s a promise of being able to continue should it snow, or still being able to extract oneself from the field at the local place of interest, after it rains and turns it into a mud pie (and never mind that the aforementioned 315s are about as useful in said conditions as a Teflon-coated castor would be). We all know the Modus Operandi at work here, right? BMW refined the recipe in 2004 with the 4.8 model, but the first jaw-dropper and convention-changer is what you see here.

    And it works, it really does. At the time of the test (and thanks given here to the owner for allowing us to borrow the car he had recently purchased from James Paul down in West Sussex, 01403 823723 or www.jamespaul.co.uk) this particular 4.6iS wasn’t in the first flush of youth, but still only had 78k on the odo and hence, plenty left to give. It creaked and groaned a bit over the region’s more pot-marked asphalt but in general, you’d have to say that the guys at the North Carolina Spartanburg plant where they assembled these things (and still do, 1.5 million units later) knew what they were doing. Yes it rolled a bit in the corners but one soon dialled into its responses and compensated accordingly, driving in accordance with its size and weight. That is to say, ‘considerately’.


    When I hit the throttle, velocity was gained with a baritone rumble and a feeling that anything which happened into our path would be swept away under the avalanche. At least one could see said ‘target’ well in advance thanks to the elevated driving position.


    Onto the brakes before tipping it into a bend and there’s a very clear feeling that one shouldn’t really be doing this in something so vast, but it slows with authority and the lean through the subsequent corner actually helps the chassis settle and not panic the driver. The steering isn’t fast enough for this kind of work though, even bordering on the vague (plus it’s far too light) and no matter how much lock you think you need in those early miles, you consistently need just that little bit more. Nobody ever claimed it’s anything approaching lithe as a handling device though, because clearly it’s a blunt instrument designed to bludgeon and not trim its line via the control surfaces, but the honest reality is that you can cover the ground at a good pace in one of these things without the feeling that one false move will require our cartographers to reach for their pens and start over…

    Back at James Paul, I have a good look over the interior and muse to myself that dashboard architecture and styling has come a long way in the past ten years. In terms of toys, all the high-end kit of the period is present and correct, so the seats are powered in every direction except sideways, ditto the mirrors and steering column. The air-con still kicks out an icy blast, the sound quality from the (standard) stereo makes you wonder whether BMW has cut some corners in order to pinch the pennies in that area in recent years and the sat-nav makes a decent attempt at finding its way around (and never mind that you’d need a trained chimp to reach the buttons from the driver’s seat). Praise the Lord that there’s an actual engine coolant gauge and not ‘only’ an oil temp gauge or merely warning lights, the engine starts with a key (quaint) and the shift pattern printed onto the base of the auto shifter harks back to auto shifters of old, and not the algebra expressions which appear printed atop modern shifters. It all works well enough too, save for the inevitable pixel issue on this age of #BMW and a line or two missing on the sat-nav screen. But these are niggles, easily sorted.

    Closing the doors and standing back to admire the heft, it’s not ageing too badly either. Okay the frontal aspect looks a little old and the light pods particularly, complete with separate and permanently visible washing pods, really date it. But from the side and especially from the rear three-quarter, where those 315s somewhat dominate proceedings, it looks squat, heavy and dependable. And it would be reliable for the most part, but you would have to look out for coolant leaks, some of which can cost an arm and a leg to rectify, and they consume suspension components with frightening regularity, which shouldn’t really come as much of a surprise when you consider the sheer mass of the thing.

    Bottom line, for the £7.5k this was up for prior to being sold (and I succeeded in squeezing in a video review too, so pop over to my Quently Bentin YouTube channel for that one), it represented a quite staggering amount of metal for your money, and an amusing way of poking fun at the laws of physics.

    Thanks to: James Paul
    Tel: 01403 823723
    Web: www.jamespaul.co.uk

    TECHNICAL DATA #BMW-E53 X5 4.6iS
    ENGINE: V8, petrol, normally aspirated / #M62 / #M62B46 / #BMW-M62
    CAPACITY: 4619cc
    MAX POWER: 347hp @ 5700rpm
    MAX TORQUE: 354lb ft @ 3700rpm
    0-62MPH: 6.5 seconds
    TOP SPEED: 149mph
    ECONOMY: 19mpg (17 on test)
    PRICE: £54,000 (2001), circa £7500 (today)

    When I hit the throttle, velocity was gained with a baritone rumble.