The BMW X5 is often credited with forging a new path, offering a large four-wheel drive car that drove more like its saloons, with less wallow, noise and "utility" than some of the alternatives. It put the sport in to SUV – although BMW prefers to call them sports activity vehicles (SAV). 

That's now long in the past – 20 years in the past – with the BMW X5 still throwing its weight around amongst a field filled with the Land Rover Discovery, Audi Q7 and plenty more, at varying levels of premium spec. 

Since the first-gen X5, BMW has shifted 2.2 million of these premium SUVs and remained a top seller in Europe in 2018. So what's it doing that's just so right?

Increasingly luxury internally 

The BMW X5 makes no bones about being a premium offering. Starting at £57k, you can't really see this vehicle as having an 'entry-level' trim. The interior fit and finish is good, increasing the sophistication of the cabin over the previous edition – necessary, as with increased rivals from the luxury segment, there's everything to fight for. 

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On the xLine trim you still get a choice of leather finishes, sports seats and a lot of tech; the majority of UK buyers opt for the M Sport trim which not only adds tweaks to the interior but increases the sporty looks on the exterior too – bringing some of the aggression that characterises its looks compared to something like the Volvo XC90.

The X5 offers a spacious and comfortable interior with leg, shoulder and headroom in both the front and rear seats, with optional interior ambient lighting which can be set to pulse in particular situations - to alert you to incoming phone calls and so on.

There are also some interesting premium details, like the CraftedClarity glass finish that can be added to the drive selector and other interior controls – just to make things super plush – while the quality is hard to fault. Certainly, there's quality in all areas of the interior, and we like the way that the display sits nestled into the dash.

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However, if you want a third row of seats then you'll have to pay for that, compared to some rivals where it's standard – like the Land Rover Discovery (which also starts some £10k cheaper) – so if you're in for a 7-seater then the Beemer might not be your first choice.

Digital driver display and new infotainment system 

But aside from creature comforts, we're more interested in some of the tech changes for the 2019 model. Firstly, there's a fully digital 12.3-inch driver display which bears a closer graphical resemblance to the central display of the same size – this has also moved on from what was previously referred to as iDrive, to the latest system known as BMW Live Cockpit, running BMW Operating System 7.0.

Starting with the driver display, this has permanent speed and rev counters on the left and right running around the outside of this display in an arc, while the centre spaces allow for more customisation and control. There are easy options like being able to show the speed readout in both mph and kph – great for continental driving – as well as being able to scroll through your radio stations or other info on the right-hand side.

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There's nothing hugely ground-breaking about its implementation and it doesn't quite have the gloss of the Virtual Cockpit that Audi will give you in its Q7 with its full colour scrolling mapping and ability to change the size of the dials. 

But there's something important about that 'Operating System 7.0' label – BMW is planning to offer over-the-air (OTA) updates. BMW knows that people are now accustomed to the smartphone experience, so there's no good reason why your car shouldn't offer updates and personalisation too. 

Exactly what this will offer is yet to be revealed, but the new BMW personal voice assistant due in March 2019 – so that's one upgrade we know is coming, plus BMW has been talking about Amazon Alexa integration for some time.

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Talking about personalisation, each pane of the new central display system can be customised, so if you don’t want all the media options that you never select, you can remove them, for example. 

Navigation of the new Live Cockpit is pretty easy, with touch and the no-longer-called-iDrive controller and the option for gesture control – which, to be honest, we're not sold on. On the X5 there's a leaning towards touch – it just seems the natural way to interact with it.

The mapping system (which comes as standard) is pretty good too, as are the navigation commands. We're pleased it's standard, because some connectivity options will cost you more, like Apple CarPlay – with ongoing subscription costs of £85 a year, or £255 for three. Considering it's free on many other cars, it seems a bit miserly on a vehicle that'll already cost you the best part of £60k.

Android Auto isn't supported at the moment, but BMW told us it would be coming in the near future at the UK BMW X5 driving event. It seems that the delay in support is because BMW is trying to implement it in the same way as CarPlay – i.e., wirelessly – although in the past we've heard both BMW and Mini flatly state that Android Auto isn't coming. So we'll wait and see.

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You'll also find a Qi wireless charging pad in the X5's centre cubby hole, which will charge recent iPhone models and a wide variety of Android phones (most from Samsung, at least) and along with some USB-A connections you'll now find USB-C appearing in various places in the front and rear.

What's going on with the grille? 

One of the biggest comments on the launch of the iNext and BMW X7 models was about the changing face of BMW's cars. The kidney grille is growing and merging, becoming less separated and more like Kia's sharknose. Certainly, the new BMW X5 grille is larger than before; more like beaver teeth.

The X5 expands in all directions so it's a bigger car than it was previously (36mm longer, 66mm wider and 90mm higher, if you want the fine detail, tape-measure people). Cars are growing across the board and yes, we did have a few sharp intakes of breath as we passed through traffic in the X5. There's a confident personality to the BMW X5, something that's exacerbated by its size. The sculpting of the body looks more dramatic than many rivals – and that might be the appeal of the X5 over some others.

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There's a lot of tech to protect or help you keep track of where the ends of your car are too. There's the 360-degree camera system that will let you look at what's going on and this can fire up to show you when something is close, so it's especially useful when parking. 

There's another fun feature which develops the automatic parking function with a reversing assistant. This will remember the last 50m of travel and allow the car to autonomously reverse over that distance, taking care of the steering while you control the throttle. We can see how this will really help those coming face-to-face with a tractor down a Cornish B road. 

Petrol and Diesel at launch: Where's the eDrive hybrid model? 

What's perhaps unusual about the launch of the new BMW X5 is that there's no sign of the eDrive version (that was available previously). With BMW talking about electrification and the general mood amongst buyers seeing a decline in diesel demand in some sectors, we expected the xDrive 45e (as it will be called) to be front and centre.

The xDrive45e will pair a 6-cylinder 3-litre 286hp petrol engine with a 112hp electrical system, for a combined 394hp. That combination gives a 0-62mph time of 5.6 seconds and a range of 50 miles/80km in electric drive alone. A nice touch, but it's not an all-electric Audi e-tron.

The eDrive will be heavier because of its battery, but the performance will be close to the quad-turbo M50d (the top-of-the-line performance diesel at launch), leaving the M30d and M40i in the dust. Where the eDrive model will also earn its stripes is in emissions and fuel economy – reporting 49g/km, which is over three times less than the conventional engines.

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Naturally the 265hp M30d is the most affordable and most economical of the ICE models, with 47mpg on paper and 158g CO2, but it's the M50d performance diesel that is the most spritely, with the 3-litre 6-cylinder engine boosted by four turbos, for a 400hp output. On the road it's bit of a monster, with the sport exhaust producing a suitable soundtrack to keep you smirking when you put your foot down. It's certainly fun to drive, but seeing the price over £70k, you certainly pay for it.

With the M50d hitting 62mph in 5.2 seconds, it will rival plenty of hot hatches, accelerating this massive car towards the horizon with xDrive providing all the traction – and there's no soft option to select two-wheel drive like some models, it's all-wheel drive (AWD) all the way.

For those wanting petrol, the M40i slips between the diesels with 340hp, 0-62 in 5.5 seconds and a reported 33mpg – but with the highest CO2 emissions of the trio. We spent most of the time with the M30d which gave us 37mpg in mixed driving, according to the X5's trip computer.

The 8-speed double-clutch automatic box drives that power to the wheels with very little delay. There's no manual option, although there are panel shifters for those wanting more direct control of gear changes.

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Driving modes will let you change the character of the car, but is mostly aimed at economy – flip to Eco Pro and things slow down and get rather sluggish. It's not a fun way to drive, but it might save the planet. On the flip side, you can always knock the gear selector to the side to enter Sport, giving you a faster throttle response and letting the engine rev higher.

The xDrive system will adjust power front and rear depending on demand to ensure you remain fleet of foot. The BMW X5 responds when you put your foot down, giving that sporty driving feel that you expect, without it rolling around like a huge car. With 19-inch standard wheels, the M50d gets itself 22-inch wheels which might make the ride a little harsher, although generally it's comfortable on the road, soaking away undulations without bouncing around.  

It's not only about on-road experience 

But BMW is also keen to stress the off-road skills of this car. While the Discovery is known for being more capable off-road than many of its owners are ever likely to need, the X5 wants to make sure that BMW drivers can be just as adventurous. Adaptive air suspension is now standard and this will let you raise or lower the vehicle – but the introduction of a new off-road package provides a little more for those who do need to deviate from the Tarmac.

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Priced at £2595, the xOffroad package isn't just about driving control, it also adds a physical sump guard front and rear. There are four driving modes – sand, rock, gravel and snow – each changing the ride height, throttle and gear responses, as well as using the xDrive system to maintain traction. 

We can't profess to have extensively tested these capabilities, but heading off through rutted and muddy forest tracks, the X5 was quiet, comfortable and stayed in control, again with that 360-degree camera system letting us keep a closer eye on obstacles. It's not quite as advanced as the 'see-through' bonnet of the new Range Rover Evoque, but it's pretty much the same thing.

Importantly, driving on mixed surfaces with regular road tyres, the BMW X5 felt assured and confident. And let's be honest: it probably does everything you'll need it to when heading through muddy fields to park at that rugby tournament, or when driving into an Alpine resort chasing powder.

Verdict

The BMW X5 dominates the road with aggressive sporty styling on a larger-than-life body. For some that might add appeal that rivals lack, with on the road performance that still delivers what BMW drivers expect when it comes to ride and handling, with good powerful engine choices. The lack of a hybrid at launch does raise questions though.

From a technology point of view things feel a little more sophisticated in the BMW than the latest from Jaguar Land Rove, but tech fans will probably lean toward Audi's inclusion of CarPlay and Android Auto for connectivity. We do like that BMW Live Cockpit offers customisation and updates – and enhanced voice control we'll have to fully test when it's widely available from March 2019.

The BMW X5 ultimately is big, bold and offers great comfort, lots of space and a great drive. And while we wait for that eDrive version to launch (hopefully in 2019), there's still a lot to love.

Alternatives to consider

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Audi Q7

The Audi Q7 is a little more conservative in exterior design than the BMW, but rivals it in terms of interior quality, while also offering a great level of tech. The Audi will also come in at a lower starting price, but that's mainly down to a less powerful entry-level engine option. But it does have seven seats as standard.

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Land Rover Discovery

While offroad skills are the Discovery's forte, it also offers huge rear space and seven seats as standard. It's quite a bit cheaper than the BMW X5, but again that's for a smaller 2-litre diesel engine, while the interior isn't quite as advanced as BMW's offering. If you're going offroad though, the Disco hits the highs.