While researching the wildly up-tuned BMW X5 M ($98,700) sport utility vehicle — a supercar cleverly disguised as a brick — something caught my eye. It was buried deep inside the literature, almost as an afterthought. There, amid an ocean of language about suspension tweaks and horsepower infusions, all delivered with typically Germanic precision, sat the following words: “It’s an open door to controlled drifts.”
I read the line again, my head cocked somewhat sideways this time, because that’s the only way you can truly process a sentence like that. I can see the commercial now: A bunch of exuberant young weekend hooners careening sideways around a parking lot autocross circuit in Toyota Supras and Nissan 200SXs, screaming jubilantly into their GoPros. Suddenly, dad shoots between them this 5,200-pound, $100,000 beast, his rear-biased all-wheel-drive transmission spinning the 21-inch, 325mm-wide rear tires balder than Yul Brynner’s chrome dome. He flicks left, then right, then crosses the finish line while screaming with joy.
In practice, of course, hooning a six-figure BMW SUV is best left for the indefatigably disposable income sector, the guys who won’t mind taking a tumble with their semi-precious but replaceable truck when “drifting” inevitably turns into “skittering across the pavement before rolling it up into a ball in the weeds”. Because that’s how you initially feel things will go down if you really start to throw this monster truck around. You’re already riding twice as high as any proper sports car, which is a weird enough sensation in a vehicle packing 567 horsepower in its twin turbo V8. Can even an M-badged SUV truly shred like a weekend autocross hero? It looks and feels like — well, a freight train.
Can even an M-badged SUV truly shred like a weekend autocross hero?
Indeed, it’s one thing to look at a car like the BMW X6 M — this vehicle’s fraternal twin — and see how that guy’s somewhat sportier geometry might make some sense. But this is more of a modified family hauler than the X6 is — it’s a grocery-getter with the Ludicrous Speed option (remember Spaceballs?). But with every mile spent behind the wheel, you feel closer and closer to the ground, in all the right ways. Its enormous tires — with unconventionally staggered sizes of 285mm wide in the front, 325mm out back — are engineered to sync up dynamically with the steering and axles, with an eye toward greater handling. Smaller tires up front enhance steering, bigger ones in the rear provide traction. As a result, you feel confident from your first giddyup.
Engine: 4.4-liter BMW M TwinPower Turbo V8
Transmission: eight-speed M Sport Automatic
Horsepower: 567 horsepower
Torque: 553 lb-ft
0-60: 4.0 seconds
Top Speed: 156 mph (limited)
It’s well known that large wheels always enhance a car’s proportions (the same way huge eyes make kittens cuter) and the X5’s massive 21-inch rims look spectacular. Car-wise, this is never truer than with a somewhat odd duck like the X5. If you’re trying to jack up the street cred of a lumbering SUV, you have to start with the wheels. They do plenty with the styling, too — including a wider stance and 10mm lower posture, both of which work with the stiffer suspension to minimize body roll — but the wheels anchor this vehicle, in more ways than one.
Within those 21-inch wheels, you have huge six-piston brake calipers that are 50 percent larger than the predecessor’s, but BMW’s managed to make them lighter, improving un-spring mass at all four corners and thereby helping with acceleration and handling. On the road, I never once felt like I was going to struggle reigning in the 5,000-pound, top-heavy mass if things got dicey. It grinds to a halt like a champ. This being BMW, they of course gave much love to the drivetrain, creating a 4.4-liter V8 that uses twin-scroll turbochargers, precision direct fuel injection and equally precise valve timing to produce a smooth and “reasonably” fuel efficient 567 horsepower, coupled with an eight-speed transmission that helps convert that power to 553 lb-ft of usable torque. By reasonably, I mean 16 mpg combined, which is horrific by normal-people-car standards, but pretty awesome in a 2.5-ton truck that will shoot you to 60 mph in 4 seconds flat. The aerodynamics have been tweaked to improve cooling for the demanding engine and brake system and to ensure a degree of downforce and minimized lift that, if not present, can befuddle even this amount of mass.
Back to drifting. Yes, it can be done. In a wide-open parking lot at a vacant business park early on a Sunday morning, I had some fun with the X5 M.
Off the line, the X5 M goes like stink, with a mind-bending launch control system (hard on brakes, gas pedal to the floor, release brakes, hold on) and a sublimely satisfying thunk every time you paddle-shift the next gear into submission. Along the way, it sounds simply outrageous — the twin exhaust has been fine-tuned to encourage the engine notes to resonate more vividly up and down the tachometer. Little valves somewhere deep inside the system open and close to help that along.
But back to drifting. Yes, it can be done. In a wide-open parking lot at a vacant business park early on a Sunday morning, I had some fun with the X5 M — but just a bit. I dialed in the sport modes — a somewhat cumbersome process in which you have to hit three buttons, for suspension, engine, and steering, three times each — and uncorked some spirited launches and graceful arcs around the empty space, and felt that telltale wiggle from the back end. I got it just loose enough to see what it might do had I been on an appropriate venue. The all-wheel-drive system can distribute drive all the way to 100 percent up front or 100 percent to the rear, depending on the road conditions. This being a performance car, its default mode includes a rear bias that contributes to the agility and the classic rear-drive vibe. But the real drift-worthiness comes from the M Dynamic Mode within the Dynamic Stability Control system. According to BMW, this allows greater wheel slip to permit “mild drifts” before intervening if things start to go too far. You can deactivate this (mostly) and push it harder, at your discretion — though it will still try to reel things back in if the situation becomes too extreme.
Because of that, it’s unlikely that this will win any drift competitions. But it was still great fun to screech about in a freight train while coddled in firm, rich red, aromatic leather and feeling the stiffened-up steering respond with millimeter precision to your commands. (Side note: I hope BMW receives awards for its Merino and Nappa leather use; no manufacturer has quite got that color, aroma and tightness dialed in as well as the Bavarians do.) The X5 M is certainly a lot of car — a compliant family vehicle that becomes a track-ready brute ‘ute with the press of a few buttons. And, given you’ve got a pulse in your veins, you’ll really like pressing those buttons.