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BMW X5 M 2010 review

Top-spec SUVs are becoming high-performance machines with fewer compromises than you may expect.

BMW has been building cars with M badges for more than 30 years and jealously guards their reputation. Products from its M division -- it originally stood for motorsport -- represent the finest dynamics that BMW can bring to market along with sizzling pace from characterful engines. Cars with an M in their badge have the job of casting a halo over the bread-and-butter products that make up the bulk of its sales.

Not every car gets the treatment. The core model is the M3, which takes BMW's bestselling junior executive range and spices it up with a V8. Coupes and convertibles are also candidates, as well as the larger M5 sedan and wagon.

Enthusiasts devour the details of each new generation.

Until recently, BMW disdained the trend towards performance SUVs even though its biggest rival, Mercedes-Benz, was having great success with an AMG version of its M-Class off-roader. Presumably, BMW concluded that the dynamics of a tall and heavy SUV could never be brought to a level where they would do justice to a performance powerplant and merit an M badge.

All that changed with last year's launch of the X5 M and X6 M. BMW's M division now produces go-fast versions of vehicles that lack the rear-wheel drive purity of previous M-cars -- they are all-wheel drive -- and have inherent disadvantages when it comes to outright performance.

The numbers, however, are impressive: BMW now has the two most powerful SUVs offered in Australia.

With a newly developed 4.4-litre turbocharged V8 that pumps out 408kW, both cars pip the recently discontinued Porsche Cayenne Turbo S (with 404kW) and easily outgun the supercharged Range Rover Vogue (375kW) or Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMG (375kW).

The X5 M and X6 M are mechanical twins and the latter was designed to be a crossover SUV with more of a driver focus. Its coupe-on-stilts styling means it cannot compete on practicality with a mainstream SUV. The X5 M would seem to offer BMW's engineers even more of a challenge. This is a traditional SUV design with a taller profile and space for passengers and cargo.

On the spec sheets there's a surprise: aside from minor dimensional differences, the vital statistics of an X5 M are identical to those of the X6 M. Both have a kerbweight of 2.4 tonnes, sprint to 100km/h in the same blistering 4.7 seconds and can reach 250km/h before the electronic limiter kicks in.

This V8 engine is a beauty, with a deep throaty rumble that gets sweeter in tone and higher in pitch as it revs to 7000rpm. Its twin-scroll turbocharger delivers substantial torque before the engine has even woken up, at 1500rpm, and linear power. It drives all four wheels via a six-speed automatic that's smooth and smart, even if it did deliver the occasional unwanted change-up.

On paper the X5 M will beat the Q7 V12 in a straight line and almost certainly through the bends as well. It's lighter and shorter than the Audi, and its chassis offers more involvement. It's firm, but there's still body roll and feedback through the seat of your pants. The steering is meatier and seems quicker while the ride is a little more compliant.

However, bringing the X5 M's dynamic performance into line with its powertrain ability does involve a huge array of physics-defying technology. This is based around hardware that's common to many high-end BMWs such as active anti-roll bars, electronic dampers and air springs. The newest addition is Dynamic Performance Control, which splits torque between the rear wheels to enhance handling in corners, pulling the car around when required.

Although the X5 M is more engaging than the Q7 V12 from behind the wheel, both experiences feel heavily fenced around by the software and hardware required to make the notion of a performance SUV work at all. Unavoidably, it's a more mediated experience than M versions of coupes or sedans and there's something contradictory -- almost absurd -- in trying to chuck a tall off-roader around like a sports car.

There is, however, a market for SUVs with attitude and with its new breed of M division SUVs BMW is effectively saying, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.''

If it means the original M mantra has to be tweaked a little, that's a compromise BMW is prepared to make.

BMW X5 M - $172,900-plus on-road costs

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X5 M 4.4L, PULP, 6 SP AUTO $20,600 – 27,940 2010 BMW X Models 2010 X5 M Pricing and Specs
X1 Sdrive 18I 2.0L, PULP, 6 SP MAN $11,000 – 16,060 2010 BMW X Models 2010 X1 Sdrive 18I Pricing and Specs
X1 Sdrive 20D 2.0L, Diesel, 6 SP MAN $11,200 – 16,500 2010 BMW X Models 2010 X1 Sdrive 20D Pricing and Specs
X1 Xdrive 20D 2.0L, Diesel, 6 SP AUTO $8,300 – 12,870 2010 BMW X Models 2010 X1 Xdrive 20D Pricing and Specs
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