Mountain Wheels: BMW’s expanding X family offers a sport activity vehicle for everyone

Topping the BMW SUV lineup, the South Carolina-assembled X7 is a sophisticated three-row machine with endless available high-tech options.
Courtesy photo

I’ve been fortunate to have an exhaustive look at BMW’s comprehensive family of what it calls “sport activity vehicles” in recent months. If you are interested in stepping up your own SUV game, here’s a quick overview of that ever-widening range of weather-beating machines.

My most striking experience came over the holidays in the new X7, the newest member of the family, put together in a factory in South Carolina, with full three-row comfort that really accentuates rear-seat access.

Mine also came in the top-of-the-line M50i setup. For the 2020 model year, the M variant of both the X7 and the X5 gets a 523-horsepower 4.4-liter twin turbocharged V-8, which produced a legitimately tire-squealing 4.5-second-long sprint to 60 mph.

That’s quite alarming and rather fantastic for a vehicle of the X7’s size, set on gargantuan 22-inch wheels and filled with about every option available (the dual starlight-infused sunroofs, for instance), totaling an equally alarming $113,845.

New and refined display systems on X7 (and the X6 I drove later) include broad, rectangular screens that seem to offer the most dynamic and useful navigation map views in the business, plus a somewhat distracting app that allows you to read full-sized Associated Press headlines and see color photos while careening down Interstate 70. Those funny Germans.  

Most important is what I noted to be the most complicated and actually practical electrical access system to the third row seats. A set of massive second-row captain’s chairs auto-slide and virtually eject themselves (even the front row seats move) to allow brilliantly easy access to the third row. Extra controls in the rear of the cargo area duplicate the process.

Its looks are the ultimate embodiment of the bold style found on the two other midsize family members I drove, the new X5 and the ever-distinctive X6, with its low and curved coupe-styled rear roof.

My X5 was the more standard issue xDrive40i, with full-time AWD and a 3.0-liter twin-turbo inline six-cylinder engine, stickered at $73,960. That 335-horsepower engine is pretty responsive considering it is effectively the smaller option (the larger, non-M 4.4-liter V-8 still produces an admirable 456 horsepower), with the tradeoff being highway mileage in the 26 mpg range.

Andy Stonehouse, Summit Daily News
Andy Stonehouse

The fourth-generation X5 gains 1.6 inches in wheelbase and more than an inch overall, plus 2.6 inches of additional width. Still, compared with the X7, it looks compact and contained, with a generally clean and updated design and attractive 20-inch wheels. A four-zone air conditioning system and an enlarged panoramic sunroof also add to the practicality.

By comparison, I kind of liked the curiosity that is the slope-backed hyper-coupe thing that is the X6, which I had only driven before as a totally immoral, grunty and hard-shifting M version. The somewhat more civilized xDrive40i rendition I enjoyed also delivered perhaps the least additional sticker shock, as its $72,020 price had only slightly been inflated with parking assistance and premium package options – head-up display, wireless charging, remote engine start – plus an $875 Harmon Kardon surround sound upgrade.

Yes, X6’s looks are certainly polarizing, but the practicality of the platform is not necessarily diminished by a rear roof that looks like it was inspired by an old Isuzu Rodeo. Sit in the large rear seat, and you’ll still find full adult headroom, and in the far back, liftgate access is arguably easier than the X6 and still offers ample room, with a broad tonneau cover and a long, liftable cargo deck.

Controls are virtually the same as the high-end M models, though the crystal shifters and sparkling surfaces get more practical metallic weave highlights and stitched leather surfaces.

Getting aboard the X6 took a bit of a step as the integrated extensions of the rocker panels stick way, way out, requiring a bit of a sideways leap to board.

Finally, considerably smaller in scale but exciting in its own way, was the M35i version of the more compact X2, priced at $55,020. Aside from its literally Broncos Orange-colored leather seats and door and dash inserts (“Magma Red” in BMW speak) and slightly glurpy-sounding exhaust, I felt that X2 offered some of the most real-world practicality for an M-styled upgrade.

Most 2.0-liter engines out there can’t do it, but the M35i pulls 302 horsepower out of its four-cylinder, meaning plenty of useable and helpful power on the highway.

And with a body style that’s lower to the ground, longer and more car-like than the aforementioned high-digit Xes, tippiness is less of a factor, with blazingly precise lateral grip on corners. The xDrive AWD and hill-descent control also suggest some light off-road versatility.

Andy Stonehouse’s column “Mountain Wheels” publishes Saturdays in the Summit Daily News. Stonehouse has worked as an editor and writer in Colorado since 1998, focusing on automotive coverage since 2004. He lives in Golden. Contact him at

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