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Halfway house beemer gets M badge for brilliance

MOTORING It's hard to approve of a carmaker like BMW doing something by halves.

David Linklater
Fri, 02 Nov 2012


BMW X5 M50d

What exactly is it? A very fast triple-turbo diesel version of the X5 crossover from BMW’s new M Performance division. A bit more special than an ordinary X5, not quite a proper M-machine.

Powertrain: 3.0-litre diesel with three turbochargers producing 280kW/740Nm. Eight-speed automatic transmission, full-time four-wheel drive. Combined fuel consumption 7.5 litres per 100km, 0-100km/h 5.4 seconds.

Anything interesting in the equipment list? It’s not easy to spot the M Performance X5 from the standard versions. The most obvious addition is “Feric Grey” finish for the rearvision mirror housings, a unique style of 20-inch alloy wheel and black exhaust pipes.

The X5 M50d rides on M Sport suspension and features a few subtle sporting touches such as a special steering wheel with gearshift paddles and leather/Alcantara upholstery.

Price: $168,000

If you are at all confused about what an X5 M50d is, that’s entirely BMW’s fault.

BMW Motorsport (or M to you and me) uses its racing expertise to create incredible road cars. Among the current generation are the M3, M5 and M6. So that’s one division of the company. My favourite division.

Somewhere at head office in Munich, Germany, there’s another division full of marketing people who aim to capitalise on the considerable talents and credibility of those M-cars by producing accessory packages for standard BMW models, branded as M Sport.

They are mostly for show but do allow buyers to carry the coveted blue-and-red M-badge on the back of their cars.

I understand the profit potential in allowing as many buyers as possible to associate with those highly regarded M-models. But there are problems. Some people who tick the M Sport option box are just putting on a good show, and that’s okay.

Whatever makes you feel more adequate is fine. People who know their M-cars aren’t fooled for a moment.

But M Sport buyers seem genuinely confused, particularly as the car's age and are passed on to second and third owners.

More than once I’ve met a BMW owner who has proudly told me he drives an older M3 or M5, only to find the car in question is something much more prosaic with M Sport addenda.

What a tangled web we weave.

Nothing by halves

Now BMW has introduced a third layer of M-manship called M Performance. These cars are not fully fledged M-cars but they do benefit from Motorsport-division engineering input. In short, they’re a halfway house between standard BMW models and proper M-cars.

It’s hard to approve of a carmaker like BMW doing something by halves, but in this case there is real potential. Consider the X5 M50d.

For a start, you’d have to be an expert on M-minutiae to be able to identify this model from a standard X5. So right away, it exhibits the opposite approach to the M Sport ethos because it’s about engineering substance rather than showing off.

BMW M is still too pure to consider a high-performance diesel but M Performance is more populist so it can. The 3.0-litre turbo diesel in an X5 40d has two turbochargers but the same basic powerplant in the M50d has three.

That adds an extra 55kW/140Nm (enough to power a small car on its own) and proper high performance. The steering is hydraulic, without the electric interference of lower-grade X5 models. The chassis has been upgraded as well.

Seal your fate

This is my second attempt at driving the X5 M50d. The first was at BMW’s Alpine xDrive event in the snow in August. It was a ludicrous thing on snow and ice, with far too much torque and tyres too wide to achieve much in the way of forward motion and/or cornering control.

Of course, an X5 is really designed for on-road driving and the M50d doubly (perhaps triply) so. As I suspected, it’s a magnificent thing when you introduce some traction underneath.

The M50d still sounds like a diesel, for sure. I like that. But it does sound like a purposeful diesel as if something serious might happen when you put your foot down. Which it does.

BMW argues long and hard that its new-generation electrically assisted power steering systems lose nothing in precision and feedback compared with traditional hydraulic technology.

But, funnily enough, when it comes to driver-focused machines, it goes right back to hydraulic assistance, as is the case with the M50d. That’s as good an indication as any that M Performance means business.

No clearer, still better

The X5 is now right at the end of its model life; expect to see an all-new model appear in 2013, for launch the year after. Introducing a major performance upgrade to an older model is a very German thing to do. Naturally, expect the M50d engine to carry through into the next-generation X5.

The current X5 is still one of the best-looking and most satisfying machines in this segment as far as I’m concerned. The ordinary 40d is still fantastic.

Is the M50d worth an extra $30,000? In terms of M-credentials, real-world performance and having something that little bit special, I’d have to say yes.

To further confuse the issue, BMW does actually make a proper X5 M-car: a twin-turbo V8 petrol monster that seems ludicrously impractical and profligate compared with this M50d.

A two-tonne-plus crossover with supercar performance (X5 M) really is a bit silly when you think about it; the same car with a still-thrifty diesel and a subtle undercurrent of seriously sporting flavour (X5 M50d) is brilliantly satisfying.

David Linklater
Fri, 02 Nov 2012
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Halfway house beemer gets M badge for brilliance