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Do I look phat?

IF you could get BMW’s engineers and development specialists out of the office and into a hospitable Biergarten -- and really, how hard could that be? -- I’m convinced they’d tell you, after a few aquarium-size beers, that the X5 is not zee ideal zolution to the problem of a cargo-friendly all-wheel-drive vehicle, at least not one worthy of the BMW propeller.

From the beginning more than a decade ago, the X5 program has been an effort of extreme equivocation, an attempt to reconcile the brand’s top-predator handling and agility with demands in the American market for a tall, lank-legged trucklet. This tortured compromise is telegraphed in BMW’s coinage of “sports activity vehicle,” which sounds to me like the bus the marching band takes to the big game.

Nonetheless, when the first X5s rolled off the line in Spartanburg, S.C., seven years ago, they were a huge hit. But curiously so. Here was a vehicle with only fair off-road abilities and towing, cargo and seating capacities no better than a 5-series wagon. And though it’s true the X5 handled with a tensed accuracy and keenness one would expect of a BMW, no one would argue it wouldn’t have performed better if it were a foot lower and a quarter-ton lighter.

Ach! the BMW chassis engineers would say despairingly, but the Americans wanted to sit up high, like in their Conestoga wagons, and ride around mit their six-guns like their meshuga President Bush. Beer me, Heidi!

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More than 600,000 units later, it’s fair to say the sports-intensive X5 redefined the luxury SUV category -- and also defined it, as the market segment most driven by the twin ids of badge prestige and wicked excess.

In any event, the category struck back. Today, there are a lot of hot-handling luxo-utes on the market, like the Audi Q7; Porsche Cayenne; the Range Rover Sport; Cadillac SRX; Mercedes-Benz GL; Volvo XC90; and most recently, the Acura MDX.

BMW’s rejoinder? Make the X5 bigger, taller, scads more fabulous and several hundred pounds heavier. Oh, and faster!

And so it is. The redesigned-for-2007 X5 is a taffy-pulled 7.4 inches longer, 2.3 inches wider and 2 inches taller, over a wheelbase stretched by 4.5 inches (now 115.5 inches). The X5’s overall length of 191.1 inches puts it about mid-pack in the recent class of ritzy, stilts-wearing wonder wagons. The X5’s bigger shadow makes room for more cargo volume, more second-row legroom and -- the big news -- optional third-row seating.

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Well, sort of. These two tiny fold-up seats, with upholstery thinner and harder than a jailhouse mattress, are wedged comically between the hillocks of the rear wheel wells. BMW suggests these seats are to be used only by children. I think it would make a very good beginning to a tale by Dickens -- “Chapter 1: I am born in the cruel confines of an X5 third seat. I suffer permanent curvature of the face.”

A fully equipped X5 is an astonishing thing. Our test car ($65,590) had the 4.8-liter, 350-horsepower V8 on board (a 3.0-liter, 260-hp in-line six is the base engine) and all the trimmings. In no particular order: powered horizontal lift gate; iDrive system with voice-activated navigation (with real-time traffic information and dynamic rerouting); rearview backup camera; 16-speaker audio with twin subwoofers; adaptive “cornering” headlights (even the fog lights illuminate slow-speed corners); heated front and rear seats and steering wheel; dual-panel panoramic sunroof; and rear-seat entertainment module, including a really trick 8-inch LCD screen on a gimbal-mount between the front seats.

Bimmer-philes, take note: The Satan-inspired iDrive controller has been refined and simplified for 2007 and combined with programmable buttons to put much-used functions only a touch away. I still loathe it. Word is a redesigned iDrive is coming in the next year or two.

One of my favorites from the X5 press kit: Under the rubric of “technology to lower emissions and improve fuel economy,” the company cites its more efficient power-steering pump. This is like fighting global warming with a more aerodynamic ashtray.

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Unfortunately, the X5 is also astonishingly heavy. The company lists the 4.8i as weighing 5,335 pounds, but if my test vehicle didn’t weigh more than 5,500 pounds, I’ll eat one of its 19-inch tires.

The initial impression of the vehicle is one of sheer, unmitigated mass, a pitiless heft and center-of-the-Earth-seeking tonnage one associates with falling safes and depleted uranium artillery shells -- this despite the all-alloy engine; extravagant use of aluminum, magnesium and lightweight, high-strength steel; and plastic fenders. Criminy, does this thing feel heavy.

The question then becomes, how to make this 2 3/4 -ton monster handle like a BMW? The answer requires the most baroque exertion of BMW’s computer-controlled kinematics to date and a list of mind-softening abbreviations that would shame a NASA launch briefing. Among the technologies deployed is Active Steering, which quickens the steering ratio up to speeds of 55 mph, which means less wheel movement to, say, thread through a slalom course.

Active steering will also intervene if a vehicle threatens to swap ends on a snowy road.

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Then there’s the sports package’s AdaptiveDrive, which orchestrates Active Roll Stabilization (that nulls out side-to-side body roll with clever swivel motors mounted on the anti-roll bars) and Electronic Damping Control (varying strut stiffness to optimize ride and handling).

Stupefied yet? How about next-generation DSC, a suite of electronic brake, steering, suspension and powertrain interventions that help the X5 stay on course, corner and stop, all chatting away with sensors and computers on the vehicle’s high-speed data network called FlexRay. This thing’s got more bandwidth than a Nigerian spam center.

What BMW has done, in essence, is suspend the X5 on a glittering electronic skyhook in a desperate effort to thwart the laws of physics. And you know what? It almost works.

The vehicle puts out a weird but compelling vibe, a dynamic synesthesia in which the forces of motion in three axes are heroically smothered and otherwise canceled. It’s a little like firing a high-powered rifle and feeling no recoil.

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Toss the big Bimmer into a bumpy corner at speeds that should have it bucking and rolling like a prize bull. The vehicle seems to tense for a moment as the ciphers collate the data, the front tires bite, struts and roll bars react, steering modulates, then the X5 arcs flatly around the bend, as if it were ice skating. Whoa. It’s almost like driving.

The cornering performance is terrific. Steering response is heavy but alert and accurate. The brakes are, of course, amazing. The revised suspension (double-wishbone in front, as opposed to BMW’s traditionals struts) plays beautifully against the hugely stiff and comprehensively sound body structure.

And yet, you never quite shake the feeling of sullen mass being bullied around by unsympathetic power and technology. Put another way: The X5 drives like a Formula 1 forklift.

Regarding power: Under the dirigible-fluted hood is the company’s unspeakably refined 4.8-liter, Valvetronic V8 engine, connected to a six-speed Steptronic automatic (the six-speed manual transmission is no longer available). The shifter is an elegant buff-alloy controller in the central console, just one of many touches that make the interior look like some corporate moonraker.

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The interior design is an artful and lustrous affair borrowed from the 6- and 7-series. OK, so this might be the most beautiful vehicle interior I’ve ever seen. The exterior is not quite as menseful as the inside, but it’s still pretty nice, dominated by strongly horizontal force meridians pulled back from the nose, bigger wheel arches and crisp edges on the rear hatch.

The lynx-eyed face of the X5 is now more aggressive, with a jutting lower jaw made of thermoplastic. To optically negate the vehicle’s tall, massy flanks, the lower portions are blacked out to create a gravity saddle.

This here, ladies and gents, is an amazing piece of machinery: complex, beautiful, capable, expensive. Driving one to the store feels like using a Trident missile to light your cigar. But I wonder if BMW, in all its engineering acumen, has not embarked on what is known in engineering as positive spiral. A tangled skein of electronics and digitally remastered suspension, steering, brakes, engine controls, all required to negate the effects of more weight, requiring yet more weight (wheels and tires, brakes, engines, up and up and up) to contain?

In this most elegant of vehicles, where’s the elegance in that?

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dan neil@latimes.com

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BMW X5

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Base price: $55,195

Price, as tested: $65,590

Powertrain: 4.8-liter, DOHC, 32-valve V8; six-speed automatic with manual shift mode; multi-plate center differential; all-wheel drive.

Horsepower: 350 at 6,300 rpm

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Torque: 350 pound-feet at 3,400-3,800 rpm

Curb weight: 5,335 pounds

0-60 mph: 6.8 seconds

Wheelbase: 115.5 inches

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Overall length: 191.1 inches

EPA fuel economy: 15 miles per gallon city, 21 mpg highway

Final thoughts: Four-wheeled supercomputer


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