A two-hour flight and a sketch that was gold: how the model that defined luxury SUVs was created

The BMW X5 was not the first SUV among traditional premium brands.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
23 February 2024 Friday 10:55
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A two-hour flight and a sketch that was gold: how the model that defined luxury SUVs was created

The BMW X5 was not the first SUV among traditional premium brands. Mercedes-Benz launched the M-Class first, in 1997. But the idea that the Bavarian company introduced allowed it to gain an advantage for years. So much so that today it continues to be a benchmark in its category.

It must be recognized that BMW understood before anyone else what potential users of a large SUV and a luxury brand were looking for: it did not need to have a great capacity to drive off-road, since its drivers were not interested in doing so. All that was needed was a great image and an imposing figure.

And although BMW's intention to "create" a new segment did not work (in a marketing maneuver to highlight its dynamism it called it SAV, for Sport Activity Vehicle, instead of SUV, Sport Utility Vehicle), the reality is that was able to print the firm's characteristic sporty features on a large, tall and heavy vehicle.

The brand recognizes that this was the first BMW that not only brought the latest in engineering, design, manufacturing and technology advances, but also allowed it to create a complete family of models in parallel to its traditional sedans and sports cars. Over time the X1, the X3 and the X7 arrived; and also versions with sportier bodies, such as the X2, the X4, the X6 and the brand new XM.


He even ventured into the world of motorsports in competitions such as the Dakar Rally. He also with the spectacular prototype of the BMW

The 1999 Detroit Auto Show was the scene where the revolutionary BMW X5 was first presented. The experience gained since 1985 was taken advantage of, when the Bavarian company presented its first vehicle with all-wheel drive. Honoring its history, the system privileged the rear axle in normal conditions, sending 63% of the force to the rear wheels and 37% to the front wheels.

Thanks to this distribution of force and a sports-oriented tuning, it was possible to preserve the typical performance of a BMW in a vehicle with greater ground clearance and a high center of gravity while offering, at the same time, greater interior space and great comfort.

We must not forget a key detail. During the development of the X5, BMW owned Land Rover, from which it must have learned a lot about tall, heavy, all-wheel drive vehicles. In fact, the origin of the model was on a platform from the British manufacturer.

This was later confirmed by the 2002 Range Rover, which had an engine and many components from the German company, showing that it had shared part of the development. But the key to its creation came from Frank Stephenson, the designer who shaped the brand's first SUV. On the one hand, he masterfully managed to combine the sporty and elegant identity of a BMW with the taller and more robust characteristics of the X5.

But on the other hand, he did it in record time. According to Stephenson himself, the German brand's managers wanted to see what a BMW SUV with Land Rover proportions would look like. His boss, Chris Bangle, gave him the project with the warning that something had to be presented quickly. Very fast.

In general, design processes can take months thinking only about the creative process. And a little more to present a life-size model. Much more in the perspective of 25 or 30 years ago, when current tools did not exist.

Anyway, Stephenson accepted the challenge and in a two-hour flight he drew the fundamental lines that shaped the X5 and that were used to create the entire BMW X family.

But the work was nowhere near finished with the first sketch. After that we had to work on the proportions and materialize it in a 1:1 size model. There came the second surprise for someone who also designed the Fiat 500, the new generation MINI, and was McLaren's design chief for years.

When he was assigned his team, he realized that the three people who would accompany him were over 70 years old. "Will they be able to work 18 hours a day, 7 days a week, for 6 weeks?" asked the American designer in reference to the time they had to present the first prototype.

The answer was overwhelming and convinced him: those three technicians had been none other than those who built the first Lamborghini Miura for the Bertone studio, working alongside the famous Marcello Gandini. For Stephenson they needed no further introduction.

The result of this work was the presentation of a prototype within the required deadline, which convinced the board of directors and gave way to serial production. The BMW that earns the most in exports.

The success of the first generation far exceeded expectations and quickly became a globally successful model. The first generation offered variants with gasoline and diesel engines. But then a higher-power V8 engine appeared with improvements in suspension, brakes and equipment: it was the X5 4.6is.

The sporting potential of the BMW X5 E53 was demonstrated with the competition variant of the BMW X-Raid team that won the Paris Dakar Rally in the diesel vehicle category in 2004.

The BMW X5 E70 appeared in 2006 and included a third row of seats as an option for the first time, making it even more attractive for families. With it also came the new generation of TwinPower Turbo in 6-cylinder inline and V8 configurations. They were offered together with the 8-speed Steptronic automatic transmission, which in combination proposed an irrefutable equation: improving efficiency and performance.

In this second generation, the first X5M made its debut, the version developed by the Motorsport sports division. It had structural reinforcements in the body, in addition to the suspension and steering designed specifically for this option.

A rear differential was added with a DPC (Dynamic Performance Control) system capable of not only locking the differential but also varying the amount of force it can send to each wheel, helping to improve agility when exiting corners under acceleration.

Fifteen years after the debut of the first BMW X5, the third generation (F15) included in its design aerodynamic elements calculated to increase efficiency. The cabin offered more space for occupants and multiple innovations were included. The DPC (Dynamic Performance Control) system was offered as optional equipment combined with the adaptive suspension.

A plug-in hybrid variant also appeared for the first time, which in 2015 already offered a purely electric range of up to 31 kilometers, significantly increasing its efficiency on urban routes. The M variant of the third generation of the X5 debuted an 8-speed M Steptronic transmission, which in addition to offering programs focused on comfort, fuel efficiency or sporty driving, also allows the driver to use the launch control function to achieve spectacular accelerations.

Launched in 2018, the fourth generation of the BMW X5 was accompanied by innovations on all fronts, accompanied by a design that is faithful to the origins of the BMW X family. Although it must be recognized that at first it received a lot of criticism from a certain part of the public due to the size of the brand's traditional kidneys on the grill.

The innovations included the new generation of inline 6-cylinder and V8 engines, in addition to the availability of plug-in hybrid variants that increased their electric range to 110 kilometers. In the latest model update, it was updated with the iDrive 8 system, which improves information, training and connectivity functions. With this update, for example, customers can lock and unlock their vehicles using a smartphone.

Additionally, using this generation's platform, BMW presented a prototype that raises the possibility of using hydrogen, stored as a gas within tanks in the vehicle, to power fuel cells that produce electricity to move the vehicle.