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##bmwx5.jpg --Right##BMW'S pioneering new X5, the company's first vehicle with off-road capability, will join the UK distributor's corporate sales department demonstrators and cautiously offered to company fleets as possible transport for top level directors when it goes on sale here next September. However, in launching the car into the UK market, and specifically the corporate sector, BMW is clearly conscious that it does not want to take sales away from sister company Land Rover.

'While we will be looking for incremental sales, the X5 is not a traditional fleet car,' said BMW corporate operations manager Alan Waldie.

'We daren't affect Land Rover Discovery and Range Rover sales by getting too excited about it. Why attack the market place that BMW Group already has? 'The X5 will be a company purchase. It will be sold through corporate or fleet networks to large PLCs and companies where there is a free user-chooser policy.'

The vehicle is still 12 months away from entering UK showrooms and likely sales volume for the first year is only 500-700 cars, with maybe 2,000 units in a full year. 'We already have orders from people who have never driven the X5, but we are taking things cautiously. It's a new market for us,' said Waldie. ' The Range Rover has a total off-road capability, even if people don't use it, while the X5 delivers exceptional on-road ability with occasional off-road ability. They come from different ends of the spectrum,' he added.

Certainly the X5 provides unrivalled on-road performance while acquitting itself well on an off-road course that you could really imagine owners tackling with their £46,700 pride and joy. With its unitary body and independent suspension, rather than separate chassis and body like the Range Rover and Discovery, the X5 has levels of on-road handling never offered by a vehicle with off-road ability.

BMW proved the point by letting the media loose round the intimidating Road Atlanta race track in America. 'Safety must be our first concern,' said a spokesman. I could see his point. The first lap you would take it easy. The second, impressed by the X5's stability and handling, would be quicker and the third would be too quick. Some 15cm shorter than a BMW 5-series Touring and looking rather like a Touring on stilts, the X5 feels as much a BMW as any German-built car, even though it's made in the Spartanburg, South Carolina, factory that also makes the Z3 sports car.

It's the refinement that impresses first. The vehicle is so quiet and smooth. The turbine-like V8 is unobtrusive at cruising speeds, but under acceleration or tickover the four carefully tuned exhaust pipes emit a lovely uneven burble just like a big American V8 engine. Acceleration is lively, even if you don't manually override the autobox by using the slick Tiptronic system labelled Steptronic by BMW. Big wheels, huge 19in ones in fact if you choose the sports suspension option, combined with sculpted sides reduce the visual size of the X5, though the corporate nose still looks impressive and instantly identifiable when it appears in your back window.

Being able to fit higher rated tyres on the big wheels gives the sports suspension X5 a top speed of 143mph compared to only 129mph for the smaller-wheeled variant on its lower rated tyres. Unusually for a 4x4, the X5 has its power split fixed in favour of the rear wheels, with the front pair receiving 38% compared to 62% at the back. This results in sporty handling, but if you have switched off the dynamic stability control (DSC) system you need to be ready with correct throttle and steering adjustment if too much right foot causes the rear to start sliding.

To tackle off-road descents all that's necessary is to press the button for the hill descent control system (HDC) which uses the same basic electronics as the Land Rover Freelander to ease the vehicle down with automatic anti-lock braking at a maximum speed of 5.9mph. For more serious stuff I would prefer the locking differentials and extra set of low ratios you find in a Range Rover, but HDC allows a useful weight saving in terms of everyday use.

With the X5, BMW believes it has created a new niche called sports activity vehicles. The company has been right before and has the balance sheet to prove it.

CO2 emissions and fuel consumption data correct at time of writing. The latest figures are available in the Fleet News fuel cost calculator and the company car tax calculator.

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