In a dramatic about-face on the Solihull firm it sold to Ford for £1.4 billion in spring, the German company is planning to rival Land Rover's important middle-range line-up with 3.0-litre powered petrol and diesel X5s costing about £33,000.
To be available with a choice of manual and automatic transmission, the sophisticated, US-built go-anywhere vehicles will use the new six-cylinder motors from the 330 petrol and diesel saloons. Developing 231bhp and 184bhp respectively, they will spearhead an ambitious BMW bid to become a major player in the luxury segment of the burgeoning 4x4 market.
Although prices of the entry-level X5s are yet to be fixed, they are likely to undercut the V8-powered versions by as much as £11,000. First to arrive will be the 3.0-litre petrol car in spring and the diesel will follow in summer. By 2002, the first full year of supply, BMW GB will aim to be registering a total of 4,000 go-anywhere vehicles annually to claim an 8% share of the sector. Significantly, it is expecting the cheaper versions to outsell the V8s by five to one.
About 500 examples of the X5 4.4i will be delivered to UK customers this year, but the company has a 1,000-strong order bank and is winning interest from police forces and utilities.
Originally priced at £46,300, the 4.4i will go on sale at £44,000 as a result of BMW GB's pricing revisions. The Sport version, which stands on bigger wheels, sports suspension and has a higher top speed because it uses V-rated tyres, will cost £44,670 - £2,795 less than was planned.
Both are well equipped to compete strongly for sales at the top end of the sector and come with leather upholstery, cruise control, a parking distance aid and on-board computer as standard. Power is from the silky-smooth aluminium engine used in the 540 and 740 saloons and is sufficient to sweep the car to the benchmark 62mph rate in 7.5 seconds.
Linked with an equally impressive adaptive five-speed automatic transmission that includes Steptronic manual selection, the top speed of the standard car is electronically limited to 128mph, while the Sport is able to go on to a claimed 143mph.
Quiet and luxurious, the two top X5s offer remarkable on-road refinement and allow their drivers to cover long distances effortlessly and in comfort. Riding on a modified 7-series suspension with electronic levelling, they feel surprisingly agile, given their high stance and purposeful styling.
Capable of negotiating water up to the height of the wheels, the cars are claimed to be able to cope with most off-road conditions. Among an array of electronic gadgetry which harnesses the anti-lock braking system to provide the shortest stopping distance, prevent skids and aid stability, is the clever hill descent control feature originally developed for the Land Rover Freelander.
Among a long list of options is a neatly-engineered panel which slides out over the split-opening tailgate to make loading the car easier. It works well, but does take up space by reducing the height of the cargo area, which is rated to take a 550kg load.
Response to the new X5 has been so strong across 100 markets that BMW is planning to have a full range of sport activity cars on sale by 2004. Despite an increase in output at Spartanburg, the South Carolina factory where BMW builds the X5, US customers are having to wait up to 10 months for deliveries of the car.
Bigger and smaller X-models are being designed to join the smash-hit US vehicle as the firm acts to roll out a comprehensive line-up of cars to rival Land Rover's best-selling Freelander as well as the all-new and more luxurious Range Rover to be launched next year.