ATLANTA - Sport-utilities are prone to roll over, with a high center of gravity. Sports sedans are low, to hug the ground.
So are they mutually exclusive? Not quite. The BMW X5 appears to be both.
The answer is common sense, not black magic: Despite its appearance, the X5 is a lot more sport sedan than sport-utility. In that sense, its natural rival is the car-based Lexus RX 300.
The first version of the X5 is the X5 4.4i. It goes on sale in the United States in December, at a suggested retail price of $49,970, including freight. BMW's plant outside Spartanburg, S.C., is the sole source of the X5.
The X5 4.4i has the same 4.4-liter V-8 as BMW's 540i and 740i sedans and wagons. That off-the-shelf engine is one reason why the V-8 X5 comes first.
A six-cylinder version, the X5 3.0i, is due next spring at just under $40,000. Its new 3.0-liter, inline-six eventually will replace the present 2.8-liter, inline-six in the 528i and the 328i.
EUROPEANS WILL WAIT
European customers must wait until spring for the X5. In addition to the V-8 and the 3.0-liter six, they also can opt for a 3.0-liter, V-6 turbodiesel.
'When a plant is building the most complicated car it has ever built, you want to start out with the least complications,' said Tom Purves, CEO of BMW (US) Holding Corp.
'If you have a choice of a brand-new engine or an engine that is already established, choosing the established engine takes out one issue,' he said.
Besides, Purves said, he expects to sell more eights than sixes in the United States, despite the higher price.
'In terms of the (U.S.) marketplace, even if it were not for choosing the less-complicated engine, you want to establish the price position where you think it's going to be. There's enough demand to where it's not a question of selling cars' by introducing the cheaper version first, Purves said. Worldwide, he estimated sales will be 35 percent V-8s.
M-B TOOK DIFFERENT PATH
Rival Mercedes-Benz of North America Inc. did it the other way around. Mercedes introduced is price leader first, the V-6 ML320, in the fall of 1997. The V-8 ML430 came last year. The high-performance ML55 bows in January. Except for the ML55, the Mercedes base prices are lower than the comparable X5. Meanwhile, BMW plans to do its own high-performanceversion of the X5.
On a scale of extreme on-road performance vs. extreme off-road performance, the X5 is positioned closer to the more on-road Lexus RX 300, which is based on the Toyota Camry. On that scale, the Mercedes M class is closer to the middle. The Land Rover Discovery and Range Rover are closer to the extreme off-road end of the scale. (BMW owns Land Rover.)
WHAT, LEXUS WORRY?
Despite similarities between the RX 300 and the X5, Lexus Division General Manager Bryan Bergsteinsson says he does not expect much competition from the X5. The RX 300 is much less expensive, he said. The RX 300 starts at $33,000. The Lexus LX 470, which is based on the Toyota Land Cruiser, is priced above the X5 4.4i, at $59,500 - and it is much more trucklike than the BMW.
'If I had to pick someone I think the X5 will take business from, it would be Land Rover, and that's a little out of line, considering who owns Land Rover,' Bergsteinsson said. 'This (X5) represents something Land Rover buyers have not been able to get.'
In separate interviews, BMW officials were quick to take issue:
'We expect to have the RX 300 and the LX 450 as competitors,' said Helmut Panke, BMW AG board member responsible for finance.
'Real Land Rover owners want 100 percent off-road capability, without any compromises. Our surveys show 35 percent of Land Rover owners really go off-road. Key competitors will be Lexus, and certainly Mercedes. Also, the domestic makes must be included,' Panke said.
TALL, BUT NOT THAT TALL
'We already have that (off-road) franchise,' said Bert Holland, 'sport activity vehicle' series manager for BMW of North America Inc. 'It's called Land Rover.'
The X5 4.4i is tall, but not that tall - the roof is about 9 inches lower than the Land Rover Discovery Series II, 2.5 inches higher than the RX 300, and 2.7 inches lower than the ML430.
The X5's center of gravity is higher than that of a car, but not that high. The X5 engine and drive-train are mounted as low as possible - about 3 inches lower than typical sport-utilities, according to Holland.
That means the X5 4.4i gives up some ground clearance - 1.3 inches less clearance than the ML430, for instance. That's bad for climbing over boulders, but OK for the occasional dirt road.
CRAWLS DOWN HILLS
The X5 does have 'hill descent control,' an off-road feature borrowed from Land Rover, for crawling down steep hills without stepping on the brakes, which can cause a skid. (For the record: The correct term is 'off-highway,' as drivers should not blaze their own trails.) However, the X5 has no need for another Land Rover feature, called 'active cornering enhancement,' which uses hydraulic pistons to counteract body roll in the much taller Discovery.
The X5 fails another litmus test for serious off-roading: It doesn't have a low range of gears, an essential feature for the steepest, roughest trails. Then again, neither does the RX 300. For that matter, the RX 300 is even available with front-wheel drive, instead of full-time, all-wheel drive.
It was not entirely semantics, then, when Panke insisted at an X5 press introduction here: 'We strongly believe the X5 is not an SUV. ... This vehicle is a typical BMW.'