When my airplane landed in Chicago in early January, the temperature, with windchill, was minus-36 degrees. Outside, the cold made my face feel like it was being pressed into a belt sander. At a parking facility five miles away from O'Hare, a new BMW X5 test car was waiting for me. It'd been sitting idle for a couple days. In that weather, there was no way it would start. Never! Right? Apropos of the most brutal winter in recent memory—it's supposed to snow six more inches today in Chicago—I was set to put BMW's new flagship SUV to the ultimate cold-weather test.
STEP INTO OUR OFFICE: Let's lay some groundwork. BMW purists weren't happy when the Munich-based behemoth released its inaugural SUV in 1999. Bimmer was known for sports sedans—i.e., cars for driving enthusiasts. But the X5 turned out to be an all-wheel drive, ass-kicking truck that won over naysayers. Jet forward 15 years. The new third generation X5 now comes in four models (more on that soon)—for the first time, with a rear-wheel drive option. Our test model (the xDrive35i) was an all-wheel drive 3.0-liter inline six cylinder with an 8-speed manumatic.
IGNITION: The answer is yes: The car started in minus-36 degrees. A push of a button, and the inline six sparked to life as it would on any spring day. The heated front seats kicked in almost instantly, and the Cold Weather Package option ($550), with heated steering wheel and retractable headlight washers, added even more warmth. Two minutes later, on the coldest day in decades in one of the country's coldest cities, I was motoring.
PERFORMANCE: On the black ice, cars were sliding from lane to lane. I eased into traffic to find that, for a three-row truck, the X5 put power to the pavement impressively. In this driver's opinion, nothing beats a Subaru on ice—except maybe whiskey. But the all-wheel drive X5 inspired confidence, cornering with sure-footed agility and accelerating from stoplights with authority. The more I cruised on the city streets and onto the highway, the more I realized I could drive almost as if there was no ice at all. Until… a little slide!
SHIT HAPPENS: It would be more interesting if I destroyed my test car. But I didn't. A little wiggle of the rear wheels on an exit ramp, and I instantly turned into the slide, catching the truck before I hit a snowbank. Was it my driving or the truck's stability control system that righted the ship? Probably both. For the rest of the week—and with no further incident—I put the X5 through its paces, powering through snowdrifts and over ice boulders like I was driving a tank over enemy territory.
STYLE AND TECH: The competition among luxury autos has gotten so intense that no knob or switch escapes the minds of master designers. While the new X5's exterior packaging hasn't altered much, the interior has gotten a lot of love. A quick list of this truck's amenities: seats with four-way lumbar support, 11 upholstery options, intuitive touchscreen nav-system and Bimmer's cool Surround View system, which uses cameras to give you a bird's-eye view of the car, literally turning parallel parking into a video game.
BY THE NUMBERS: Choose from the X5 sDrive35i (rear-wheel drive 3.0 liter inline six-cylinder, 300 horsepower, 27 mpg highway, $52,800 base); the xDrive35i (same engine and specs, all-wheel drive, $55,100); xDrive35D (3.0 liter twin-turbo inline six-cylinder diesel, 255 horsepower, 31 mpg highway, $56,600); or the xDrive50i (4.4 liter twin-turbo V8, 445 horsepower, 22 mpg highway, $68,200).
THE COMPETITION: Audi Q7, Mercedes M-Class, Porsche Cayenne and Acura MDX.
TO BUY OR NOT TO BUY?: You have to hand it to the X5 for conquering a minus-36 degree Chicago night. So yes please! Just go for the all-wheel drive version, especially if you live in frozen tundra like the Windy City.
A.J. Baime is the author of Go Like Hell and the forthcoming The Arsenal of Democracy: FDR, Detroit, and an Epic Quest to Arm America at War. Reach him at www.facebook.com/ajbaime.
Photos courtesy of BMW Group