Full-fat 4x4: E53 X5 4.8iS Bringing out the BIG GUNS. Words: Simon Holmes. Photography: Steve Hall.
When BMW introduced the X5 it raised some eyebrows and so did the V8 versions that followed, including the daddy of them all: the 4.8iS.
Bringing Out The Big Guns It’s easy to forget that BMW used to make massive #V8-engined
X5s like the 4.8iS.
The launch of the first X5 seems like a long time ago now, and for good reason as it was 15 years ago, back in 1999, that BMW first ventured into the relatively new SUV market. Only it called the X5 (and every subsequent X model since) a Sports Activity Vehicle, or SAV instead.
The new model was met with scepticism at the time as there was some speculation over how well this new wave of larger four-wheel drive cars actually drove on a day-to-day basis. Despite the pumped-up ride height the majority of these cars spent their time on the road rather than off it but that’s what set the X5 apart. Instead of being developed primarily as an off-road vehicle that was then adapted to drive like a car, BMW turned that theory on its head and developed a platform that shared its suspension design closely with a road car. This ensured its roadholding capabilities were preset, so it was then a matter of adapting it to work as a four-wheel drive afterwards. The upside was that on the road it felt and handled like a larger, high-riding car. The down side was its off-road ability, particularly with its car-like large wheels and low profile tyres, wasn’t exactly exceptional but BMW gambled that in this market it wouldn’t have to be.
The decision paid off. The X5 soon became a surefire hit and the fact it wasn’t much good at climbing mountains didn’t really matter. People understood the concept and the car-like feel of the SAV appealed to the masses. It didn’t take long until a demand for a more powerful version to suit the image and make best use of the developed chassis arose either.
Initially, the range of engines was limited but a petrol V8 was always in the line-up to satisfy those wanting a certain amount of grunt in their new SAV. At first this was provided by the 4.4i model, producing a wholesome 286hp but after good sales and feedback BMW realised there might be a market for a hotter version. So for those yearning for more power a 4.6iS model entered production in 2001 to run alongside the 4.4i. Powered by the M62 4.6-litre V8 producing 347hp it pushed the X5 into a different realm, as despite its size and 2.2-tonne weight it offered performance that would give many of the big BMWs a scare with its 0-62mph time of just 6.5 seconds.
However, by 2004 the X5 was due a face-lift and the M62 engine was reaching the end of its life span, so the new and improved N62 V8 replaced it. This unit featured double Vanos and came in a range of sizes but 4.6-litres to suit the previous X5 model was not one of them. Instead, there was now a larger 4799cc version and so the 4.8iS was born to replace it. The new range-topper produced 360hp at a relatively rev-happy 6200rpm and with it came a matching 369lb ft of torque at a much lower 3600rpm. The big V8 only came connected to the six-speed automatic Steptronic gearbox but performance was frankly ludicrous for the size and weight of the car. From rest, 62mph was achieved in just 6.1 seconds whilst some independent tests claimed to have breached the sub-6 second threshold. It kept on going until it ran out of gearing and aerodynamics at its 153mph top speed.
To help distribute all that power to the floor, all of the new face-lifted X5 models also featured xDrive as standard, which meant the clever four-wheel drive system could vary power between the front and back when needed. The 4.8iS also received self-levelling air suspension with sports settings both front and rear that featured manual ride height adjustment, too.
All that performance and technology came at a price and on launch the new replacement iS cost £58,025, nearly £10,000 more than a 4.4i Sport and some £22,575 more than an entry level 3.0i SE. For your money you did get a level of luxury unrivalled by the lower models that still holds its own today. Inside the usual Dakota leather interior fitted to other X5s was exclusively upgraded to soft Nappa leather and the headlining was finished in anthracite. The front seats were heated and offered electric adjustment with memory functions as standard. All X5 models came with gadgets galore with everything from cruise control and PDC to rain sensors and tyre puncture warning, but the 4.8iS also featured a CD changer to go with the advanced ten-speaker stereo. The standard safety equipment was topped with rear side airbags to match the existing front, side and head airbags for the driver and passenger. To match the beefy performance there were also beefy looks and the standard wheels were upgraded to giant 20-inch items carried over from the 4.6iS that measured 9.5- and 10.5-inches wide, front and back. They were fitted with supercar-wide 315/35/20 tyres at the rear and 275/40/20 at the front. To top it off, xenon headlights, chrome exhaust tailpipes and extended wheel arches were fitted.
Despite fuel consumption and running costs not being exactly strong points for the model thanks to a claimed 20.9mpg combined figure, the 4.8iS actually sold pretty well, although ever improving diesel technology would mark the end for the big petrol engines. There are still a few around but they aren’t exactly common; fortunately reader Jag has supplied us with the 4.8iS seen here. He hasn’t had the car long and actually bought it on a bit of whim after it caught his eye for sale on the internet, which makes him a brave man! Knowing that the 4.8iS is a rare beast finished in this fetching shade of Estoril blue, Jag bought it and has since been using it as a fun family car for the weekends. He chose well as this particular iS would have been an expensive purchase when it was first ordered back in 2005 as it’s been fitted with a range of options including an Electric Panorama Glass Sunroof at £1095, Aluminium Running Boards at £215 and Professional sat nav with TV capability at £2440, among others. It’s a fine example to photograph and fine example to test-drive, which Jag has graciously let us do.
The first thing you notice when climbing up into the capacious cabin is that you literally have to climb into the car, rather than settle yourself into it. At 1.8 meters tall the X5 is big but whilst it looks large on the outside once you’re behind the wheel it feels positively gargantuan. Even the driving position itself seems raised, more so than later X5 models as the seats themselves don’t go quite as low to the floor.
It’s easy to adapt to, though, and it does give a great, open view of the road. The height of the pedals takes a little longer to get used to as they sit a little too high, producing a slightly strange angle for my long legs to position. But otherwise the interior is a nice place to be and the panoramic sunroof really makes it feel light and airy through the vast cabin space. The dashboard, instruments and switchgear all have a solid, late 1990s feel of BMW build quality, which is a good thing.
Out on the road the immediately surprising thing is how well the X5 hides its vast mass. You can feel the weight of the car shift around as you accelerate and brake but it doesn’t necessarily feel like two tonnes of metal. That’s largely down to the engine, as the big V8 makes light work of pulling away with haste and once on the move it’s perfectly content to travel with complete effortlessness. A relaxed right foot sees the automatic shifting gears at 2000rpm and at these lowly speeds the engine seems super silky smooth, allowing a consistent gliding sensation. The gearbox’s changes are a little less seamless but not enough to disrupt the feel and even with those big wheels and skinny tyres the ride seems pleasant and although it’s firm it’s far from harsh.
There’s still plenty of grunt low down and the power seems almost lazy in its delivery at first but on the more open sections of road the X5 transforms. Once you engage some more throttle and force the gearbox to kickdown a gear or two it’s then that the V8 picks up with a sudden sense of urgency. Whilst the power maintains an effortless wave of momentum the speedo quickly climbs and even at higher speed it reacts with the same smooth punch of torque, making light work of just about any road once on the move. The accompanying soundtrack it makes is glorious, too, as the deep burble it emits at low revs awakens to become a satisfying growl higher up. It sounds just like a big V8 should and it inevitably brings a smile to your face every time the revs build.
However, on the more flowing A- and B-roads the lack of immediate steering response is notable and it almost feels a little clumsy. In tighter turns it requires the steering wheel to be fed through your hands as it hasn’t got the lock to turn without taking your hands off the wheel, something I haven’t experienced on a car in awhile. Also, when pushing on in the corners it seems to show a tendency to want to understeer, though the active xDrive system works away to ensure it remains composed. You do find yourself sliding around the armchair-style seats a little though. Whilst it’s certainly not the kind of car to be taken on regular track day outings it’s fair to say the 4.8iS is a lot of fun in the way a big power engine always is.
It’s a very big and heavy car but it hides its bulk well thanks to that engine as a dab of throttle makes it come alive and with an associated engine note to put virtually every current BMW to shame. It’s clearly more suited as a heavyweight cruiser, although Jag tells us that 20mpg is about as much as it will do on a run. But then it’s not the kind of car you buy for the economy and that goes with the territory with an iS.
It’s a shame BMW doesn’t do a petrol engine V8 equivalent in the current X5 line-up as although the big diesels offer similar performance, they don’t quite have that same aggressive feel or, of course, sound. The big gun X5 was definitely one of a kind…
TECHNICAL DATA FILE #BMW-E53
ENGINE: 32-valve, V8
MAX POWER: 360hp
MAX TORQUE: 369lb ft
TOP SPEED: 153mph
0-62MPH: 6.1 seconds
Out on the road the surprising thing is how well the X5 hides its vast mass