This is awkward. I need to start with an apology. I appreciate I am not some major public figure who has to declare any hypocrisy to their loyal fans and beg for forgiveness. But I also appreciate that I am not a front bench politician, so I actually have the capacity to make an honest public apology.
Right, anyway. In the past, I may have been derogatory about SUVs. Okay, not may. I definitely have. Deeply compromised, poorly packaged, blunt instruments with just two redeeming features, one that they are physically big and the other is that everyone wants one. Actually, they don’t even sound like attributes. I have written ‘just buy an estate car’, or versions thereof, approximately 8000 times. So why didn’t I listen to my own advice?
I have always had one SUV caveat: none of them make any logical sense, so the silliest ones are the best. The Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio with sports car-spec tyres? Totally ridiculous, and I love it. The Audi RS Q3 with a warbling rally car-like soundtrack? Nonsensical, but it’s one of my favourite Audi models. The Cayenne Turbo GT, an SUV coupe (alone that’s stupid enough) with Porsche Motorsport credentials? Insane - please take my money.
So, once I’d learnt that the first-generation X5 was available as a manual, once I was aware that such an absurd car existed, I had to have one. It’s not on the level of a 600bhp Cayenne with active aero, I know, but readjust for my budget and it’s not far off. And I know the BMW E39 5 Series Touring is an exceptionally well-engineered car, and that it’s essentially the estate cousin to the X5 SUV. But in no way is the E39 humorous or ridiculous. Certainly nothing like a two-ton three-pedal SUV.
I made some poor excuses as to why I needed a big car. Another car. Something to carry DIY materials in. Something like that. No one cared. Which meant no one tried to stop me from buying a manual X5.
Now, the first generation of X5 doesn’t have a glimmering reputation. If there’s a shady car crawling around your neighbourhood late at night, it’s probably an E53 X5. It’ll be in black with the biggest set of wheels imaginable. It’ll probably also have lights so tinted that, if an indicator was on, you wouldn’t be able to see it blinking. But, of course, as it’s a BMW (warning, lazy stereotype coming up) it’s never flashing anyway.
That’s why I didn’t want a black one. X5s do look great in black, but my skinny frame and curly locks mean I simply don’t have the intimidation factor to pull off an X5 in a black hue. My lack of width, muscles and aggression was patently clear every time I went to view a potential X5. Most cars I went to look at I had to rule out immediately. They had, quite clearly, been stolen. A little bit of buying advice - if the seller’s address is the wasteland of a recently demolished industrial area, something’s amiss.
After finding myself in multiple questionable moments in pursuit of a first-gen manual X5 – one of which involved a hair raising tour of Northampton while the driver spilt hot tea over his lap – I found the perfect one. Not only was it not black, but it was blue. Most of the BMWs I’ve owned, of which the X5 is the seventh, have been blue. They just always look right in blue.
It was a facelifted model, too, so it had a six-speed manual ‘box, not five. It was on some small wheels, so looked suitably quaint. It had done less than 80,000 miles, so it’d only covered half the distance most E53 X5s have travelled. Plus, it was owned by a police officer. Not only was I sure the seller was more trustworthy than the other X5 vendors, who were less willing to divulge what they did for a living, but he was also happy to send me videos of the car and answered all my questions. For many of the standard X5 queries I had, I didn’t even need to ask because of his responsible job. Mainly: to your knowledge, has the car ever been used to ram-raid a post office? And, will you guarantee all narcotic substances will be removed from the car if I purchase it?
The only problem was, it was seven hours away in Scotland. But it was the right car, it was the right seller and, by luck, a friend was driving up that way, so I could cadge a lift all the way for free. I got all giddy like the lead in a mushy high school rom-com - it was meant to be.
When I turned up, just outside Edinburgh cash in hand, it was everything I expected. The drive home, an intimidating 350-mile run for a first trip, revealed something remarkable. It wasn’t some lumbering, heavy, outdated off-roader. It was sharp.
I know reviews at the time said it was a revelation in 4x4s, but come on, that was 20 years ago. I expected it to feel creaky and outdated. That it would flop and roll around if you went anywhere near a bend with any verve.
I thought it would be the sort of car I’d swan about in, potter from my village to the next. Windows open and espadrilles on my feet in the summer, mud-covered boots in the winter. I was even planning a lift kit, knobbly tyres and a kayak for the roof to give it some adventure-like credentials. Anything to stop it from looking like an illicit mobile pharmacy.
But not now. Not now I know it has handling kudos. It really has some BMW saloon car-like traits in the way it drives. Not hidden, either - it’s blatant and there to experience. You can steer it with confidence and determination and it doesn’t fall over itself.
You can prod the throttle toward the exit of a bend and the car’s first reaction is to tighten its line. Even if it can’t maintain those initial levels of rotation and it washes into understeer the more you accelerate, initially it does genuinely feel like a BMW.
To my real shock, it isn’t slow. With no slushy auto gearbox in the equation, the torquey inline-six diesel engine is quick to react to your right foot. Being able to chose your own gears and select them exactly when you want probably aids its sprightliness, even though you can’t flick through the six-speed ‘box like its a touring car. As you might expect from such a chunky car, the gearshift is robust. The gate is well defined and more mechanical than the rubbery-feeling manuals in more modern BMWs, but the throw is long. To select reverse, which in typical BMW style is in the top left corner next to first, you do worry your knuckles might smash into the lid of the glove box.
Admittedly, this praise is all within the parameters of it being an SUV. It’s not fast like a sports car or as fun to drive as a hot hatch. But it compares favourably in the world of all jacked-up faux-by-fours, and not just old ones.
To place it in the vast pantheon of SUVs that now exist, to rank it next to its kin and give you an idea of what it’s like to drive, I’d put it somewhere between an early Bentley Bentayga and a Tiguan R. It isn’t as fast as either of them, but even without the vast amount of tech of the Bently or the trimmed-down size of the VW, it’s as nimble and as rewarding to pedal along as both of them. With its small wheels and big tyres, it also rides smoothly.
Still, even without a moody colour and a set of flash 20-inch rims, my X5 isn’t the most respectable looking motor on the road. My brother thinks my X5 gives me the air of someone who runs a scrapyard. I’d prefer it to project the image of someone active, rugged and stylish, and with a healthy obsession with the mid-00s. That would be more accurate too - Mis-Teeq is the band most played through the X5’s speakers since I’ve owned it.
But my brother’s right. Someone far gruffer and haggard should appear from my X5 than scrawny old me. However, I quite like what effect the X5 has on my image since it was overdue some toughening up. Any day now I will be given more respect down at the garden centre. And if not, I can be fairly sure no one else will be enjoying the absolute silliness of performing heel-and-toe downshift in a diesel SUV full of plant pots and hedge trimmers.