Racetrack Time in BMW’s First All-Wheel Drive M-Car, the ‘E70’ BMW X5 M

“How’s that been treating you,” I asked my friend Brandon about his newly-purchased 2013 BMW X5 M as we stood on grid at the main circuit of Summit Point Motorsports Park. Brandon’s E70 X5 M had replaced a V8-powered “E92” BMW M3 coupe, deemed too small for his growing English lab.

“It’s great! It’s fun enough and makes like 550 horsepower. I’m curious how it’d do out there,” he said while gesturing toward the front straight of the circuit. I’d been running another friend’s E36 BMW 325i in Time Trial as my purple E36 M3 was not yet back from the repair shop. Though I also work as the announcer for NASA Mid-Atlantic events, I can usually sneak a few laps beyond my registered competition group.

“Well uh… could I give it a go?”

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What Is It?

This is a 2013 BMW X5 M. It was the first “M” version of BMW’s X5 crossover, following a few hotter variants of the first-generation E53 X5, dubbed 4.6is and 4.8is, that were performance-oriented but not blessed by the hands of M GmbH. The X5 M arrived two years into the E70 X5’s production run, first going on sale as a 2009 model. Brandon’s 2013 X5 M is functionally the same as an earlier model year, save for a newer CIC iDrive system.

Every E70 X5 M is powered by a 4.4 liter, twin-turbocharged V8, known as the S63 in BMW-speak. Updated versions of the S63 are still used today, in the M5 sedan and newer X5 M and X6 M crossovers. Brandon’s E70 X5 M produces 547 horsepower and 500 lb-ft of torque from that early S63 V8. Peak power is made at 6,000 rpm and peak torque comes in from 1,500 rpm all the way to 5,650 rpm.

Though all-wheel drive is permeating the BMW M lineup today (to the chagrin of many enthusiasts-née-purists), this E70 X5 M has the distinction of being BMW M’s first all-wheel drive offering. With a 5,247 pound curb weight, BMW M needed every trick in the book to make this M5-wagon-on-stilts even attempt to handle.

Power is routed from the silly-quick V8 through a ZF 6HP26 automatic transmission. M threw their own specific tune on the transmission, alongside paddle shifters for more control.

Adaptive dampers (“EDC” in BMW-speak) help with body control, M-specific hydraulic steering handles the curvy bits, and 15.5″ front brake rotors with four-piston calipers handle the stopping, aided by barely-smaller 15.2″ rotors on the rear axle. Tires are Corvette-wide, measuring 315 mm at the rear.

E70 X5M racetrack

Track Time in Brandon’s E70 X5 M

Brandon just bought this X5 M, and though cared for, it’s no spring chicken. His example has 70-something thousand miles on the odometer with presumably-original… everything. Tires are, obviously, newer, but it’s on the original suspension and related bushings.

I grabbed my helmet, hooked up a few cameras, and got in line on the grid having checked nothing, not even tire pressure. Don’t be like me.

As our grid staff announced the one-minute warning, I lowered the visor on my helmet and pressed the “M” button on the steering wheel. Everything that BMW calls dynamic (ugh) entered a more track-friendly setting. I slid the shifter to the left for Sport, vowed not to use the paddles unless absolutely necessary, and followed a line of far-more-track-friendly cars onto the track.

We left grid under a green flag, which meant it was immediately party time. I took the first lap to get acquainted with the tall, big X5 M before really putting the hammer down. Given the group I joined, all passing was to be done under point-by, so I and others couldn’t just dive-bomb people under braking. Consent is sexy, folks.

I’d gone out behind another friend in his NB Miata, and we both got past a slow-moving Acura Integra and BMW E30 325i in the carousel on our out lap. As Dan and I both exited Turn 10 onto Summit’s front straight, his arm came out and over the roof for my first honest point-by. I buried the throttle, the six-speed dropped a few gears, and we were off. I knew it would be easy to get by a Miata, but I didn’t realize just how easy.

As traffic spaced out, I had more open track to probe the limits of the X5 M. Given what it is, the X5 M was incredibly confidence-inspiring. I wasn’t afraid to stand on the throttle, hammer on the brakes, or enter turns with some reasonable speed. The staggered tire setup and general X5-ness of it all promoted moderate understeer through turns, but a partial lift of the throttle would tuck the nose back in line, allowing me to roll back into the throttle and force xDrive to sort it all out – which it did, brilliantly. Rotation was predictable and easy.

Factory-spec brake pads and ancient, street-use brake fluid was the X5 M’s ultimate downfall. Even in “M mode,” the X5 M was using the brakes to help keep things in line. And I was asking the X5 to stop from speeds of 125 to 135 miles per hour, lap after lap. Two-thirds through our 25-minute session, I called it and pulled in to pit road. The brake pedal was getting soft and long, and I could smell the pads at speed. Performance brake fluid with a higher boiling point would help significantly here, as would a slightly-better pad compound.

E70 X5M racetrack

Final Thoughts

I pulled into the paddock, laughing uncontrollably as I coasted past Brandon, the stench of overworked brake pads wafting down pit lane. I’d been competing in a purpose-built BMW all weekend, and I truly had as much fun casually throwing this 2.6 ton “sports activity vehicle” around the racetrack as a caged Spec3 race car.

When I owned my same-sized and similarly-powered “L322” 2010 Range Rover Supercharged, I tried taking it for a slow-speed pace lap of Summit Point Main at no more than 40 miles per hour. The experience in that BMW-designed sport-utility was the antithesis of this E70 X5 M, with a constantly-panicked stability control and confused ZF 6HP gearbox wondering what the actual hell I was up to.

L322 Range Rover racetrack
This was tremendously un-fun.

By comparison, the E70 X5 M was a total surprise. I expected it to do fine enough around Summit Point, but not slide around with as much grace as it did. We have another NASA member who uses his E70 X5 M as a camera car for us and other organizations, filming race cars and drift cars with cameras suction-mounted to the X5. On my way to grid, I stopped and asked him what to do.

“Just keep your right foot down, steer, and let xDrive figure it all out.”

Special thanks to Tae Tyson of Flat Out Images for most of these photos!

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