As far as I’m concerned, BMWs are about having fun on four wheels. Not just at the track, or on the autocross course, or in a rally, but in things we do every day. Who hasn’t pushed their Bimmer just a bit on the apex of the freeway on-ramp to accelerate earlier into the merging lane? Or practiced applying the brakes so smoothly and expertly that the passenger can’t feel the actual point at which the car is no longer moving?
I have fun taking trips in cars, especially in BMWs, since they are so comfortable and handle so well. Long road trips are great both for the fun at the destination as well as en route. I’m no Cannonball Baker (do an Internet search if you don’t know who he is), but I do enjoy using cars to get to faraway places.
Last week, for example, Betty and I completed an 1,100-mile run from Kansas City, Missouri to Canandaigua, New York, with a stopover in Columbus, Ohio. The purpose of the trip was to spend the week visiting family and friends, and meeting some of my high-school classmates during an informal class reunion.
The vehicle of choice for this trek was our 2016 BMW X5 xDrive35d. It handled the trip so nicely that it gave me time to reflect on how it compares to other cars we have owned and driven on long journeys.
My first long-distance cruiser was a 1971 Lotus Europa—but in fairness, I should mention that while it occasionally completed a long trip, it occasionally didn’t, so as a cruiser, the Lotus comes in dead last. But it was the best-handling last-place car I ever had—when it ran.
I drove my 1976 BMW 2002 all over the place, crisscrossing the country between New York, Virginia, Colorado, and Pennsylvania many times. It was reliable, economical, and completely devoid of air conditioning, if you don’t count the wing window, which usually provided ample ventilation and the occasional large bug. It scored high as a cruiser but not quite as high as some later air-conditioned models.
Take our Euro-spec 1983 BMW 635CSi, for example. It could cruise all day at 140 mph (on the German Autobahn) in luxurious comfort. It had a back seat that was comfortable for adults, and it also had a trunk large enough to hold everyone’s luggage. I consider our current BMW i8 as a grand-touring car in the same tradition as the 635CSi in comfort and performance, but while the i8 achieved better fuel economy, it fell woefully short of the Sixer in rear seating and trunk space.
My E36 M3 did everything well, not the least of which was long-distance cruising. We all know how great the car is on the track or getting groceries, but the M3 also loved the open road. It was the car that completed not one but two of the ultimate long-distance road trips known as One Lap of America. For me, M3 was near the top of the list for seat comfort—an essential quality for a distance cruiser. This may be a case where beauty is in the backside of the beholder, but my ’95 M3’s Vader seats were the most comfortable stock seats I’ve ever had. My back would feel better after ten hours in the M3 than before I got in the car.
Our E34 and E39 5 Series sedans were super-comfortable, well-performing, and extraordinarily reliable cruisers. Betty’s ’97 528i—which Betty still drives daily—took us to four straight Oktoberfests in Florida, Indiana, South Carolina, and New Hampshire. On top of being a great cruiser, it is also the car in which we won our very first TSD rally at Oktoberfest ’98.
Up to this point, I’ve discussed how our various cars stacked up as grand-touring machines. But in 2002, we parked a new kind of BMW in the garage that would challenge the cars for the title of best long-distance cruiser.
Full disclosure: I was aghast when BMW announced its sport-utility vehicle. How could an SUV possibly help BMW’s reputation as a builder of high-performance premium cars? I didn’t realize then where the market was headed, and that Porsche, Audi, Bentley, Rolls-Royce, and Lamborghini would follow suit.
I was wrong about the X5, however, both for me and for the company. In 2001 I had to replace my totaled Dodge pickup, and there to fill the bill was the E53 BMW X5 4.4i. It was a competent tow vehicle for taking the M3 to races, and on non-towing days, it proved to be an excellent daily driver.
But its real forte was long trips. It was a great highway cruiser. Its high seating position provided the best visibility since my 2002, and with more than enough luggage space, packing for trips became an afterthought rather than an intensive logistical planning exercise. As an added bonus, when the highway ended, it gave us off-road capability, like on our trip to the Grand Tetons, where we went off-road searching for hard-to-find shooting locations from Shane.
To top it off, the X5 excelled at TSD rallying, gathering first-place trophies at Oktoberfests in Colorado, North Carolina, Michigan, and New York—all while keeping us quite comfortable with zero concerns about reliability.
We replaced the gasoline-powered X5 with a diesel version in 2010, hoping that the oil-burning E70 X5 would be a capable cruiser and tow vehicle. It wasn’t just capable; it was superior in every way, with more power, more space, and better fuel economy. It went to the top of my list of long-distance machines until 2016, when it was replaced with an F15 X5 xDrive35d. (Full disclosure: the diesel E70 X5 needed to go because a small turbo shaft snapped at 72,000 miles—the first problem we had with it—and we decided to replace it rather than fix it. Fortunately, the failure happened around town and not on a trip, but for that reason alone, it dropped out of the top cruiser spot.)
So far, our current X5 has taken us to Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Georgia, New York, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania, and has earned its place on the top of the list as our best cruiser. It doesn’t hurt that it tows the M3 like it isn’t even there, and also has a first-place Oktoberfest TSD rally trophy. Fuel economy on trips often exceeds 34 mpg, and we easily go 600 miles before stopping for fuel. We usually stop sooner than that for other things, however.
I drove the newest G05 X5 last September during its U.S. press launch. It impressed me to the point where I was looking forward to when the miles on our current X5 would convince us to invest in the next-generation model. Sadly, while BMW continues to manufacture diesel X5s in Spartanburg for the rest of the world, it will not sell them to us. So our next X cruiser will probably be powered by gasoline and we will lose the exceptional fuel economy of the diesel.
While our F15 X5 leads the league in almost every long-distance driving category, and I consider it the best long-distance machine we’ve had, I can’t bring myself to call it my favorite cruiser. That title still belongs to the 1983 BMW 635CSi Euro, because while I can have fun driving any long-distance trip, it’s even more fun when you can do it at 140 mph. On the Autobahn, of course.—Scott Blazey
[Photos courtesy Scott Blazey.]