Le Mans Racer Meets SAV: Remembering The X5 LM

Hindsight is 20/20, or so they say. It is unlikely that the majority of the public during the late 1990s or early 2000s ever saw an SUV as anything but a family-hauler—a mindset that BMW was quick to change. Decades later, it now seems that they underestimated the performance of that very same family-hauler with their assumptions.

The evolution of the SUV under BMW’s care is remarkable—the once labeled ‘utility vehicle’ has now become well-known as something more, the SAV. The “activity” in its name is there for good reason, too. America’s favorite mall-crawlers are no longer the under-powered and bulky machines of the past—they now possess levels of agility and performance that would have been unprecedented in production form decades ago. While we have grown more accustomed to seeing M Division performance from SAVs like the X5 M and X6 M, they pose as weak competition when placed against Munich’s prized one-off—the X5 LM.

You heard right—“Le Mans” (LM) was once part of the naming designation for one very special SAV. Reserved exclusively for a one-off V12-swapped E53 X5, this utility vehicle was more track-centric racer than it was a family hauler (though theoretically you could do the latter, if you were brave enough).

The creative brainchild of Munich’s ambitious engineers at the time, the X5 LM was fitted with a 6.0 liter S70 V12 from a BMW-engineered McLaren F1 LMR and a six-speed manual transmission from an 8 Series coupe. Fortunately, with the V12 being a narrower and shorter block than the V8, engine bay fitment was not a problem. Had the mad engineers behind the project opted for the previously considered Williams F1 V10 heart transplant, however, there would have inevitably been problems. Unlike the 8,000 rpm redline on the LMR engine, the F1 engine was tuned to a staggering 18,000 rpm—a number which would have likely obliterated the chosen transmission before long.

That isn’t to say that the engineers didn’t encounter any issues when making the swap—cooling posed to be an obstacle that had to be overcome, via a few airflow-altering exterior modifications of course. With racing regulations no longer threatening to kill their creativity, the less-restricted, re-tuned V12 made a colossal 700 horsepower, an estimated 120 ponies more than it previously did in its racecar host.

While the rest of the X5 was largely kept stock, the ear-splitting machine was equipped with proper springs and dampers, twenty-inch wheels, bigger brakes, and sticky Michelins to give the otherwise uncontrollable beast some handling safety on track. Sans ABS and hill-descent control, the all-wheel-drive behemoth was ready to take the track—that is, if you had the guts to actually drive it.

While it surely got a weird look (or two) both on and off the tarmac, the Germans didn’t seem too phased. To them, the X5 LMR was simply a race car in a different body. When it lapped the Nürburgring in eight minutes and five seconds, fifteen seconds faster than the brand’s Z8 Roadster, and maxed out at 186mph on the speedometer, the only acknowledgement was a resounding “Ja” from its nonchalant pilot, Hans Joachim Stuck, according to Car & Driver journalists who were along for the ride. Unlike the 8:05 time he set in the wet, Stuck went back to set an impressive 7:50 lap time in the dry, reaching a (rather precarious)  maximum velocity of 192 mph at one point.

Three pedals, a V12 exhaust note, and an impressive ‘Ring lap time even by today’s standards—the X5 LM could very well be one of BMW’s best sleepers, rivaling even the 750iL V16 Goldfisch when it comes to engineering insanity. A 4.5-second zero-to-60 time sounds even more impressive when you consider the fact that the X5 LM hit the track two decades ago. Clearly, there’s a reason why it is often regarded as one of BMW’s fastest SAVs, even when juxtaposed against today’s M SAV lineup.

So, while American enthusiasts may be mourning the departure of the diesel X5 from the stateside lineup, it is nice to know that the X5’s legacy will never go unappreciated, whether that be with a diesel powerplant or a massive V12. If anything, the X5 LMR is proof of what BMW does best—answering enthusiast’s “what if” scenarios. No reason, no explanation. Just a crazy one-off to satiate our wildest concept car dreams. Pointless? Maybe. Awesome? Always.

While the video introduction below to the X5 LM may be in German, you don’t have to be bilingual to appreciate the sound of the incredible V12 engine.—Malia Murphy

[Photos courtesy BMW AG, Car & Driver, Supercars.net.]

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