Back in the ’90s, BMW was a very different car company than it is today. Very different. Back in the time of of Pearl Jam, dial-up internet and Zubaz pants, BMW was a simpler company. One that only made a handful of models, all of which had the “Ultimate Driving Machine” philosophy deeply ingrained within their DNA. But in 1999, BMW did something very radical, something totally tubular (’90s lingo) and created…an SUV…gasp.
While BMW wasn’t the first premium brand to develop a luxury SUV, as both Mercedes-Benz and Lexus beat the Bavarians to the punch, the first-generation BMW X5 was the most shocking of all. Mercedes-Benz actually had a long history of trucks and off-road vehicles and Lexus was mostly just selling luxury cars at the time, so an SUV for either brand wasn’t really that radical (more ’90s lingo) of an idea. BMW, though, was famous for lightweight, simple sports cars. So an SUV from the Bavarians was downright shocking.
Internally known as the E53, the first-gen BMW X5 was a car that most enthusiasts felt to be blasphemous. They felt that it was heresy for BMW to develop any sort of vehicle with “utility” in its title (which is part of the reason why BMW eventually started calling them “SAVs” [Sports Activity Vehicles]). BMW made small sports cars and high-tech luxury cars, not high-riding SUVs. This was the company that was making the E36 M3, for crepes’ sake.
However, the introduction of the BMW X5 would prove to be a pivotal point for the brand moving forward, changing BMW forever.
It wasn’t just the BMW X5 on its own, though, that made such a heavy impact. To build the X5, BMW had developed an entirely new manufacturing facility and it did so in America, of all places. So BMW was building SUVs in a multi-billion dollar facility in South Carolina. In 1999, that seemed like Twilight Zone stuff.
Turns out, though, BMW knew exactly what it was doing. The SUV market was starting to get white-hot and these premium SUVs were extremely profitable for both Mercedes and Lexus, bringing it boatloads of cash that those brands could use for R&D on future, more exciting models. So BMW knew that the X5 would springboard the brand to new and exciting heights. And that’s exactly what happened.
With the benefit of hindsight, the move was genius and completely obvious. But in 1999, BMW fans were collectively flipping out over the idea of a Bavarian SUV. Despite the screams of heresy and apocalypse from enthusiasts, though, customers loved the idea and ate it up. BMW ended up selling 248,911 E53 X5s, making it highly successful. But it wasn’t just the idea of a premium BMW SUV, as the E53 X5 was actually a really good car. It was fun to drive for such a big car, luxurious and good looking.
But the success didn’t stop with the E53-generation. Following the first-gen X5, was the E70-generation X5. Packing more technology, luxury and performance, customers adored the second-generation BMW X5. It also spawned the first ever BMW X5 M, a car that broke new ground for the brand yet again. It also seemed to defy physics and boasted performance and capability that SUVs simply shouldn’t have.
This current generation, the F15, has been even more popular than the E70. Not only is it the best looking X5 of them all but its luxury, performance and technology are far beyond the car it replaced. It also received an M Division variant and this newest BMW X5 M is the most absurdly capable and high-performance by far. Although, despite being better on paper than any X5 before it, this current car hasn’t been able to match the success of the first BMW X5, with to-date sales of 196,368, including M variants.
Since the original X5, BMW has gone on to develop more SUV models, including the X1, X3, X4, X6 and soon to be X2 and X7. Clearly, there’s a high demand for high-riding Bimmers. All of which, with the exception of the X1 and X2, have been and will be built in Spartanburg, South Carolina. So not only was the X5 hugely influential in making BMW a more successful, more global brand but it gave the brand much deeper pockets and the sort of R&D money to invest in new technologies for the future.
When BMW decided to develop an SUV, it understood that the market was shifting and that it would continue to shift. So it took advantage and jumped in, despite the knowledge that it would shock its fan base. The Bavarians took a chance, as they knew their biggest fans would be bemoan the new shift in philosophy. Hell, fans are still complaining about it. But BMW hasn’t stopped there and is currently taking another big chance.
There’s a new automotive landscape on the horizon and premium automakers are already jumping in — Electrification and automation. BMW is one of the industries pioneers here as well and, as per usual, is getting its typical flak from enthusiasts.
But just like it did with the E53 X5, BMW is taking a huge gamble on what the future market will demand. A multi-billion dollar risk. This is the strangest new venture for the automotive industry as a whole, as the switch over to electrification and automation is the largest paradigm shift the business has ever seen. So BMW is again jumping into new waters without knowing how deep the water is and without a life vest.
It all started with the E53 BMW X5, though. Before the X5’s debut in 1999, the Bavarians just made small sports cars and engaging luxury cars. It was a brand built around the feeling of driving, through your hands, butt and feet, cars that made the senses tingle. Then BMW launched the E53-gen X5 and changed forever.