Although the first BMW SUV debuted in 1999 at the Detroit Auto Show, the genesis of the BMW SUV can be traced all the way back to 1994, when BMW acquired Land Rover. By combining the traditional off-road technology gleaned from Land Rover with BMW’s abilities to engineer a thrilling-to-drive car, the X5’s debut arguably set the precedent for SUVs with sporting intention – today, an entire segment unto itself. The X3 followed close behind, and then followed a deluge of high-riding Sport Activity Vehicles – and their eventual coupe counterparts.
Fast forward a few decades, and BMW has added five more models to the lineup. From the practical and egg-shaped X1 to the massive, extended family hauling X7, there’s a BMW SUV that fits every lifestyle. Which one is right for you?
The X1 came to the US in 2012, after almost four years of production for the rest of the world. As the naming suggests, it represents the littlest of the BMW Sport Activity Vehicles. It’s also, essentially, a lifted wagon, and I can’t help but think that it would be much more enjoyable to drive if it was just a little bit lower to the ground. The first generation even got an optional N55 turbo six borrowed from the 335i and combined it with xDrive – making it one of the most competent performing BMWs of its time.
Sadly, the X1 isn’t quite as fun as it used to be. You’ve only got one engine choice – the stalwart but unexciting B48 four-cylinder. What remains from the first generation is the car’s overall versatility and practicality – it’s got dimensions that keep it driving small but feeling spacious in the interior. Paired with xDrive, it’s the perfect choice for someone that needs some extra space but doesn’t need the downsides that owning a bigger, full-size SUV present.
The X2 was introduced in the late 2010s as something of a millennial trap; heavily marketed towards the 20-something weekend adventurer class. It’s roughly the same size as the X1, but with less usable space and double the Roundels. For some reason BMW slapped some Roundels on the C pillars in some weird attempt to pay homage to their own M1 racecar. I’ll let the irony sink in for a second.
The X2 drives just like the X1. There’s an optional “M35” trim optioned with a 300 horsepower four-cylinder and xDrive, but it still drives like the FWD-biased MINI chassis it is. It’s the perfect car for someone who thinks the X1 is simply too practical and wants to stick out from the crowd – at any cost.
Second to market after the X5, the X3 remains one of BMW’s most compelling SAVs. The first generation received a deadpan critical reception but sold over a half-million copies worldwide. The most-echoed criticism seemed to stem from the fact that the X3 seemed to be all the worst parts of a sportscar with all the worst parts of an SUV. Stiff suspension and aggressively wearing tires, coupled with a high center of gravity and considerable heft was not a Goldilocks equation. But the X3 was popular, and BMW continuously worked to improve the car even further – likely the reason the X3 is the best-selling BMW in America today.
Thankfully, BMW has not removed the six-cylinder variant from the lineup, and the result is the exceptional X3 M40i. Its predecessor – the X3 xDrive35i – was equally competent. It delivers a potent combination of devilishly good driving dynamics and pragmatism, and does it stylishly, too. A new BMW X3 M40i will set you back at least $60,000, which is admittedly a bit dear, but the xDrive35i is now solidly in the $20,000-$30,000 range and will deliver a more than proportional ownership experience.
The X3 is perfect for the practical person that knows they need an SUV – giving you tons of room, visibility, ground clearance, and power should you spring for the six-cylinder models. It does everything the SUV was introduced to do, and then some.
If you’re staunchly opposed to form following function, it’s going to be easy to decide between the X3 and X4. The BMW X4 is essentially the X3 but given a sweeping “coupe” roof, reducing cargo volume by roughly 30% and nominally reducing space in the cabin. Other than that; the X4 is functionally identical to the X3. I’ll admit; the X4 does a better job of pulling off the “Sport Activity Coupe” ethos than the X2 and isn’t a bad looking car – it’s not for me, but I get it.
That said, it’s the perfect car for the person that wants their car to be an extension of themselves – an accessory, or lifestyle choice. Big personalities and loud colors go hand in hand with the BMW X4.
The X5 marked the beginning of BMW’s interpretation of the modern sport-ute over two decades ago, and that leaves you plenty of choice. You can get four, six, or eight cylinder, all-wheel or rear-wheel drive, and can spend anywhere from $10,000 to $120,000 (maybe even more?). What stays a constant throughout all generations is that its big. Even a first generation X5 is within an inch and a half of a brand new X3, even sitting higher and boasting more rear headroom. But that truck also got things like an optional manual transmission or a naturally-aspirated V8 – quite a different prospective buyer in 2022.
With so many variants – including plug-in hybrids – almost anyone could be found behind the wheel of an X5. Generally, the older V8s and manual trucks are good for DIY-ers and enthusiasts. There’s some interesting heritage to be found under the hood, and they’re products of a bygone time. High performance trims like the X5 M50i and top-dog X5 M will also be great fits for enthusiasts – though pricy, especially with gas prices hovering in the upper stratosphere. Regardless of what matters to you, there’s very few niches an X5 can’t fit into.
The X6 is another coupe variant of an otherwise perfectly practical vehicle. Predictably based on the X5, in was introduced in 2008 to largely positive critical reception, mostly due to its dynamic prowess cashing the checks that the sporty design was writing. Like all of the other SACs on the list, the X6 is great for someone that really wants to stand out, and the top-of-the-line X6 M does it better – and louder and quicker – than any vehicle on this list. The extroverted design of the X6 lends itself to being loud, rowdy, and just a bit ostentatious – and it might be a perfect match for you.
Finally, we round out the lineup with the vaunted X7. Before the X7 entered production just a few years ago, rumors had circulated for nearly a decade about its introduction. Some have even gone as far as to suggest that a variety of prototypes existed, but BMW just couldn’t nail down the driving dynamics until the late 2010s. The X7 dwarfs every vehicle on the list, as the name suggests, and also offers a third row seat and optional captain’s chairs. It exists adjacent to the 7 Series sedan, and as such, many of the same luxuries are available – like rear-seat entertainment and advanced driving assists.
And so, the X7 is for someone who either really needs to have the biggest, baddest, newest BMW on the block – or for someone who really needs the cavernous storage space the cabin offers. It’s a bit more plush feeling than the X5 and X6 as well – likely due to increased sound deadening all over the vehicle. And of course, for those that accept no substitutes, the ALPINA XB7 exists – $160,000 of decadent interior appointments and 612 horsepower of highway-gobbling fury.
Which BMW SUV to Buy?
For now, that concludes BMW’s now vast lineup of lifted Bavarian metal. But there’s some interesting stuff on the horizon, and already here – for example, the iX. The iX is important – being BMW’s first foray into the full-electric future, it’s telling of where the company is positioned into the coming decades. But as the waitlists grow and supply chains tighten, it’s hardly an option for someone who hasn’t already decided to buy one.
The BMW XM also looms closer, potentially giving us an idea of what internal combustion’s finale could sound like. A bespoke, mostly stand-alone M product, BMW and BMW M have promised it will be hybrid powered. It’s positioned as a crowning achievement for BMW M, but it will also likely be the crown jewel of the X line. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.
But if it was me, I would still pick the BMW X5. It’s by far BMW’s most compelling product and one of the best in the segment.