Atlanta, Georgia - Introduced at a more innocent time in automotive history, when swanky SUVs were still a rare novelty, the original BMW X5 was arguably the first to stamp the word 'sporty' into its USP, hence BMW's insistence that its X models are Sports Activity Vehicles and not sport 'utilities'.

In keeping with BMW's brand values, these non-utilities were much happier on twisty mountain passes than on rutted off-road trails. But things have changed since then, and today's well-heeled customers expect a vehicle that can do anything, pretty much anywhere. 

Why? For many, it's about leaving the door wide open to adventure. For others, whose roughest driving moments might well be the speed bumps at the country club, it's simply about diminishing the bragging rights of that smug Range Rover driver that you tee off with on occasion.

Which brings us to one of many things that makes the totally redesigned, fourth-generation X5 different to its predecessor. Not only is it a whole lot classier and more technologically advanced, but it now offers the option of an offroad package that makes it more capable in the rough. We'll get to all of these areas shortly, but first let's start with the basics.

The new X5, which is 36mm longer, 66mm wider and 19mm taller than before, goes on sale in South Africa this November, in two diesel variants: the xDrive30d, priced at R1 194 296 and M50d, yours for R1 502 581.

Expensive, yes, but the newcomer has a more premium feel to it both inside and out, and the technology to match.

Even at face value, it's more modern and muscular looking on the outside, with its significantly larger Kidney Grille, up-kicked side crease and broader 3D taillights. The M50d is further distinguished by its M Sport appointments and standard 21-inch alloy wheels.

We got to sample the latter model on some scenic and at times wet and twisty back roads in the vicinity of Atlanta, Georgia, where the X5's international media launch took place.

First thing that strikes you about the M50d is just how throaty its straight-six diesel sounds, particularly when Sport mode is activated through the Driving Experience Control switch on the centre console (you can also select Comfort and Eco-Pro). With four turbochargers strapped on (two low-pressure and two high-pressure), the mammoth oil burner produces 294kW and 760Nm at full tilt, with as much as 450Nm on tap at just 1000rpm. Acceleration is spellbounding, and not for a second did we doubt BMW's claim of a 5.2 second 0-100km/h sprint.

The only other engine option for South Africa is the '30d' single-turbo 3-litre diesel, which produces a comfy 195kW and 620Nm, with 0-100 coming up in 6.5 seconds. Both motors are mated to an improved eight-speed autobox.

Engine variants that we'll miss out on are the 250kW xDrive40i six-cylinder and 340kW xDrive50i V8 petrol - but it's unlikely that too many South Africans will miss 'em.

The X5's chassis lives up to its end of the dynamic deal, and we were able to whisk the X5 through some quiet, twisty and wet Georgian country roads at a brisk pace. Here we're talking standard adaptive dampers, read-biased all-wheel-drive and (in models with the M Sport trim grade) an electronically controlled rear differential lock that optimises the distribution of power between the back wheels. 

A rear wheel steering system that enhances both low-speed manoeuvrability and high speed agility is a R23 600 option for those wanting to sharpen things up further, while an exceptionally cushy ride quality can be savoured by those opting for the two-axle air suspension system, which costs between R18 100 and R25 000 depending on your package selection. This chassis system offers an adjustment range of 80mm, and automatically lowers itself in Sport mode or when you exceed 138km/h, while its driver-selectable higher settings come in handy off the beaten track.

The air suspension and the aforementioned rear diff, as well as additional underguard protection, are instrumental to the xOffroad package, a R30 500 option that's albeit not available on the sportier 50d model. This pack also includes four driving modes (Sand, Rock, Gravel and Snow) and some nifty graphics which we'll get to shortly.

A key component of the international launch was testing this new option on an off-road course that took us through some dense woodlands in rural Georgia. Muddy from recent rains and with some fairly steep inclines with deep ruts in places, the trail was surprisingly challenging, yet the X5 took it all in its stride. In fact it exceeded all expectations we had of this traditionally road-biased vehicle, slip-sliding its way up the steep and twisty inclines - with a few nervous moments as we had to slot it through narrow gaps between the trees. Yes, the eastern US in general has more trees than you ever knew existed, enough to make the KZN midlands look like the most arid corner of the Karoo.

If we have to nitpick, the Hill Descent Control felt a little over-zealous, causing us to wish for a low-range crawler gear, but it did its job along with the other electronics. The off-road pack also includes a front-view camera, which allowed us to spot obstacles hidden from view by the bonnet, and the central screen can also display graphics showing things like vehicle angle.

And that's just the tip of the cabin tech iceberg. Now that we've established that new X5 has the necessary talent both on and off the beaten track, let's take a look inside.

At this price level, you expect an extremely classy cabin and the X5 certainly doesn't disappoint. 

In fact, compared to its predecessor it's a whole new ballgame inside, smothered throughout with expensive-looking materials and textures, from electroplated satin chrome trim elements to distinctive new inlay material options, and customers can even go for the jewellry shop look by ordering crystal-effect glass trim for the gear selector, iDrive controller and volume button.

So it's classy, but X5 is also bang up to date on the digital front, featuring BMW's latest Live Cockpit Professional 31.2cm touchscreen infotainment system as standard. With redesigned graphics and menus, the system is more configurable than ever before, with up to 10 pages, each showing two to four tiles, while the main functions are always accessible through a small vertical menu on the side. 

A range of cloud-based 'Connected' services abound here too, and the X5 can even keep track of your diary, cross-reference it with the satnav and warn you to leave early when it detects a traffic jam on your route.

Yet for pure cool factor, nothing beats the newly designed digital instrument cluster with futuristic wraparound speed and rev graphics seemingly straight out the gaming world, and colour themes that change with the driving mode.

Gesture control is also part of the deal when you buy an X5, as is electric front seat adjustment, while the M50d adds the latest-gen head-up display, ambient lighting, panoramic roof and four-zone climate control to the standard features mix.

We could sit here all day discussing the optional features on offer but highlights include a Sky Lounge panoramic glass roof with over 15 000 LED lit patterns, front seats with massage function, a 20-speaker 1500-watt Bowers & Wilkens Diamond Surround Sound System, and even some small but nifty touches like a boot cover that folds into the floor at the touch of a button. 

A third seating row is optional, and all three can be electrically operated, but if you're looking for a proper seven seater, rather wait for the imminent BMW X7.

The new X5 also takes a step towards autonomous driving with a traffic jam assistance system that actually allows hands-free driving on freeways at speeds of up to 60km/h, but for legal reasons this feature is not available outside of the US or China.

You can still order all the usual semi-autonomous gadgets, including Active Cruise Control with Stop & Go function and steering and lane control assistance systems that will help with the steering as long as your hands are on the wheel.

A whole array of smart parking assistance systems are available too, including a Reverse Assistant that can help you back out of a tight situation if you reach a dead end where there are many cars and obstacles around - it can do this because the X5 remembers your steering movements and stores the data from the last 50 metres.

Collision and Pedestrian Warning with automatic City Braking function is standard on the new X5.

Beating Merc's new GLE to the market, BMW's X5 is a well-rounded choice for those playing beyond the million rand mark, and although it's not exactly a hard-core offroader, Mr Range Rover next door can no longer call it soft.

BMW X5 PRICES

BMW X5 xDrive30d R1 194 296
BMW X5 M50d R1 502 581

IOL Motoring