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Sunday, September 1, 2013

X Files from 5000 Meters and above

In the world of the SUVs usually dominated by LandRovers, Land Cruisers and Pajeros, the advent of the X5 by BMW in 1999 was a game changer and the playing field has been redefined ever since. The  4x4 experience changed from being big and heavy and thus sluggish vehicles to quick, snappy and fun vehicles and also quite savvy on relatively difficult terrain. Add to that good handling as well with a unibody monocoque design, removed from the body on ladder-frame that existed prior to the X5. A quick look at the power and torque figures will reveal the surging power under the hood and a quick drive to Jaipur reveals the goodies, the bells and the whistles… they match up to the performance of a sedan, nearly most good sedans. However, that is not what this particular review is all about. This is not about roadworthiness of this giant Sports Activity Vehicle. I am not here to tell you how well she can do from Delhi to Jaipur or Bombay to Pune through the ghats. That is for the sissies! This is about what you can do away from tarmac! This is about head banging inside the cockpit! This is about dirt, sweat and grime! This is about how well or how poorly the X series can actually perform in trying situations when the tarmac vanishes, when dust chokes your intake manifolds, when river crossings is de rigueur and hydrostatic locking is a distinct eventuality, when altitudes make your vehicles gasp and pant, when steep inclines send your automatic transmission for a toss; this is the real bad test of how good a thrashing a 6 Million INR vehicle can take. And can it actually survive? Read on to find out…

The X5 being one of the pioneers in monocoque design brought about sweeping changes in 4x4 experiences getting swifter, faster and more agile. But here I was not out to find out the swiftness of the series X. Here I wanted to see the differences between the boys and the men of dirt!

Around Leh

This particular Sports Activity Vehicle had already done close to 2,000 kms in the worst of situations when I took over for the rest at an ungodly height of 3300 metres. It was not a gleaming shiny machine that greeted me. But one that has known the rigours of life and twists of fate, covered with grime and it was ornate with caked mud from its recent sojourns. It was not going to get any better. On the contrary, I was going into hell with it! When I finally got the keys from Philipp, I took it for a 50 kilometre spin along the Indus! Yes we were at Leh, trying out the vehicle at different levels of performance, torture and the reliability of all the bling that comes with such a car.

I dropped Philipp back to his hotel and took the car out on my own. The game began. Philipp had warned me about a few things. But I was not letting that get to my head. All that was in my head was the tap under my right foot that generated 245Bhp @ 4000Rpm and 540Nm of Torque @ 1750Rpm. I was playing with my right foot and the needle on the dash, enjoying the drive through the high altitude desert in excellent weather cruising at 120kmph even at near 4000 metres above sea level with practically no turbo lag and full power available on tap! There was absolutely nothing to remind me that I was on such high altitude other than the clanging of the oxygen tanks in reserve behind me and me getting out of breath with the slightest of gesture not getting absolutely any time whatsoever to acclimatise to the lack of atmosphere. I roared along in a cloud of dust as the flights took off behind me somewhere in Leh!

As the patches of tarmac ended and we were still cruising at incredibly high speeds of triple digits on the dusty gravel, the vehicle, it’s feedback around the bends kept inspiring confidence exponentially. It takes no time to adjust to the ergonomics of such a vehicle; which is when you start thinking of pushing and testing cutting edge technology… just to see how well or how poorly the tech stands up. I just wanted to test how bad would it feel to brake hard on gravel. With clearly no one in sight in my RVM, I jammed on the broad brake pedal. The ABS braking feedback was exemplary, the vehicle stopped, albeit took a little longer. But the ABS circuitry worked like a charm and there was no feeling of veering on loose marbles like a free fall in gravity which is what I expected initially. I did not fall off the cliff. I did not skid off the road. And not to forget I was driving with more than two tonnes of weight for heaven’s sake! There was the car then there were six heavy suitcases, photographic equipment, crates of wine bottles, crates of oxygen cylinders and two spare wheels! Yes this was a real life situational test that we were doing, not some sissy roadtrip show for the benefit of publicity and the showgirls getting in the footfalls! This was the real deal with genuine headaches.
Soon the climb started getting increasingly tedious. At least physically for me and my co-driver. Patches of tarmac were fewer and far between. Gravel started to disappear as well as we kept ascending toward Tanglang La. First indication of particle filter malfunction as we crossed 4500 metres! I was in touch with Technical Director of BMW and this was normal. I was expecting it. No real issues regarding this either; I just clicked on Okay and continued. Soon the second, also expected, notification came around, of dropping engine power. I clicked on okay and continued. The only issue here was that as the climb got increasingly steeper, I could not drive on D mode anymore. I had to shift to S mode to keep the power on tap. But even this was not going to last. And I knew it!


Gravel gave way to worse times and the total disappearance of roads. In fact calling these paths as roads is a total misnomer as we all know. They are not even paths. Part of the mountain side has been cut out and a way has been made for moving with some kind of vehicle with four wheels. If you got a 4x4, you are really lucky. And in the middle of that if you are following a dusty cloud behind a vehicle, which way you would steer is anybody’s guess and anybody’s risk! Open craters, pitfalls, rocks, boulders, ponds, rivers, waterfalls, steep inclines over rocks, steep descents in sand, broken bridges, unlimited stream crossings, everything was thrown in the way of the X5. Not once, not twice, not thrice… constantly, incessantly, unabated for 500 kilometres over two days! The machine never flinched. The chassis did not shudder once. The body never rolled nor buckled. On the contrary, the X5 stood sturdier than the rocks that came its way, maintained its grace and continued moving devouring everything in its path like a hungry shark asking for more. You would get tired. The Beamer wouldn’t!

I reached Tanglang La at a dizzyingly high altitude of 5320 metres. I was out of breath just climbing out of the vehicle! The vehicle was a little out of breath too. There was considerable loss of power. And I was beginning to get a really bad headache. I still held my nerves that were getting a little frayed at the edges. It was a little cold, 0°C in the middle of an August afternoon with a few flakes of snow floating in the air and falling on the windscreen. I got out of the vehicle to shoot a few photographs. We began our way down towards More Plains and Pang. We did good speeds and on the terrible bad roads we managed to get the bottles of wine jump out of the crates as the vehicle lurched around. That was when we smashed one of the bottles as it crash landed on the spare alloy wheel inside the car. We temporarily rearranged the bottles behind and continued.

Here I must mention that at these altitudes, there was considerable loss of power as was indicated by the engine notifications. And during such times, to climb a steep incline on rocks, even the power on the S mode just did not suffice and I had to push the lever to M mode and had to climb on M1 to make it up the rocks! I admit that I did not race up the rocks at triple digit speeds. But despite the considerable loss in power, climbing on M mode was a breeze with 2 tonnes of metal in tare! At such places, I would leave the Boleros and Scorpios of the world eating rock, dirt and grime thrown from my R20 tyres as they struggled their way up! Gosh did it look embarrassing! No, I was not racing. I was merely driving. But it sure looked like I was given the glares that I got from those vehicles!

And when I saw the X5 perform thus, I simply gave up the long and winding path up a hill and to push the experiment a notch further, I would simply cut across the mountain face, just straight up the incline, totally avoiding the path which was usually used as a shortcut downhill, I used the same as a shortcut uphill. Heck, I was driving a X5 4x4 and I could do whatever I wanted and felt like. And if I had any problems with power, I would just throw it into M Mode and gracefully ease up the hill like it was built to do so. I would have never imagined a car as fancy and expensive as the BMW X5 could actually take on such rough, difficult and steep terrain with such seemingly effortless ease.

Ending a day of experimental driving, we spent an excruciating night at 4400 metres altitude at the Sarchhu tents at Goldrop Camp. Had a really bad night, hallucinating all night about getting myself airlifted out of the Himalayas and remote driving the X5 through the hills! I woke up with a hangover of a million beers. And I must say, next morning, other than the idea of driving the BMW, nothing inspired me, not even the fantastic vistas of Sarchu! And as I climbed back into the X5 to continue our driving, though it was barely recognisable anymore as a BMW, all body aches and headaches disappeared. I was back out on the road negotiating impossibly difficult terrain, climbing up rocks, cutting across streams, tearing the indomitable Himalayan landscape with the ease of a butterfly flitting around!

Around Upshi

The Zingzing bar stretch after Baralach La had some good tarmac lying around since my last visit here that had not been destroyed by the marauding snow slides. I thrashed the X5 around to my heart’s content. I was still at an altitude of 4000 metres and was clearly getting full power and taking sharp bends in excess of 70Kmph with perfect grip, no body roll and my wine bottles behaving perfectly well holding up straight with no loss on this day! And these are serious altitudes. But this was tarmac. I now kind of take this for granted. A BMW will perform well on tarmac. It is supposed to. Even if it is a 2 tonne SAV. Even if there are hairpin bends nineteen to the dozen at an altitude of 4100 metres!

About the loss of power, I had discussed with the Technical Director at BMW India, it is just a matter of a few engine mapping minutes that would give it full power at even K-Top at 5000 plus metres. I seemed to lose most of D Mode Power at a height of 4200 metres approximately. But despite this loss, the engine is so tough and gearing so well done that the only thing that you seem to miss is oxygen for your own lungs! Most vehicles that I met on the way or overtook were Mahindra Boleros, Mahindra pickups, Toyota Innovas and Scorpios, all sturdy vehicles in their own right. But the Beamer left them all in its wake. Locals stared at us. It was quite unbelievable for them that a vehicle from the plains with a HR number plate could flash past them and disappear in the horizon in a cloud of dust. And no, I repeat, I was not racing.

The X5 30D generation E70 is an excellent 4x4 that does the job of a 4x4 adroitly, goes down straights almost like high end sedans, gives you a dominant feeling on the road and it is not a living room piece of shiny furniture to show off. It is indeed a vehicle to show off, yes… but at the abode of the Gods… where the clouds dwell, where the winds dry up the arid landscape, where your lips and nose get parched and cracked beyond recognition, where temperatures fall 20 notches below 0°C, where tree lines do not exist, where the mind barely exists in fear of dissolving into hallucinogenic oblivion, where ordinary humans fear to tread and where you can dare with your X5. Would I want to own the X5 for these reasons? This is not a tough question! It is fatuous question. However, I would like to try out the X3 first… in the same way, push it close to its limits and beyond the boundaries of usual tolerance, beyond the highest passes, through lakes, passes and rivers and dirt tracks unlimited. Then I would tell you which one I would prefer to park at the bottom of my building.

Mr Philipp von SAHR, BMW India, 2013.
The Final Day
Riding Companion
Tanglang La

Text and photos by Krishnendu KES.

The extreme trial and testing of the X5 2013 was made possible thanks to the generous help of Mr Philipp von SAHR, BMW India, 2013.

All travel logistics courtesy Maavalan Travels.

Disclaimer; the views expressed in the article are entirely those of the author and the author takes full responsibility of the repercussions rising herewith! Feel free to express your opinions! The forum is open.
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  1. Wait till you visit Tibet!!

    1. That's in the bucket list Rupa. :) I will have to see if I can get a vehicle from BMW! :)

  2. wow! loved the entire experience and actually lived through it with your words! I'm sure the BMW X5 has all the ability one can think of, but what I understand is the Beemers are better known in our part of the country as great looking vehicles. I don't think anybody in India atleast would have gone out and tested(abused) a beemer as you have... Loved it!

    I'd also love to take a BMW there someday, but mine would be a GS. Period!

    1. Yes Mohit, I agree with you. However, a BMW GS is meant to take this... easy, no big deal. But have you heard of a lot of people taking a series X up there? They think they are delicate machines. They are not! :)

  3. Beemers have gained respect and reputation by such trips to different hells and back. What Mr.Kes did was brave on his part but for the X5, if the machine could talk,must be laughing like a baby and saying let's do that again!!their sedans are similarly hard ass its just that their ground clearance just doesn't allow them to take up any such activities.

    1. Hey Anonymous,
      It is true... the sedans are good. But they are fairly low slung. But the X series... Hmmm... Just Wow! :)

  4. BRILLIANT DA! This is how an SUV and that too from the BMW stable be reviewed. Driving these beasts in sedate condition doesn't do justice to the tag "SUV". A well built car should perform flawlessly not only on the European roads but also in the rough terrain of Himalayas. Top work there Da.

    1. Thanks Dipu boss. Good to see you reply. I really enjoyed this ride. the X files was a pleasure to accumulate. :)


Item Reviewed: X Files from 5000 Meters and above Description: Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Sajal
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