Payne: BMW's Frankenstein X5 M

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

What is this BMW X5 M? A Frankenstein monster from mad Bavarian scientists? A weaponized vehicle from Q's lab for the next James Bond film? A cyborg from a future earth where sedans are extinct and pro drivers race SUVs?

Like Dodge's 707-horsepower Challenger Hellcat, the 567-horsepower X5 M is proof automakers have a sense of humor. The Bimmer is 5,260 pounds of marbled machismo representing what is possible in an automobile. Like the 570-horsepower Porsche Cayenne Turbo S or the 470-horsepower Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT, the M pushes the limits of SUV sanity. These juiced utes are comic book science experiments — like genetically engineering a rhino to move as fast as a cheetah.

"M," of course, is BMW's performance badge, which has propelled sedans like the 3-series into Porsche 911 sports car performance territory. Roughly translated, M means "more." More power. More stick. More speeding tickets.

In 1999 BMW first explored the SUV frontier with the X5, putting the "sport" into sport ute with a unibody chassis shared by its 5-series sedan. The M badge inevitably followed — part of an ongoing horsepower arms race that saw the X5 M (briefly) leap frog the 2014 Cayenne's 550 horsepower before Stuttgart countered with 570 for 2016. No peace summit is in sight.

Today, BMW's M3 represents the Bavarian marque in world sedan racing. Will tomorrow feature fender-banging SUVs around Belle Isle? Heck, if NASCAR can race pickups ...

I took the X5 M on a road trip to Autobahn race track outside Chicago where I compete in purpose-built race cars with some motorhead mates. In an open track session, I took the M out and turned a 1 minute, 43 second lap at an average speed of about 72 mph — just five seconds off the production car track record held by a 2008 BMW M3 (and seven seconds quicker than a friend in his new Alfa Romeo 4C).

This isn't your ordinary grocery hauler.

"We have to beat 1.43 or we're slower than an SUV," I joked to my pals back in the paddock, the Bimmer immaculate behind me (happily, we were all well under 1.30 seconds).

Thanks to its sports suspension and X-drive AWD system, the X is manageable enough in the corners — before the real thrill arrives when its twin-turbos kick in on the straightaways. But off track the big German is more docile dachshund than demonic Doberman.

Unlike the snarling M3 and its brooding visage, the boxy X5 M doesn't flaunt its athleticism. The car looks more ox than thoroughbred. Its proportions are massive — accentuated by BMW's choice of a large greenhouse for good driver visibility. The upright front end comes with a snoot-full of radiator cooling gills that would make a Great White shark jealous, but the M isn't really menacing until you round the big rear end where fat, 12.8-inch tires and four pipes protrude. You're different from the other kids aren't you, Clark Kent?

But the double-barrel pipes are muted. Where the M3's twin-turbo BRR-A-A-PP will send the dog scampering under the bed when you press the starter button, the X5 M is more subtle. A pleasant HUMMMMRR fills the air even as the ute's blown mill gains two more cylinders and nearly half-a-liter over the sedan (4.4 liter V-8 vs. 4.0-liter V-6).

This predator is on you stealthily. Just a ground tremor and you are breakfast.

Indeed, the first impression of the X5 M is more opulence than menace. Its interior is like something out of a Vegas penthouse.

Red leather extends from door to door. Mugella red leather. Like someone dumped a can of red paint through the sunroof. This interior will make the $1,000 Louboutin shoe crowd go wild (and they certainly won't blink at the M's $115,000 price tag). My wife shied from an interior that looks like it was designed for Bally's showgirls. But the whisper-quiet rear seats roll out the red carpet with their own individual temperature and vent controls.

Cruising along I-94 in a six-figure chariot, I expect to be pampered with luxury accessories like rain-sensing wipers, heads-up display, and lane-keep assist. But just because you can afford them doesn't mean you want them.

The lane-keep was so intrusive — sending a shudder through the steering wheel even when I changed lanes — I switched it off. Save the $1,900 "Driver Assistance Package" and buy her some Louboutin pumps instead (or two).

The X5 comes with the M's familiar performance sleeve boasting EFFICIENT, SPORT, and SPORT PLUS settings which tunes engine response. But wait, there's more. An M DRIVE 1 or M DRIVE 2 setting — at the push of a button on the left steering wheel spoke — allows you to pre-program vehicle settings from seat position to ride handling.

These tweaks are found buried in the car's dash screen — accessed by the notoriously annoying, console-mounted rotary iDrive BMW developed over a decade ago. The system has improved with time; I found this to be the most workable rotary dial amongst German luxe-makers that insist on such goo-gaws.

Otherwise the console is nicely shelved with cupholders in front of the electronics where a soda spill won't cause mayhem (ahem, looking at you, Audi) with the e-shifter or starter button. And the large phone holder is a rare automotive nod to the new reality of oversized Samsung Note 3 or iPhone 6 phones.

In short, the M fulfills its promise of MORE without sacrificing X5 luxury.

Misbehaving on track I sucked down a day of Texas oil reserves — a mighty 9.1 mpg. But back and forth from Motown, the big beast's diet was a healthy 20 mpg. Pair that with a 22.4-gallon tank and you can ride this bull a long way. The beast's brakes seem to defy physics: Its huge vented rotors and discs stopping the 21/2-ton heifer cold. With no fade. Lap after lap.

I hope BMW's mad scientists continue to refine their Frankenstein. I haven't even begun to explore this all-wheel-driver's winter-time possibilities. Throw on a set of Blizzak winter tires and the earth-pawing, AWD beast should make an easy transition to winter. Imagine lurid, four-wheel drifts on icy roads. Or a Bond-like chase of snowmobiles down an Alpine mountain. Sounds absurd, I know.

But so does a 1 minute, 43-second lap around Autobahn.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com.

2015 BMW X5 M

Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel-drive, five-passenger sport utility vehicle

Price: $98,700 base ($115,450 as tested)

Power plant: 4.4-liter, twin-turbo V-8

Power: 567 horsepower, 553 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Eight-speed automatic with steering-mounted paddle shifters

Performance: 0-60 mph: 4.0 seconds (manufacturer); top speed: 155 mph (governed)

Weight: 5,260 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 14 mpg city/19 mpg highway

Report card

Highs: Red leather interior; earth-moving power

Lows: Red leather interior; iDrive idrives me nuts

Overall: ★★★★

Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★

Good ★★★

Fair ★★