MOUNT BROMO, Indonesia—It’s not everyday you get to set foot on the volcanic sand bed of an active volcano. Even rarer is doing it from behind the wheel of an off-road vehicle. And rarer still from behind the wheel of not one but half a dozen luxury SUVs. With some parts of the volcano spewing clouds of smoke.
That was the backdrop of what would be a very enlightening drive of BMW’s newest range of X Series SUVs (or SAVs for sport activity vehicles, in BMW-speak). The sight of pristine BMW X3s, X4s, and X5s, gleaming in the endless expanse of desolate landscape, was surreal.
Mount Bromo sits in East Java, to the southeast of Surabaya, Indonesia’s second largest city and our home base for our three-day sojourn with a brace of Bavarian off-roaders. Our playground would be the aptly named Sea of Sand, across which is the caldera of an ancient volcano from which four new and very active—last eruption was 2016—volcanoes have emerged. This unique feature covers a total area of over 5,000 hectares at an altitude of 2,100 meters. That’s almost 7,000 feet—substantially higher than Baguio’s 5,000 feet (and explaining why we found ourselves freezing at the early dawn call time).
The cars? The all-new BMW X3 (reviewed here), the coupe-inspired BMW X4 (which shares its platform and drivetrain with the X3), and the extremely capable yet very luxurious BMW X5, now on its third generation.
We drove all three models over one-hour rotating shifts during our four-hour, 120km drive from Surabaya to Bromo (which we repeated on the drive back the next day).
All three SAVs acquitted themselves well on the drive over mixed roads, which ranged from city gridlock to rural two-lanes to long stretches of highway. The small Xs were handy in traffic (which like Manila, had numerous motorcycles), with the close-coupled X4 feeling intimate and cozy inside, much like a coupe or sports car. (It’s almost two inches shorter than the X3 in length, height, and wheelbase.) Not surprisingly, the back seat of the X4 was surprisingly tight, with legroom and headroom akin to a subcompact sedan’s. To compensate for the very sharply sloped roofline and backlight, the X4’s rear seat was lowered a couple of inches to preserve headroom.
Unfortunately, this also resulted in a knees-up position you’d usually feel in the third-row seats of seven-seat SUVs like Toyota Fortuners or Ford Everests. The driver’s seat proved to be the best seat, the cozy cabin making the X4 feel very sporty indeed. If you want the look and feel of a sports car or coupe with the versatility of a compact SUV, the X4 is for you.
Meanwhile, for the times we sat in the back seat, we absolutely relished the X5. It had legroom, elbow room and headroom galore. (It’s roughly six inches longer and four inches taller than the X3, and had a three-inch-longer wheelbase.) It also rode most plushly, thanks to its greater size, heftier weight, longer wheelbase, and more comfort-oriented suspension damping.
Despite its lowest numerical designation, the BMW X3 was smack in the middle of the X4 and X5 in terms of space and riding comfort. It was surprisingly spacious inside, especially compared to the X4 and even to the X5.
But it was when we got to the sea of sand that we really got to experience the phenomenal capability of these vehicles. BMW lined up three exercises involving all three models. The first one involved simple demonstrations of how BMW’s xDrive all-wheel drive system works, from a slanted ramp that simulated crawling on the side of a mountain or rock with one wheel off the ground, to parallel ramps with alternating elevated portions that left the vehicles with two diagonally opposite wheels hanging in the air, to a seesaw-like contraption that showed off how perfectly balanced the X Series models were—much like every BMW sedan that has perfect 50:50 front-rear weight distribution.
More fun was when we took the three Xs on a special off-road handling course that featured numerous bumps, tight and sweeping turns, and a couple of short stretches that let us feel the vehicles’ traction and acceleration in the sand. All three SAVs shrugged off the bumps, even if we took them pedal to the metal and the vehicles’ wheel (or wheels) going airborne over some jumps.
I tried to deliberately drive with an overly heavy right foot and just yanking on the steering wheel to negotiate a turn to see if the car will get bogged down. No dice. The xDrive’s highly intelligent software and hardware, automatically modulated the throttle to keep engine revs—and speed—down, and making sure that the vehicle negotiates the turn safely and with full control.
I expected the X3 or X4 to perform the best in the relatively tight course, but it was the X5 that reigned supreme. Not only was it the fastest—no surprise as it had the biggest and most powerful engine—its xDrive system seemed to be the most effective, enabling it to tackle the turns and corners with greater speed and traction than its smaller siblings.
Finally, we got to take a taxi ride—a euphemism for a wild ride with a professional race or stunt driver—from the front passenger seat of the X5. It was held on both bumpy and sinuous stretches of volcanic sand as well as on a dry riverbed, with the driver expertly using the slanted walls of the riverbed as banked surfaces in the best American oval track racing tradition.
Needless to say, it was an eye-opener, not just in how much better the pro driver was compared to us humble motoring journos, but with how utterly capable—and unbelievably fast—the BMW X5 can be in such challenging conditions.
They say that nine out of ten SUV owners will never venture off road for the life of their vehicle. Still, it’s comforting—and even a source of pride—to know just how capable your vehicle can be when the going gets tough. In BMW’s case, the tough X Series simply gets going.