Given the events of the past few weeks, I'm lamentably behind on posting my thoughts on the cars I'm currently driving for review. So here begins the official catching up, with a look at two high-end 2007 models.
First up is the BMW X5, the larger of the German automaker's two SUV offerings. Frankly, all BMWs are touch cars to love. They drive like a dream -- pretty much every BMW I've driven, I've enjoyed purely from the experience of holding the steering wheel, pressing the accelerator and making it go. It's just all the other stuff that gets in the way.
The infamous iDrive is as counter-intuitive and frustrating as ever, sitting on the center console like a clumsy doorknob. Sometimes you twist the dial to get what you want, other times you jog it in one of four directions, and other times you press it. Perhaps it's because I'm an Apple Kool-Aid Drinker and therefore used to elegant design solutions for control interfaces, but I expect an interface to have some sort of logical consistency. With the iDrive, I'm constantly dialing when I should be jogging, or vice versa, and having to clumsily navigate backwards to escape my error.
That off-putting, figure-it-out aesthetic permeates the X5. The turn signals are nontraditional -- a slight push gives you a signal for switching lanes, but slightly more pressure locks it into a full-turn mode, which requires you to apply pressure in the opposite direction to turn it off but that generally fires up the turn signal in the other direction, and suddenly all the traffic behind you is wondering where the hell you're actually going.
Embarrassingly, it took me about three hours on the road before I found the cruise control stalk, hidden down below the turn signal stalk -- I would have checked the manual, but it took me four hours to figure out how to open the glove box. Anyway, using the cruise control required pushing and pulling the special stalk, and I invariably would first push and pull on the turn signal stalk, thus flashing my brights and making the drivers ahead of me wonder what this asshole is doing. Once I got the hang of it, though, I liked the incremental control it gave me over my speed.
"Once I got the hang of it" pretty much sums up the BMW driving experience. The car expects you to do a lot of work to gain proficiency. Maybe it's not such a bad thing -- my father thinks cars are way too easy to drive these days, which enables such buffoonish behavior as applying makeup, reading newspapers and texting friends while nominally "driving." He may have a point. But BMW makes the hurdle awfully high, even if the reward is a remarkably entertaining drive.
A quick note: As entertaining as the drive may be, during a period of spiking gas prices it's not a joy to be filling up on premium and getting about 17.5 miles per gallon on the highway. I suppose you have to be able to actually afford a $70,000 SUV to be able to afford to fill it up.
Far easier on the driver is the 2007 Volvo S80 sedan, but then it's targeted towards an older demographic, which would explain why both the exterior and interior design feels older -- some may prefer "distinguished" -- than it's younger siblings, the S40 and S60. But it's awfully comfortable and drives well for a softer-side sedan.
Being a Volvo, you have to look at the safety features. The one I liked the most was the Blind Spot Information System, which alerts you to cars traveling in your, well, blind spot. It felt gimmicky at first, but ended up working well. It actually kept me from hitting a car one night when I forgot to redeploy the folding side. And although it has nothing to do with safety, as someone with a tendency to sweating and overheating I'm a sucker for ventilated seats. I hope they become as standard one day as heated seats have.
The S80 is a solid, if somewhat sedate, sedan with enough luxury touches to make the $47K price tag ($57K as tested) seem reasonable.