The BMW X5 and a Le Mans-Winning Race Car Have More in Common Than You’d Think
This is one of the most bizarre-yet-awesome engine swaps ever.
Back in the simpler times of the year 2000, BMW was fixing to wow the world by being the first to, in technical terms, do some really crazy shit with a crossover SUV. Its very-new-to-the-lineup X5 crossover SUV was the empirical vessel where it’d take place.
Essentially, the Bavarians wanted to explore the limits of the new X5 chassis. Not just to see how far these limits extended, but also to conduct of sort of feasibility study for adding some M Division goodness to the X badge. In addition to Albert Biermann at the helm as Technical Director of M, there seemed to be a heavy sense of Daniel Burnham’s quote “make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood” permeating through the brand at the time. BMW reached deep into its toybox for everything it’d need, and truly did some really crazy shit.
One of the Greatest Automotive Heart Transplants Ever
In the same year, the BMW V12 LMR Le Mans Prototype race car was on the verge of getting permanently shelved. This was kind of a shame; it looked brilliant, was powered by an honest-to-goodness naturally aspirated V12 (somewhat shared by the mid ’90s E31 850CSi and McLaren F1) and had a solid hit ratio. It won both the 12 Hours of Sebring and 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1999 and was successful here in North America racing in the American Le Mans Series (now known as IMSA). It also featured fake front kidney grilles that might be the smallest ever fitted to a Bimmer. My, how times change.
BMW M had a wild idea: why not remove the V12 heart from one of the LMRs and throw it in the feasibility study X5? That’s exactly what it did, and every enthusiast with any inkling for BMW rejoiced.
Since it was a race engine, it was a bit more powerful than the one found in the street-going 8 Series. In racing form, it featured various modifications to achieve somewhere around 580 horsepower, which is mind-boggling for a tiny, mid-engine, mostly-carbon fiber, prototype race car. Though, since the X5 wasn’t beholden to any sanctioning body rulebooks, BMW removed restrictors to let it breath more freely. This boosted the figures to over 700 horsepower and 531 pound-feet of torque.
Next: The Full M Treatment
With great power comes great responsibility, which means the X5 needed the necessary mods to get all this power to the ground reliably and safely. Carbon fiber hood, widened bodywork, a modified front end to get more air in for added cooling, lightweight BBS LM wheels, bigger brakes, modified suspension, custom paint, Recaro racing seats… the X was fully outfitted. It wasn’t too nose-heavy, either; 51 percent of the weight sat on the front wheels, 49 percent on the rears. Mounted up to the wheels were either 315/35/20 or 275/40/20 tires up front and 315/35/20 tires in the back; a massive amount of rubber for anything in the year 2000, let alone a crossover SUV.
To me, the finishing touch was an honest-to-goodness three-pedals-and-a-stick transmission, making the experience of mobbing this thing presumably wonderful.
This wasn’t a typical cobbled-together development mule, either. The brand cleaned it up really nice and debuted it at the 2000 Geneva Auto Show. It was used as a valuable PR resource, calling it the BMW X5 Le Mans, to signify both its wild engine and performance, as well as BMW’s racing success in 1999. I’d say it was a hype machine success.
Then It Proved Itself on The Nürburgring
That one little track in Rhineland-Palatinate, the 12.9-mile Nordschleife circuit, in Germany is of course one of the main benchmarks for performance car speeds recognized around the world. I know, we’re all tired of hearing about ‘Ring lap times, especially considering all the meteorological variables that affect them. Despite the hype, and many manufacturers puffing their chests over their exploits there, I still think it’s a pretty good measuring stick.
Legendary race car driver Hans-Joachim Stuck achieved an astounding lap time of just 7 minutes and 42 seconds behind the wheel of the X5 Le Mans in June 2001. This is faster than a 997 Porsche 911 GT3 RS, 2009 V10 Audi R8, and Mercedes-AMG SLS. It’s also less than a second slower than a C6 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1.
It should be noted that it didn’t have the full interior that was present at Geneva; instead, it was stripped out to cut weight and add more safety, including a single roll bar and harnesses for the Stuck. Still, it’s immensely impressive that this heavily modified SUV hit such a time. And in 2001, which is long before the automotive mainstream hype of the ‘Ring caught on.
Somebody (presumably BMW) documented the experience, and let me tell you: the sound of a race-prepped V12 under the hood of an SUV is so bizarre:
BMW recently posted a video on one of their own channels about the X5 Le Mans as well.
Despite the X5 Le Mans never going into production, it served several important purposes. Firstly, it made for really good PR. Secondly, it proved that crossover SUVs could be modified to exhibit very impressive performance. Thirdly, it was the first fast SUV, which by now in our year of 2021, means a lot; there are so, freaking, many of them on sale to the general public at the moment.