The “U” in SUV stands for utility. The whole idea is to go as far into the middle of nowhere, with as much stuff onboard, as possible. With that in mind, please enjoy the BMW X5 Le Mans, an SUV with a racing V12 and no utility whatsoever.
The X5 Le Mans was very good at what it set out to do: test the limits of how performance a performance SUV could be. The X5, after all, was a significant step in turning SUVs away from dirt trails and onto paved roads. It wasn’t the first SUV to do the job of a crossover — hell, the Lexus RX preceded it — but it was still enough to be seen as a real novelty. Here’s what New York Times readers first encountered when checking the car column in December 1999:
A sports utility vehicle doesn’t have to be sporty in itself. It just helps you do sporty, lifestylish things. A sports activity vehicle, however, is itself a sporty object, and the act of driving it is a kind of sports activity. A sports activity vehicle? According to its maker, the car you see here is the first of the type. So, please welcome that unlikely idea, a BMW 4×4.
It’s called X5, it looks like a kind of Bigfoot 5-series Touring riding high on enormous wheels, and under the hood lies the 4.4-liter V-8 from the 540i and 740i. It’s made at Spartanburg, South Carolina, alongside the Z3 sports car, and it was designed mainly at BMW’s Design Works studio in California.
If the X5 was to push the boundaries of how road-oriented an SUV could be, why not take that slider and push it all the way? What if you took the V12 out of BMW’s 24 Hours of Le Mans racing program, slammed it under the hood, and took out all of the seats? This is the X5 Le Mans, and it was pretty straightforward, as I wrote about this thing in 2016:
The idea was simple: take the racing V12 out of the BMW V12 LMR (itself a development of the racing V12 that was in the McLaren F1 Le Mans cars) and just cram it, just squeeze and mash it into the front of a new X5 road car. The 6.0-liter motor put out some 700 horsepower, up a good hundred from the race car, since the concept didn’t need any series-mandated air restrictors. Torque, as Autocar notes, was a good 520 lb-ft going into an M-division six-speed manual transmission.
The rest of the modifications were pretty straightforward, just the usual wheels, tires, suspension, cage stuff that you do to make a car safe on a race track.
Only one was built, but it really was a working car. This is not a concept; this is a runner. Here it is howling around the Nürburgring Nordschleife with Hans-Joachim Stuck at the wheel:
The audio quality on that old clip isn’t great, but luckily for us, BMW keeps the car in working condition in its historic collection:
This thing is deafening. It won’t get you across the Kalahari, nor will it get you and your kids to school on time. It’s an abstract idea of of a utility vehicle made not. Like the Sbarro falcon-hunting monster SUV of the 1970s, it’s an idea taken to an extreme, a logical conclusion. That’s why there’s something charming about it. As actual production SUVs have come to have as much power as this thing, they don’t have any of the comedy of it. You can’t try and have both.