Yesterday, I did something that surprised me a little. For reasons that I still cannot quite explain, I decided to give a guy $5,000 for a car. That car is not a Volkswagen Phaeton W12, a vehicle that I keep yammering on about; instead, it’s a first-generation BMW X5 with a manual transmission. This is apparently a rare beast, with fewer than 5,000 sold in the United States. Unfortunately, I celebrated my purchase by absolutely nuking the clutch, and so I begin on a new path of Autopain.
This weekend I will be embarking on only my second Gambler 500 event of the whole year. Admittedly, things have been a bit of a crazy for my partner Sheryl and I. A series of weird events have happened, and stacked on top of wedding planning, it means that we haven’t done much of any off-roading. In fact, the one and only Gambler 500 that we attended resulted in our van trying to burn itself to the ground. I haven’t been able to build many hours flying planes, either. Still, I was able to scratch a few things off of my bucket list like going to EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2022. Things have thankfully settled down recently. And this Friday, I’m going to do a bunch of wheeling during the Missourah Endurah Gambler 500. I’ve decided that my chariot for this event will be my trusty but rusty 2005 Volkswagen Touareg VR6 (shown below). After all, when I bought it last year the goal was to take it off-road.
Sheryl, my love and my enabler, said that if I’m making the beater Touareg a Gambler, I should get something to replace it as a non-Gambler. Never one to say no when the future spouse literally tells me to buy a car, I started looking around.
As you all know by now, I’ve been searching hard for a dirt cheap Volkswagen Phaeton W12. I didn’t find one that would make it home under its own power, so I started expanding my search to my greater “bucket list” of cars. These aren’t dream cars, but things that I want to own at least once. Soon, I found myself flipping through web pages of Mazda Miatas, Mercedes-Benz MLs, various German roadsters, imported vehicles, obscure electric cars, Jeep Grand Cherokees, and even a conversion van with a 7.3-liter Power Stroke turbodiesel.
Somewhere down the line, I found an unexpected rarity. As I flipped through pages including first-generation BMW X5s, some of them were noted to have manual transmissions. Wait, a BMW X5 with a manual transmission?
Most of these ads were poorly marked. They clearly had automatics, but somewhere along the way someone selected the manual option — classic. But then, I started running into ads that showed X5s with a true, honest three-pedal manual transmission.
And most of those listings mentioned specifically that the car came that way from the factory.
If you search the web for articles about the BMW X5 with a manual transmission, you’re likely to find a couple of pieces by Doug DeMuro and one from the guys at CarThrottle. Aside from some other videos on YouTuber, that’s pretty much it. Somehow, these machines have been flying under our radars for two decades.
The BMW X5’s Origins
According to an archived Pharma+Food German business magazine article, the BMW X5’s story starts in 1994. Back then, project manager Eduard Walek joined forces with engineer Chris Chapman, design head Chris Bangle, and designer Frank Stephenson in BMW Group’s Designworks in California. Their idea was to offerg a new kind of vehicle for the BMW brand. It would cater to a market that BMW left wide open: off-roaders.
The team’s idea, however, was not to build the greatest off-road SUV. Instead, the guys wanted to build a large, luxurious vehicle that an owner could take to an opera one night, then use to go fishing the next day. But they wanted to find just the right mix of off-road capability while maintaining the on-road prowess that BMWs of the time were known for.
BMW’s research showed that just three to five percent of SUV owners in America actually take them off-road, so BMW decided to favor on-road feel over off-road capability.
Around the same time, BMW purchased 80 percent of Rover Group, acquiring the last 20 percent from Honda not long later. This now meant that BMW was in control of Land Rover, and the California BMW team was able to borrow some tech from the British brand. One of the bits trickled down from Land Rover is the X5’s hill-descent control system. You can also see some possible Land Rover influence in the X5’s split-folding tailgate.
Stephenson goes further to say that the X5’s platform came from the acquisition of Land Rover and the automaker wanted to see what a BMW SUV would look like. He drew up initial sketches during a flight:
Further helping BMW’s quest for good road feel, X5s enjoy unibody construction and independent suspension. And the all-wheel-drive system is tuned so that 62 percent of the power goes to the rear. BMW also went in a different marketing direction than Land Rover. BMW distanced itself from off-roaders in calling the X5 a Sports Activity Vehicle rather than Sport Utility Vehicle.
The X5 began production in 1999 for the 2000 model year. BMW built them in America at the BMW Spartanburg plant in Greer, South Carolina, where it continues to build vehicles today. The logic here is to build its SUVs in its biggest SUV market. This plant doesn’t just build BMWs for America, either, as it builds models that get exported.
I got my first taste of an X5 back in early 2020. Back then, I drove a second-generation model. It had the smallest engine–a 3.0-liter straight six making 260 HP–but it was more lively than any SUV that I drove prior, and I instantly fell in love.
At first, I didn’t target manuals, but just any good X5. Unfortunately, second-gens were pricey, and first-gens were broken. It seemed that just about every listing mentioned either broken window regulators, broken door handles, or a combination of both. On two listings that I’ve seen, descriptions mentioned door handles that were broken on every door, inside and out. That seller suggested getting in by twisting the key in the door lock to activate the function that drops the windows. Then you hop in, Dukes style.
In an even more incredible listing, a seller said that all door handles and all windows were broken. How did he get in? By crawling in through the trunk. And those aren’t the worst of it. A number of the cheap 4.4-liter V8 X5s for sale out there are immobile from timing chain guide failures. Others have crippled electrical systems, perpetual check engine lights, and wrecked interiors.
Apparently these issues aren’t isolated. Go to an enthusiast site like Opposite-Lock and you’ll find all sorts of folks struggling with their old Beemers. It seemed that I’d never find one with that perfect mix of cheap and still in decent shape.
That’s when I found two first-gens that caught my eye. One was fully loaded 2003 X5 with the 3.0-liter M54 straight six with 21-inch wheels, beautiful blue paint, no rust, and apparently, the seller spent thousands refreshing the engine and suspension. Like our Adrian Clarke, I am a sucker for big wheels, so I drove four hours one-way to Indianapolis to take a look at a 170,000-mile BMW.
Unfortunately, the car was not quite as was detailed in the listing. The paint had a lot of damage with missing clearcoat and what appears to be an attempt to spray paint faded paint. Inside, the windows were held up with wooden blocks, and sure enough, most of the door handles didn’t work. Neither did much of the electrics. It contradicted the listing’s claim that everything worked great.
I took it for a test drive, anyway, and fell in love all over again. I adore the precise throttle response of these early X5s. Neither of my Volkswagen Touaregs even come close to the feel of the pedal. And the steering, it’s heavy and you feel what the wheels are doing through it. True to the seller’s word, the suspension did feel new and the engine was buttery smooth. I’m a huge fan of Volkswagen’s VR6, but BMW’s M54 is right there (maybe better?) in feel and sound. So if a clapped out X5 was this nice, I had to find a better one. I decided to hone in on the second one.
My 2003 BMW X5 3.0i
This one was a white 2003, with a big rust spot on the lower tailgate and a higher price. It was much closer at only 30 minutes from home, too. But it did have something that the other X5 did not: a manual transmission.
BMW doesn’t appear to have ever published production figures, but enthusiasts believe that there are just 4,446 first-generation BMW X5s in America with manual transmissions. And BMW put manuals in the X5 only for one generation, so these less than 4,500 examples are it.
When I got there, the paint was in better than expected condition. Save for the rust on the tailgate, the body has held up well to 164,000 miles of daily driving.
And unlike my beater Touareg, where replacing the tailgate will be an ordeal, it looks like replacing this lower tailgate should be a walk in the park. The bolts appear to be easily exposed and don’t appear to require a contortionist to work them.
Inside, the interior is in great shape, with the most wear coming from a burn on the driver seat.
Oh, and everything works. Every door handle does its thing, every window goes up and down without drama. Heck, even the parking sensors still work. That air-conditioner blows so cold that keeping at 60 degrees would chill you out. It’s clear that this X5’s multiple owners tried to keep it in good shape despite living in the Midwest.
Then I took it for a test drive. And while those automatic X5s were good, they didn’t have anything on this manual. With 225 horses and lb-ft torque on tap, the 3.0-liter engine works to get the X5 up to speed. It really seems like the manual transmission is the perfect pairing for getting the most out of that engine.
An X5 with a manual transmission sprints its way to 60 mph in about eight and a half seconds. It’s not fast, but the manual makes it such an engaging experience that you won’t care. Paired to the tight steering, you might even feel inclined to find some curves to take it around. I sure did.
When it comes to manual cars, I test clutch health by giving the vehicle a high load at low speed. In the X5, this originally resulted in nothing surprising happening. Engine revs built up right alongside speed. The seller believed that the clutch was the original. 164,000 miles on the original clutch seemed amazing to me, but not unheard of.
Given the good condition inside and out, I handed the seller $5,000 and drove away with a huge smile on my face. Then I broke my new toy.
There Goes The Clutch
The X5 drove the route home just fine. I even intentionally took a longer route involving high speed on the highway, stop-and-go traffic, and other situations that would test the transmission. And, it did well. Even when I punched the throttle, everything held firm. I did a 0-60 test, running it to redline through the gears. The engine sang, the clutch bit, and I left Sheryl’s Prius in my dust. I began to think that maybe the seller was wrong when he said that it had an original clutch.
After I got it home, I decided to drive out to the local dam for sunset pictures. After getting my photos, I turned around for home.
Then I screwed up.
The manual transmissions in these SUVs have an incredibly short first and second gear. First is so short that you’d have to work to stall it. This is a crawler gear of sorts, and I reckon it would be great for utilizing the X5’s 6,000-lb towing capacity or for off-roading. It’s not so good at getting you out into traffic with gusto. You should probably start in second when trying to get going fast. I didn’t.
As I hit the top of first going into traffic, it hit me that I wasn’t going nearly fast enough. In a panic, I quickly selected second then put the hammer down. But I must have been sloppy with my footwork because the revs went up but the speed didn’t. Catching it, I selected third, which did grab. I managed to get up to speed without messing up the flow of traffic, but I believe it happened at the expense of what life the clutch had left. I’ve never killed a clutch before, so you could imagine how many times that I’ve already cursed myself out.
Perhaps I did nothing wrong and it was just a time-of-life failure. After all, this was allegedly the original clutch. Either way, it definitely slips when you give it a bunch of throttle in any gear. That did not happen before. And that means that my BMW is broken before the honeymoon is even over.
Amusingly, it’s not the shortest amount of time that I’ve owned a vehicle before it broke on me. That distinction goes to my now former Volkswagen Phaeton V8, which overheated within an hour of ownership.
The plan with this one is to have it do what I used to do with the Touareg VR6. It’s going to tow around my fleet of motorcycles and tiny cars. I am a bit bummed that I’m going to have to spend some dough on a new clutch and probably a new flywheel. But I do like the thought that this rare unit will have a fresh clutch that I won’t have to worry about for a while. It’s better that the clutch failed now and not, say, while I was towing something.
With a new lower tailgate it’ll look even better, too. And really, for once I’m happy that my list of repairs is this short. That’s how much this X5 is in good shape. I’m afraid that this is going to start a new addiction. Loving bad Volkswagens, and orphan Smarts are hard enough, so does this mean that I’m going to start collecting BMWs, too?
(Photo credits to the author unless otherwise noted.)