Once a year I travel to Bushmills in Northern Ireland. Don’t let the Scots persuade you otherwise: the world’s first licensed distillery was registered here in 1608 when Sir Thomas Phillips was allowed to “make, draw and distil ’uisce beatha” in County Antrim.
The Bushmills Distillery is now a major tourist attraction, partly because it’s just up the road from the Giant’s Causeway. Every time I drive over, I get emotional and stock up with several bottles of of the ‘hard stuff’. I could buy it from my nearest Waitrose but somehow it just doesn’t taste the same.
Which is why I’m sprawled out across three, comfy seats on a Stena Line Ferry, steaming across the Irish Sea from Holyhead to Dublin Port. It’s October and the lounges are quiet. A moon is picking up an occasional ripple on a flat sea – right now I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
Gas-guzzling monster? The X5 25d spec
The round journey from Gloucestershire to Bushmills is almost exactly 800 miles, which, in theory, is within range of the new X5 25d parked on the car deck below. Yes, if you thought all SUV’s were gas-guzzling monsters, BMW is out to prove you otherwise.
The 25d’s 16.5 gallon tank should have a range of 820 miles, provided I can drive frugally and not carry too much luggage. Is that figure possible? I’m about to find out in a luxurious sports utility vehicle that has always prioritised road performance over off-road.
BMW’s X5 SUV: the cheapest X5 around
This is the first, rear-wheel-drive-only model to be offered by the German manufacturer and it claims it can average 50mpg. Considering it’s a mammoth machine with seven seats, that’s pretty impressive. At £42,945 it’s also the cheapest X5 by around £5,000 and weighs considerably less too.
Instead of a six-cylinder, 3.0-litre diesel under the bonnet, the 25d has a more modest four-cylinder 2.0 that may not be as lively off the mark but pays you back with fantastic fuel economy. I’ve already motored 250 miles to Holyhead and the fuel gauge is showing three-quarters full.
On the motorway to Anglesey, the 25d felt every inch as capable as it’s 4×4 sibling. It’s slightly noisier at high speed than the 3.0 model, with a dash of wind noise too, but the eight-speed automatic gearbox irons out any lumps when accelerating.
Of course, fuel economy suffers when I reach Ireland. The new motorway between Dublin and Belfast cuts the journey time down to 90 minutes but once you hit the twisting Antrim coast road, fuel economy flops to 38mpg.
I advise opting for the Adaptive Comfort Suspension if you plan to use an X5 for regular long journeys. It cuts down on body roll and soaks up poor road surfaces too.
Never mind, the views are spectacular and the ten-inch sat nav screen is among the best on the market. There’s a 20GB hard-drive to store my favourite music (I’m currently rediscovering Howlin’ Wolf) and it’s all controlled from a rotary dial that’s easy to operate.
When I arrive at the distillery and open the boot, there’s enough room for several barrels of whiskey. Besides, the third row of seats is only useful for children and leprechauns without a hat. The fuel gauge is bang on half empty and I’ve covered 417 miles. Not bad.
The trouble with trying to improve your mpg is that it becomes obsessive. I’ve been on economy drives with ‘mpg anoraks’ who remove the windscreen wipers and fold back door mirrors to reduce drag.
Back on the ferry, a group of Irish children are doing an impromptu jig in the lounge. I’ve covered almost 600 miles but with less than a quarter of a tank of diesel left, I’m not going to make the 240 miles home.
What I have learnt is that the 25d is a major step in the right direction for BMW; it has boosted its green credentials no end. I covered 845 miles on my trip to Bushmills and averaged 48mpg. I did the journey without resorting to anorak tactics and next year I’m going to beat that figure too!
An alternative: the Audi Q5
Don’t like the look of chunky SUVs? Audi’s Q5 range starts at £31,370 and it’s moderately discreet compared to X5 and Range Rover alternatives. Some might say it’s a tad more socially acceptable too.
Opt for the cracking 2.0-litre turbodiesel engine I had in my test car. It’s nippy off the mark (0-60mph in 7.1 seconds) but don’t expect huge fuel economy; this is a permanent 4×4 after all and you’ll be lucky to achieve 30mpg in everyday driving conditions.
OK, the looks are a little bland and the Q5 isn’t going to set your pulse racing but this is a very capable car. It rides well on bumpy A-roads, plus the quattro four-wheel drive and raised suspension means it can cope with a deeply rutted track too.
I’ve driven the larger Q7 and found it a nightmare to park in tight spaces – largely due to poor rear visibility and the increased size. The Q5 is a lot easier to live with on a day-to-day basis and has everything apart from a third row of seats.
The cabin is typical Audi quality, with premium leather, tactile controls and a sleek, straightforward design. You can opt for a useful sliding bench seat in the rear that either allows more legroom, or extra boot space.
It’s a shame the styling of the Q5 isn’t a little more individual but excellent engines and classy interior make it a tempting alternative.