The BMW X5 M, you probably know it well by now. It’s what happens when BMW takes the normal X5 and grants it with supercar power and sports car handling. Since its introduction roughly a decade ago, the X5 M has been changing our perception of what a performance SUV can be. And it was inspired by an ultra-powerful prototype SUV from Munich that was far more bonkers than the X5 M that followed: the X5 Le Mans.
Just how extreme was the X5 Le Mans? Completely revised bodywork—including a new hood, bulging fenders, and a lower ride height—give the Le Mans a punchy look. Lightweight BBS LM wheels and a roll cage were added later. Lightweight buckets replace the original seats, and a gear lever for the six-speed manual transmission stands proud in the center console. But the real show-stopper is under the hood.
Mated to that manual ‘box is the 6.1-liter naturally aspirated S70/3 V-12 out of the BMW V12 LMR, a roofless Le Mans prototype racer that took the overall win at the famed 24 hour race in 1999 (and a version of which was fitted to the awesome McLaren F1 GTR). Due to FIA rules and regulations, the V12 LMR made a wimpy 580 horsepower. By the time BMW put it inside the X5 Le Mans, the twelve-cylinder made more than 700 horsepower and 531 lb-ft of torque—more power than virtually every SUV we’ve seen to date, save the blown Mopar examples. BMW says the X5 Le Mans is good for a 4.7-second 0–62 mph time. Though its claimed top speed is 172 mph, Hans-Joachim Stuck reached 191 mph during his record-setting Nürburgring run.
In 2001, Stuck set a lap time of 7:49 in the X5 Le Mans around the 12.9-mile long Nordschleife circuit. For a little context, that’s nearly as fast as the original Pagani Zonda and the Bugatti EB 110 SS, and tied with a C6 Corvette Z06. The SUV lap-record wasn’t broken until 2020, and the Audi RS Q8 currently holds the SUV lap record with a time of 7:42 seconds. Of course, the Le Mans never made it into production because it didn’t have airbags and likely wasn’t going to meet the necessary safety (or emissions) regulations—even in the late ’90s.
It was a serious machine, and it served as proof of what BMW’s engineers could do when they got their hands on an SUV. The X5 Le Mans paved the way for the X5 M, one of the first truly serious performance SUVs, which in turn helped pave the way for the high-performance SUVs that followed—and they all owe a little bit to that wild ‘Ring-conquering X5 Le Mans.
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