Nowadays, we take the BMW X5, which is well into its fourth generation, for the lavish road warrior that it is. And while some of its competitors from the first wave of luxury SUVs (think: over 20 years ago) have traded rough terrain abilities for even more refined asphalt manners over the years, the X5 has been this way since day one. And this is why the BMW Ultra X5, a pre-runner created for heavy off-roading, is a build that stands out.
When BMW released the original E53 X5 in 1999, the carmaker even coined the term SAV (Sports Activity Vehicle) to make sure nobody mistakes the machine for an all-terrain bruiser like the Range Rover, despite the Germans having bought Land Rover and borrowed some fancy tech for their creation during that era.
Back in 2000, BMW M came up with the Nurburgring-devouring, endurance racing V12-powered, carbon-clad X5 Le Mans, so here’s the cement you needed for that conclusion. In fact, the only off-roading I can think of that involves BMW’s first SUV has to do with the X5cc Dakar rally racer that acted as a support vehicle for the still-competing MINI Dakar racer. Like the X3cc, this was built by the X-Raid motorsport team, the brainchild of Steven Quandt, a member of the family that owns BMW.
However, even with that in mind, the X5 isn’t anywhere near, say, the Porsche Cayenne in terms of aftermarket lift kits, mostly because it’s not as prepared for rough terrain from the factory. So such a transformation would require monstrous efforts.
Cue Ohio-based ECS Tuning and their design engineer Mike Day, who took it upon themselves to lift an E53 X5 into a luxury pre-runner for Ultra 4 off-road competitions. And if that term sounds familiar, it’s probably because Vaughn Gittin Jr. used it to describe the GT500 Predator Crate V8-powered sixth-generation Ford Bronco at SEMA.
Just to be clear, the Ultra X5 isn’t meant for competition use, being more of a trail rig instead, to use Mike’s words. Even so, when the build made its recent SEMA 2023 debut, it one-upped many of the lifted rigs at the Las Vegas event because it was fully functional and prepared for the rough stuff. The proof came a few days later when the Ultra X5 hit the trails in Moab. Sure, this was an off-road shakedown, but even this limited action is enough to set an incredibly high bar in the off-roading community.
Lifting a BMW X5 for heavy off-roading was no easy feat
Why do I insist on telling you BMW never meant for the X5 to take its premium unibody off the road? Because this will help you see why Mike had to do away with most of the E53’s factory hardware, from the suspension to the powertrain—that’s right, the Ultra X5 involved plenty of fabrication.
Yes, a 2006 BMW X5 like this could be had with a V8 and an automatic, but when you’re gunning for high-output, heavy-duty parts that can withstand the trail test and be replaceable on a reasonable budget—for their level—you can’t use any of that.
Thus, the Ultra X5 is now powered by a Texas Speed 408 Stroker, with the N/A V8 making up to 600 hp. The engine is mated to a 6L80E six-speed automatic built by Monster Transmissions (it’s a Stage Three) and we haven’t even gotten to the juicy part for off-road maniacs.
This is a sold-axle BMW X5, running a Ford Super Duty (2005+) front axle and a Super Duty rear axle with 5.38 gearing and an air-actuated locker. The machine also runs a 203 205 Doubler transfer case with a low ratio as aggressive as 4:1, as well as the possibility of making this an FWD or an RWD vehicle when the AWD mode just won’t cut it. For one, Mike gives an example where you can activate the emergency brake on the rear, switch the vehicle to FWD, and swing the thing around a tree.
The suspension involves Bilstein 14-inch travel coilovers with external reservoirs, along with triple bypass shocks and 9100 bump stops for those rough landings. As Mike noticed during the CAD design phase of the project, the 40-inch Mickey Thompson tires meant the wheel arches had to be cut. Despite that—and all the extra lights—the Ultra X5 somehow maintains the premium road presence its Bavarian maker intended.
The same goes for the interior, where all the leather and the AC were maintained, with some 3D-printed bezels being neatly integrated into the dash to accommodate the switches for the off-roading bits.
And now that the Ultra X5 is up and running, I’d love to see the BMW sharing a trail with the King of Hammers 2024-destined VW Touareg V10 TDI race “truck” I showed you back in July.