Spy photographers have run across a fleet of BMW prototypes this week, including the Z4 replacement and the 3 Series sedan, undergoing winter testing in northern Europe.
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The last in the flotilla is this SUV, which our photography connection believes could be an early development mule for the next-generation X5, but we're not so sure.

Given that the current-generation model made its debut in 2013, BMW's usual seven-year model cycle suggests the next X5 won't appear until around 2020.

If this, then, is the new X5, it's out-and-about far earlier than would normally be expected - even if its side skirts and front-end styling components are missing.

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Above: newly spied SUV at top, earlier X3 photo at bottom

With the current X5 breaking its own sales records in the USA, one of its key markets, there's no reason why BMW would bring forward the SUV's development.

The company could also be planning a radical mid-life redesign for the current car (which wears notably different sheet metal to this prototype), much as Mercedes-Benz did with the newly replaced E-Class, but that's generally not BMW's style.

The other model this prototype could be is the next-generation X3 (pictured beneath each photo here of the potential new X5).

The current-generation of the small SUV made its debut in 2010, so its replacement is due in 2017, making its appearance in these frozen climes timely.

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Above: newly spied SUV at top, earlier X3 photo at bottom

Our resident design sleuth Mike Stevens, though, has pointed out, what appear to be a few small but notable differences between this car and the X3 prototype that was snapped earlier this month.

Key amongst them is this car's more pronounced upwards kick towards the leading edge of the wing mirror surround.


Above: close-up view of the earlier X3's mirror-surrounding belt line at top, close-up of newly spied SUV's belt line at bottom.

The below images also suggest that this more recent prototype may also have slightly more rounded wheel arches and a less prominent lip around the base of the rear windscreen.

The gap between the glass and the start of the X3's lip also appears taller, and the overall tailgate of the more recent SUV is clearly taller, while the rear bumper has a squarer look.

It should be noted that some of these apparent differences may be explained away by different camouflage applications and shooting angles, although the more recently captured SUV also appears to be wider than the earlier X3 prototype.



Above: close-up aspects of the newly spied SUV at top, aspects of an earlier X3 photo at bottom

What do you think this more recently spied SUV's identity might be? Are these two different cars, or are the different angles and camouflage treatments merely giving that impression?

BMW has also confirmed that it is building a larger X7 model to compete with the Mercedes-Benz GLS, but, while the wheelbase of these two cars appears similar, it is unquestionably too short to be a GLS rival.

Share your thoughts in the comments below.