2011 BMW 5-Series — Review
|MSRP Price Range:||$44,550 - $59,700|
|Invoice Price Range:||$40,985 - $54,925|
|Price With Options:||3 Trims Available|
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The welterweight 5-Series is at the very core of BMW's model portfolio and, together with the 3-Series and 1-Series, generates more than half of the German carmaker's profits. Yet the all-new, sixth-generation BMW 5-Series sedan has more in common than ever with its range-topping 7-Series sibling, including all-new multilink front suspension members. It was effectively developed on the same architecture, shares many components and will be built in the same plant in Dingolfing, Germany. It even looks like a trimmer 7, but only at first glance. The 535i we drove at the car's launch in Portugal is slightly bigger and rides on a noticeably longer wheelbase than its predecessor. It nonetheless proves impressively agile, stable and refined. In fact, this new 5-Series sedan is the best-handling, best-riding and most comfortable ever, and might just be the cream of the current crop of midsize luxury sedans.
The first two sixth-generation 5-Series iterations will arrive here in the U.S. in June 2010. The 535i is powered by a revamped 3.0-liter 300-horsepower turbocharged inline six, and the 550i by a twin-turbo 4.4-liter 400-horse V8. Both are rear-wheel drive and will be delivered with a 6-speed manual gearbox — an exclusive trait in this segment. An all-new 8-speed automatic gearbox is optional. Coming later in the fall will be all-wheel-drive xDrive versions and a 528i that gets a naturally aspirated 240-horsepower 3.0-liter inline six.
A bit bigger than its predecessor, the 2010 5-Series has grown by 1.8 inches in length and about half an inch in width, and rides on a wheelbase stretched by a full 3.1 inches. The front and rear wheel tracks have increased by 1.7 inches. Since the new 5 is also 0.16 inch lower, it looks longer and slimmer. The front view is more squat and aggressive, with larger "twin-kidney" grilles inspired by the CS Concept and current 7-Series; on the other hand, the rear view evokes the 3-Series. The aerodynamic drag coefficient is unchanged for the 535i, at 0.29.
BMW upped the tech quotient in the new 5, positioning it toe-to-toe with its chief rival, the Mercedes-Benz E-Class. Some new systems are a surprise, given BMW's traditional emphasis on driving dynamics: Parking Assistant lets the car back itself into a space; Top View cameras show all that surrounds it; Frontal Collision Warning can apply the brakes by itself; Active Cruise Control can stop the car completely and get it going again in traffic. You can also get Blind Spot and Lane Departure warning systems, a neat heads-up display and BMW's Night Vision system.
Larger dimensions, technical changes and additional equipment have brought weight increases of 55 and 177 pounds for the manual and automatic versions, respectively, in spite of more extensive use of high-strength steel and lightweight aluminum components. The body structure is also substantially stiffer overall. Torsional rigidity, for instance, is 55 percent greater than in the previous model, which benefits passive safety, handling and ride quality.
Under the Hood
The 535i's new N55 engine is BMW's first inline six to combine turbocharging, direct injection and Valvetronic technology. Most conspicuously, it gets a larger turbocharger with two separate scrolls in place of the previous twin turbos. This is said to improve efficiency and reduce fuel consumption and emissions substantially. The 3.0-liter power plant develops 300 horsepower at 5800 rpm and 295 lb-ft of torque from 1200 to 5000 rpm. BMW is projecting zero to 60 mph sprints in less than six seconds.
A forced-induction engine is now also under the hood of the 550i, where a twin-turbocharged direct-injection 4.4-liter V8 replaces the naturally aspirated 4.8-liter unit. It carries the two twin-scroll turbos and catalytic converters between its cylinder banks, which reduces the distance to the cylinders for better response and efficiency while making the engine more compact. The new V8 produces 400 horsepower from 5500 rpm and 450 lb-ft of torque from 1800 to 4500 rpm for zero to 60 mph times of less than five seconds.
On the driver's side, the cockpit wraps around you without feeling narrow or confining. Accessible controls let you adjust the well-sculpted seat 10 ways, fine-tune your driving position and save the settings easily. The wheel is electrically adjustable in height and reach, with redundant controls for the audio system, onboard settings and cruise control. The rim's size, shape and texture are impeccable.
BMW pioneered driver-oriented instruments and controls long ago, and the new 5-Series rekindles this practice with controls that are angled toward the driver by about 7 degrees. The design and control layout are straightforward. No revolution here.
Speaking of which, the fourth-generation iDrive interface has been improved with the addition of separate buttons for main functions, contradicting its original intent. The standard display screen is 7 inches across, and you get a superb 10.2-inch screen with an optional navigation system that is nicely complemented by an available heads-up display. Its various menus are still too fragmented and needlessly complex, though.
The rear seat offers an extra half-inch of knee room, and you can get a 60/40 split-folding seatback, a pass-through and a ski bag as options. Trunk volume is up appreciably, to a class-leading 18.2 cubic feet, easily bettering the Mercedes E-Class and Audi A6's 15.9 cubic feet. The new 5 can also be equipped with a rear-seat infotainment system. You get a pair of 8-inch screens or larger 9.2-inch units that play independently with the Professional system.
On the Road
A multilink front suspension is a significant change from the strut-based system the 5 used for almost four decades. Its multilink rear suspension also gets a fifth link that connects upper and lower links. Also new is electric power steering, a segment first that can be combined with BMW's revised active steering system option, which provides more natural action at lower speeds.
In effect, the 4-wheel electric power steering enhances maneuverability at lower speeds and aids stability at speeds above 35 mph. It works like a charm. Another option is the Sport package, which includes Driving Dynamics Control. This one lets you pick among Normal, Sport and Sport+ driving modes. It changes steering, engine and suspension settings in conjunction with the electronically adjusted shock absorbers and anti-roll bars.
The new 5-Series sedans also get an electronic limited-slip differential and a full array of systems to optimize the action of their four disc brakes. These include ABS; Stability, Cornering and Dynamic brake control systems; brake fade compensation, Standby and Drying modes; and Automatic Hold, which prevents rollback on inclines. BMW adds an Adaptive Brake Lights mode, which activates the new LED rear light clusters more intensely in hard braking and when ABS is active.
The result is class-leading agility and balance, in the best BMW tradition. The 535i we drove during the launch had the optional Sport package and active steering. Handling is commendably composed and the ride serene in Normal mode. Punching in the Sport mode sharpens the steering and suspension response. The Sport+ mode pushes shift points a little too high for road driving, but you want it on a track. The 535i displayed minimal understeer and great poise during the dozen laps we drove around the famed Estoril circuit in Portugal. The 3.0-liter engine is a bit underwhelming in this environment; the added punch of the 550i's V8 would be noticed here.
Right for You?
BMW has virtually squared the circle by making its new sixth-generation 5-Series sedan bigger, roomier, better-equipped and more refined than ever before, while further improving its standard-setting dynamics. It also looks the part entirely, its elegant lines and chiseled features belying increased girth. The challenge now is to make this sharp new 5-Series as competitive in price as it is on the road against its direct German rivals.
A professional auto journalist for more than 25 years and the founding editor of Sympatico / MSN Autos, MarcLachapelle is a two-time winner of the Canadian Journalist of the Year award from the Automobile JournalistsAssociation of Canada, an accomplished photographer and licensed racer.