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BMW's 5 Series delivers just about everything you could ask for in a luxury sedan. It offers the features, comfort and convenience of full-size luxury sedans, the sporting character of smaller ones, and a better compromise between interior space and physical bulk. The BMW 5 Series has long been a big seller in the most popular, most competitive class of luxury cars. It's the benchmark for critics and auto industry engineers alike.
For 2004, the 5 Series is redesigned down to its aluminum wheels for the first time in eight years. BMW's premise for the all-new 5 Series seems to be more: more room, more equipment and more sophisticated technology, including BMW's controversial iDrive computer interface. Unfortunately, the new 5 costs more, too, and it follows the contentious styling theme introduced on BMW's full-size 7 Series.
BMW's smaller 3 Series may be the bigger seller, but the 5 is the company's original sports sedan and the oldest nameplate in its line-up. Since the 5 Series nomenclature was introduced in 1975, BMW has completely overhauled its mid-line sedan five times. The redo for 2004 is as extensive as any the company has undertaken. Because this sedan generates a quarter of BMW's profits worldwide, the engineers in Munich spared no expense in the redesign.
In a sense, the most important things haven't changed. BMW's 5 Series remains a true sports sedan in any of its three variations, the 525i, 530i, and 545i. All three boast precise handling, impressive power and outstanding brakes. Its appeal to luxury car buyers may ultimately come down to that new look.
The 2004 5 Series has been so thoroughly redesigned that much of it is unfamiliar even to BMW enthusiasts. The most apparent change is its exterior styling, but we'll start with what isn't so obvious to the eye.
The new 5 is 2.6 inches longer, 1.8 inches wider and 1.3 inches taller than the 2003 model, and its wheelbase has increased 2.6 inches. Nonetheless, all that aluminum keeps a lid on the car's weight. Depending on equipment, some 2004 models are up to 55 pounds lighter than their predecessors. A new aluminum driveshaft saves 13 pounds compared to the previous steel part. The hood, front fenders and frame in front of the windshield pillars are also aluminum, glued and riveted to the rest of the car to avoid the corrosion typical of aluminum-steel contact points. The lighter front clip also helps in BMW's never-ending quest for perfect weight distribution, and all three 5 Series sedans come within one percent of the ideal 50/50 balance, front to rear.
What gets everyone's attention, of course, is the 5 Series' swoopy exterior design, and in this instance, attention may or may not be a good thing. The 5 adopts BMW's new brand-wide design theme, launched on the flagship 7 Series in 2002. At no time in recent memory has automobile styling generated such controversy. With the release of the 7, rogue members of the BMW Club of America launched a web site to generate momentum to fire BMW's design chief. The new 5 is definitely cast in the 7 Series mold, with a curvy front end, flat flanks with minimal embellishment and a high, flat rear deck with wraparound taillights. On the 5 Series the look seems a bit more cohesive, perhaps a less radical departure, but that may be because we've gotten used to the 7.
You'll like it or you won't. The critics claim that, with the flared-nostrils look in front and the chunked-off shape of the trunk lid, the 2004 5 Series seems almost like two halves taken from different cars. In our view, the lines make for a compact package, and that may be part of the problem. Some have suggested the new 5 has the appearance of a well-made mainstream Japanese sedan like the Honda Accord. While the Accord is an outstanding car in its own right, that isn't the precedent one expects for an expensive European job. And either way, despite the hailstorm of comment and criticism that followed the launch of the 7 Series, BMW's new look hasn't seemed to hurt its sales.
Those comma-shaped taillights use another of the 5's new technologies, something BMW calls adaptive brake lights. These illuminate more intensely, over a larger area, when the driver applies the brakes full-lock, or when the ABS operates. The idea is to inform drivers in cars following the 5 Series that it's stopping quickly. Interesting, we suppose, but it would seem to work only if the driver following the 5 knows how to interpret the varied intensity of its brake lights.
Design cues from BMW's flagship 7 Series carry through inside the 2004 5 Series as well. If you've seen the interior of the 7, you have a good idea what the 5's cabin looks like.
The dash is dominated by BMW's double wave theme in two portions: one over the instrument cluster, defining the driver's area and another that begins over the dash center and sweeps toward the right side. Double-wave could more accurately be called two-step, with two levels in the dash running the width of the cabin. This interior has drawn far less criticism than the exterior styling, and from a functional view point it's quite effective. Moreover, the soft plastics covering the new 5 Series' doors and dashboard are handsome and rich to the touch. In our view interior materials have never been one of BMW's strengths compared to other luxury manufacturers, at least not in the company's lower series. In this regard, the 2004 5 Series is much nicer than both the current 3 Series and the 2003 5.
The 5's instrument cluster is dominated by two gauge pods, with the gas gauge wrapped inside the analog speedometer and a miles-per-gallon gauge inside the tach. For 2004, the tachometer in all 5 Series models includes a variable warning LED that circles the gauge. When the engine is cold, this LED extends to 4200 rpm, then gradually increases the rpm limit to the redline as the oil warms up.
The center of the 5 Series' dash is dominated by a large electronic screen that displays various control functions, system readouts and the navigation map when the car is so equipped. There are vents below the screen and on either side off the steering column, and the move an impressive quantity of air with minimal fan noise. Cupholders for the front seats are located to the right of the center console. They work better than those in most European cars.
Between the front seats, just behind the gear selector is a big aluminum knob that generated as much controversy in the 7 Series as its exterior styling. This is the master control for iDrive: the computer interface that can operate virtually everything in the new 5, from stereo to climate controls to telephone to navigation. The control knob is easy to locate from the driver's seat without a glance and with each move of iDrive, menus appear on the video screen. The problem is that it can be confusing to use iDrive to wade through various menus and finally get to the function that needs adjustment. At best, it's difficult to master.
BMW claims that it has enhanced iDrive for the 5 Series using what it has learned from the system in the 7. "Enhancement" amounts to a new button, located right behind the iDrive knob, that opens the first menu (5s with GPS navigation have two of these buttons, with the second launching the nav system). In the 5 Series, the iDrive control moves in only four directions, as opposed to eight in the 7. Once you understand it, iDrive begins to feel like second nature, but even this "simplified" version takes some effort to learn.
At least there are separate, conventional controls to operate the stereo and climate settings. These most-frequently adjusted systems can be managed without using iDrive, and information is still displayed on the electronic screen. The 5's heating and cooling system has been improved for 2004 with new features, including more sophisticated humidity control. There's a temperature-controlled storage compartment in the console for snacks or drink cans. Rain-sensing windshield wipers are now standard.
New technologies include BMW's first optional head-up display ($1,000), which is offered only on models equipped with the nav system. The HUD projects a six-by-three inch rectangle on the windshield, focused so the display appears to be at the end of the hood, rather than right on the glass. Using iDrive, the driver can adjust the HUD's intensity and the information it displays. Options incl
Unfamiliar styling, confusion with iDrive, and an abundance of gadgetry is all forgotten as quickly as you can settle into the 2004 530i driver's seat and turn the key. Whatever BMW's engineering corps experiments with, it almost never forgets one crucial point. BMWs are defined by excellent powertrains and superb chassis tuning. Measured by its balance of slick handling, ride comfort and solid acceleration, the 5 Series is as good as it's ever been.
We had the good fortune to evaluate the 530i on a crystal-clear fall day along fast, two-lane roads tracking the Hudson Valley through upstate New York. Yet we didn't have to leave the parking lot at BMW headquarters in New Jersey to learn that Active Steering is no gimmick. Maneuvering through tight confines is a breeze, and filling an empty parking space is as quick a swoop on the steering wheel. On a slalom course in another parking lot 120 miles up the Hudson, we discovered the performance advantages of this new steering system. In a tight slalom a 530i with Active Steering is more responsive than one without it (and the standard car is already quite nimble as heavy sedans go). Slashing through the cones is less work with Active Steering, requiring less sawing on the wheel and fewer corrections. The driver can focus more on the 5's trajectory through the course, less on compensating for mistakes, and it's not hard to extrapolate this behavior to advantages in emergency situations on public roads. Push the Active Steering car into a skid, and recovery is more immediate, and more likely.
There's a price for this responsiveness, of course, and it's most obvious traveling at high speeds on an Interstate. Gone is the famous BMW dead spot in the middle of the 5's steering travel, that inch or so of movement each side of center where there is no perceptible change in the 5's direction of travel when the wheel moves. This was developed for decades to account for triple-digits speeds on Germany's autobahns, but it's no longer necessary. With Active Steering, steering response slows down considerably at fast freeway speeds, but there is perceptible reaction from the front tires almost with the first fraction of movement on the wheel. The effect is basically the same, in that small bumps or grooves require no conscious correction from the driver. But the feel with Active Steering is different, and it may take a bit of getting used to, particularly for longtime BMW enthusiasts.
The two-lanes through the Hudson Valley offered ample evidence of the value of Active Roll Stabilization. The 530i stayed remarkably flat when attacking the curves, with just enough body lean to remind a prudent driver that he or she is hurtling down a public road at considerable speed. Perhaps the best thing about ARS is that the 530i never feels stiff. When the car is traveling straight, the effect of the roll stabilization is essentially negated. This sedan rides firm, without a sensation of floating, but always smoothly and comfortably.
Factor in near-perfect weight balance, and a rock-solid body that's free of creaks, rattles or unpleasant vibration, and the 530i is exactly what we'd like a luxury sedan to be: always quiet and comfortable, nimble and reassuring when it's appropriate to travel at a good clip. If you never drove the 5 Series quickly, you'd be left with a smooth, truly comfortable car with nearly all the bells and whistles and nothing to diminish the experience. Yet should you choose to pick up the pace, you'll discover handling and overall performance that's hard to match in any sedan. No matter which engine sits under the hood, there's plenty of power to get you up to speed.
BMW's inline six-cylinder engines remain one of the truly satisfying experiences in motoring. The classic straight six delivers a balance of smoothness, torque, and response that V6 engines can't seem to match. Other luxury
Mid-size luxury sedans are popular because they mix comfort, fine performance, manageable size, passenger-friendly accommodations and the latest features in a stylishly functional package. BMW's 5 Series has been the benchmark because it may be the best balanced car in a supremely balanced class. On top of everything else, the 5 is great fun to drive.
The 2004 530i delivers a balance of sport and luxury, comfort, performance, speed, fuel economy and carefree driving that's hard to match with any sedan on planet Earth. Anywhere within the $25,000 price spread covered by the 5 Series lineup, you'll find a sedan that's satisfying to own and drive.
We might quibble with details in the redesigned 2004 5 Series, or in the marketing scheme behind it. But at its core it's better than ever, assuming you're comfortable with its looks.
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