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The BMW 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 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.
BMW completely redesigned the 5 Series for the 2004 model year, and the all-new models offer more room, more equipment and more sophisticated technology than the previous generation. It's moved a bit upscale, so that means more money, too.
BMW's smaller 3 Series may be the bigger seller, but the 5 Series 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 was as extensive as any the company has undertaken, so few changes have been made for 2005. 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 characteristics didn't change with the make-over. 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. That said, this latest generation is a much better 5 Series.
The 5 Series was thoroughly redesigned for 2004, larger and more stylish than the previous-generation (pre-2004) 5 Series.
The 5 Series features BMW's new design theme, launched on the flagship 7 Series in 2002. The 5 Series is 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. It is distinct from the 7 Series, however. We think the design of the 5 seems a bit more cohesive than that of the 7.
The critics claim that, with the flared-nostrils look in front and the chunked-off shape of the trunk lid, the 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 at threshold levels, or when the ABS operates. The idea is to inform drivers in cars following the 5 Series that it's stopping quickly. It could help, but only if the driver following correctly interprets the intensity of the brake lights.
The 5 Series 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. From a functional view point, it's a very effective design. 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 5 Series is much nicer than both the current 3 Series and the previous 5.
The instrument cluster features two gauge pods, with the gas gauge wrapped inside the analog speedometer and a miles-per-gallon gauge inside the tach. The tachometer in all 5 Series models now 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 sport seats that come with the Sport Package are very firm, perhaps too firm for long trips.
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 that 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 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. In the 5 Series, the iDrive control moves in only four directions, as opposed to eight in the 7. A new button located behind the iDrive knob opens the first menu. Another button launches navigation on models with the system. Once you understand it, iDrive begins to feel like second nature, but it takes some effort to learn.
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 heating and cooling system has a sophisticated humidity control system. And there's a temperature-controlled storage compartment in the console for snacks or drink cans. The radio is hard to operate, however, requiring some study of the owner's manual to understand. Rain-sensing windshield wipers are standard.
BMW's head-up display 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 include road and engine speed, various warnings prioritized according to urgency, cruise control settings and navigation instructions.
Active Cruise Control works like conventional cruise control when the road is clear; when you come up behind a slower car, the system uses radar to adjust your speed to maintain a following distance set by the driver. Our car was equipped with the standard cruise control and we found it worked very well, precise and sophisticated.
The latest generation 5 Series is roomier than previous models. Front passengers get a half-inch more shoulder and head room, but
Driving a 5 Series sedan is a joy. The more we drove our 530i the more we liked it. BMWs are defined by excellent powertrains and superb chassis tuning. Measured by its balance of crisp handling, ride comfort and solid acceleration, the 5 Series is as good as it's ever been.
We drove a 530i on a crystal-clear fall day along fast, two-lane roads tracking the Hudson Valley through upstate New York. And we spent a week in one driving between Washington and Charlottesville, Virginia, and on the winding roads of bucolic Albemarle County.
However, we hadn't even left the parking lot at BMW headquarters in New Jersey when it became apparent that the optional Active Steering system was no gimmick. Maneuvering through tight confines is a breeze. Pulling an empty parking space is as quick a swoop on the steering wheel. Later, 120 miles up the Hudson, we discovered the performance advantages of this new steering system. The 5 Series is quite nimble as heavy sedans go. But on a tight slalom course, we found that a 530i with Active Steering is more responsive than one without it. Weaving through the cones is less work with Active Steering, requiring less sawing at the wheel and fewer corrections. The driver can focus more on the car'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, and it's most obvious traveling at high speeds on an Interstate. Gone is the famous BMW dead spot in the middle of the 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, the 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. Not everyone likes it, and it may take a bit of getting used to, particularly for longtime BMW enthusiasts. Other drivers really liked it, adapting without even realizing and enjoying the arrowlike precision of the car.
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 th
The BMW 5 Series is the benchmark for mid-size luxury sedans because it's the best balanced car in a supremely balanced class. Like other cars in this so-called near-luxury class, it mixes comfort, performance, and passenger-friendly accommodations in a manageable size. On top of everything else, it's great fun to drive.
New Car Test Drive correspondent J.P. Vettraino is based in Detroit, with Mitch McCullough reporting from Charlottesville, Virginia.
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