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The BMW 5 Series puts an emphasis on the driving. This mid-size luxury sedan remains a true sports sedan in any of its variations, including the 530ix wagon and other models equipped with all-wheel drive. Regardless of engine size or equipment level, the BMW 5 Series delivers lively acceleration, precise handling and outstanding brakes. It's available with a conventional manual transmission, which is increasingly hard to find in this class.
For 2007, the 5 Series offers two new options. BMW's Night Vision safety system uses a thermal-imaging camera to highlight pedestrians and animals on dark roads, while HD Radio is designed to bring CD-quality digital audio to radio broadcasts.
Now in its fourth year on the market, the styling of the current 5 Series models has become familiar, perhaps less jarring than it was when first revealed. And while there are no significant changes for the 2007 model year, the 5 Series is anything but stale. For 2006, BMW introduced new engines across the board, including a high-tech magnesium alloy six cylinder for the 525i and 530i and a larger, more powerful V8 for the 550i.
Behind its kabuki-eyebrow headlights, the 5 Series is a true driver's car, with more model choices than most cars in its class. Even the base 525i boasts spirited performance, with decent fuel economy to lower operating costs. The more powerful six-cylinder in the 530i matches some V8s, while the 550i delivers true high performance by any definition. The limited-production M5 can out-accelerate, out-brake and out-corner some expensive sports cars, with comfortable seating for five. There's a wagon for those who want more room for cargo. And BMW's x-Drive full-time all-wheel-drive is available for drivers in the Snow Belt.
This car has just about everything you could ask for in a luxury car. It has the features, comfort and convenience of full-size luxury sedans, the sporting character of smaller ones, and a good compromise between interior space and physical bulk. In many respects, it's the benchmark for critics and auto industry engineers alike.
As such, the 5 Series is loaded with technology, and some of its systems have a dark side. The i-Drive point-and-click control system, for example, takes time and energy to learn, and drivers who aren't willing to invest the energy, or those who just prefer to keep things simple, might want to look at a competitor. But those who place a premium on driving satisfaction should start their shopping here.
The BMW 5 Series sedans are available with six- or eight-cylinder engines or an ultra-high performance V10, and manual, automatic, or automatic-shifting sequential manual transmissions and optional all-wheel drive. The 5 Series Sport Wagon is offered only with a six-cylinder and all-wheel drive.
Many buyers will find the BMW 5 Series a near-perfect size. It seems more substantial than some small luxury or sport sedans, with more usable interior space. At the same time it's not so physically bulky as large sedans, and therefore easier to maneuver in tight spaces and to park.
The 5 Series sports BMW's now-familiar corporate design themes, introduced on the larger 7 Series sedan and subsequently applied to the smaller 3 Series. BMW's new approach to styling has been discussed as frequently as any in the car world, and more than occasionally criticized. On the 5 Series at least, the curvy front-end, flat sides and high rear deck stand out less than they once did. That may simply mean we've grown more familiar with the shape, rather than more appreciative.
The critics contend 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 create a fairly compact appearance, and that may be part of the problem. The 5 has the appearance of a well-built mainstream sedan, and that may not be the precedent one expects for an expensive European job. In any case, the look doesn't seem to have hurt 5 Series sales.
The comma-shaped, wraparound taillights apply a technology introduced by BMW that has spread to a number of makes. The company calls them adaptive brake lights, and they illuminate more intensely, over a larger area, when the anti-lock brake system engages, in other words when the driver is braking as hard as possible. The point is to inform drivers following that it's stopping quickly, possibly in an emergency situation. It could help, if the driver following correctly interprets the increased intensity of the brake lights.
BMW re-introduced a 5 Series wagon for 2006. The big difference, of course, lies behind the rear roof pillars and back seats, where the 5 Series Sport Wagons offer more load-carrying potential and versatility than the sedan. The rear gate opens electrically, with a switch on the key fob or dashboard, and swings very high for easy access to the load floor. A big reflector on the bottom of the gate adds an element of safety in darkness.
The lift gate has a soft-close feature. When it's lowered, it automatically sucks itself shut, no slamming required. The glass window opens separately, which is convenient when dropping a briefcase or a couple of bags in back.
New for 2007: Xenon adaptive headlights are now standard on the 530i and above. The xenon high-intensity discharge headlights offer a brighter, more intense, more white light that appears blue when we're used to seeing halogen lights with a warmer, relatively yellow light. Adaptive means the lenses turn slightly with the steering, throwing light around a curve in the direction of travel.
BMW's current 5 Series sedans are noticeably roomier than the previous-generation, pre-2004 models. Front passengers have a fraction more shoulder and head room, but the improvement is more obvious in the back, where there's more shoulder room and a lot more legroom. Increased cabin space put the 5 Series on better footing with key competitors like the Mercedes E-Class, Audi A6, and Lexus GS.
The finish and quality of materials is nice. Soft plastics covering the dashboard and doors are handsome and rich to the touch. The seats feature a draped-leather look, with the upholstery hung loosely over the seat frames. Leather inserts in the front door panels compliment the seats.
The standard 5 Series seats are very good, with above-average support and just enough give to keep from feeling hard. The seats in the optional Sport Package have so many adjustments that those who lean toward obsessive/compulsive may start stressing out as they try to settle in. If you can get them just right, save the position in memory, because these are some of the best seats in the business. They're firm, but not church-pew hard like the previous-generation sport seats.
The 5 Series dashboard applies BMW's familiar double-wave theme, with one wave or bubble 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 an effective design. 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 has 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 dash is dominated by a large electronic screen that displays various control functions, system readouts and the navigation map or Night Vision image 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. Three big climate control knobs sit below the display screen, for fan speed, temperature and airflow direction.
There's also a volume knob next to the CD slot, a station selector on the right steering wheel spoke, and phone controls on the left spoke. Window switches are just above the armrest, and right where the hand naturally rests. In short order, these knobs will become the 5 Series driver's best friends.
That's because almost everything else, including some basic stereo functions, is controlled by i-Drive, the computer interface that manages virtually every system in the car. The master control is a big aluminum knob on the center console between the seats. The knob is easy to locate from the driver's seat without a glance, and with each move of i-Drive, menus appear on the video screen. In effect, the system works something like the point-and-click operation of a computer mouse, though there is no cursor.
The problem is that it can be confusing to use i-Drive to wade through various menus to get to the function that needs adjustment. At best, it's difficult to master, and while BMW has simplified the system by reducing the number of movements for the main control, and adding a Main Menu button, it still takes time to get used to i-Drive. Operation becomes more intuitive with time, but many still find it a cumbersome way to make everyday adjustments.
HD Radio, new for 2007, delivers digital audio quality, with FM reception that is supposed to sound like a CD and AM that replicates traditional analog FM. Our test car had HD radio, and it's great, with a caveat. When it locks on a signal the clarity and fidelity is amazing, especially on the AM band. The problem is that, depending on where you're driving, the radio can fluctuate from HD to standard broadcast as signa
The BMW 5 Series cars are a pleasure to drive, though it's hard to say which model we'd choose. The light-on-its-feet 525i makes clean, satisfying driving without a lot of high-tech drivers aids to get in the way. We're quite happy in one. On the other hand, high-tech systems such as Active Steering or Active Roll Stabilization can quickly demonstrate their value, and there's nothing quite like the thrust developed when you slam the accelerator on the 550i V8.
The 5 Series is not whisper quiet like BMW's full-size 7 Series sedan, so a bit more road and wind noise finds its way into the cabin. Yet with the stereo turned up about two-tenths of the way, you won't hear any of it. And the 5 Series feels smaller on the road than its dimensions suggest. Consider its near-perfect weight balance, and a rock-solid body that's free of creaks, rattles or unpleasant vibration, and this BMW is exactly what we'd like a luxury sedan to be: smooth and comfortable regardless of the speed, nimble and reassuring when it's appropriate to travel at a good clip. The 5 Series has nearly all the bells and whistles, and almost nothing to diminish the driving experience. If you decide 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 engines remain one of the great 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 manufacturers have switched to V6s because they're easier to package, and they've proven easier to certify for stringent emission standards. We're glad BMW sticks with its trademark inline engines.
The 5 Series engines were overhauled for 2006, starting with a new inline six cylinder that is the only current production engine with a magnesium alloy engine block to reduce weight. The engines in the 525i and 530i are actually the same size (3.0 liters); the difference in power (215 hp vs. 255) is the result of different controls and intake systems.
From a stop or at high-speed roll, the six-cylinder 530i delivers as much acceleration-producing torque as some thirstier V8-powered sedans. Off-the-line acceleration surpasses probably 70 percent of the vehicles on the road, and top speed exceeds anything you'll get away with anywhere outside a desolate Nevada desert. Power delivery in the 530i is very linear, meaning that you'll get the same response and acceleration whether the engine is turning 2500 rpm or 5000 rpm when you step on the gas.
Still, those who put a premium on straight-line acceleration might choose the V8-powered 550i. The 4.8-liter V8 produces 360 horsepower and an impressive 360 pound-feet of acceleration-producing torque. The power delivery flows in the same even fashion as it does in the six-cylinder engines.
Pushing the accelerator to the floor in this high-performance sedan is a truly enjoyable experience. The 550i will squirt from 0-60 mph in about 5.3 seconds, which is substantially quicker than sports cars such as the Jaguar XK or Nissan 350Z. Top speed is electronically governed at the voluntary limit adopted by most German automakers: a mere 155 mph.
For those who don't mind a little work, we heartily recommend the six-speed manual transmission. It's one reason to choose the 5 Series over other luxury sedans, in which manuals are increasingly few and far between. The shifter is tight and reasonably quick, and shifting is smooth, precise and easy. Particularly with the six-cylinder models, the manual transmission maximizes performance potential, as well as the driver's involvement.
The great majority will choose the automatic transmission, a six-speed Steptronic, and they won't give up much. The Steptronic reacts to the gas pedal in fine style. Ful
The BMW 5 Series mixes comfort, performance, high-tech features and passenger-friendly accommodations in a relatively compact package. Yet with Active Steering, Active Roll Stabilization and an available manual transmission, the 5 Series is more obviously engineered with an emphasis on the driving. It's remarkably well balanced, and satisfying to own and drive. Even with its love/hate exterior styling, the 5 Series remains a luxury sedan benchmark.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent J.P. Vettraino filed this report from Detroit, with NCTD editor Mitch McCullough reporting from Charlottesville, Virginia.
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