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The BMW 5 Series is the definition of a high-end sports sedan. Every version of the 5 Series puts an emphasis on driving and, in its market category, it is the target at which all competitors are aimed. This mid-size luxury car remains a true sports sedan in any of its variations. The same goes for the sport wagon and the all-wheel-drive models. Regardless of engine size or equipment level, the 5 Series delivers lively acceleration, precise handling and outstanding brakes. It's available with a manual transmission, which is increasingly hard to find in this class.
The 5 Series line represents a wide range, from the BMW 528i to the 550i to the BMW M5. There's a wagon for those who want more room for cargo and BMW's xDrive full-time all-wheel drive for folks in the Snow Belt.
The BMW 528i boasts spirited performance, with decent fuel economy to lower operating costs. The BMW 535i matches some V8s with its 300-horsepower six-cylinder engine, while the V8-powered BMW 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.
The 5 Series is loaded with the technology that's made it a benchmark for critics and auto industry engineers alike, and some of its systems and features have a dark side. The iDrive point-and-click control system, for example, takes time and patience to learn, and drivers who aren't willing to take the time or those who just prefer things simple might want to look at another car.
However, those who put driving satisfaction first should put the 5 Series near the top of their test-drive list.
For 2010 there are only a couple of changes. Those vehicles equipped with the optional navigation system will have the fourth-generation iDrive system, and the availability of an M Sport Package will lend an enthusiast flavor to most of the 5 Series models. An all-new BMW 5 Series is expected for the 2011 model year.
For 2010, the fourth-generation iDrive, matched with the optional navigation system, has new graphics and controls. There is a high-resolution 8.8-inch control display, the menu structures have been optimized, there is an expanded range of functions, enhanced convenience and more intuitive operation via direct-select keys at the controller, and more Programmable Memory Keys. The new control display is easier to understand, and the controller offers a more comfortable, intuitive selection and activation of functions with standardized turn, push and tilt motions.
Many find the five-passenger 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 easier to park or maneuver in tight spaces.
BMW's recent approach to exterior design 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 could simply mean we've grown more familiar with the shape, rather than more appreciative.
The critics contend that, with the kabuki-eyebrow 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. It also has a few too many lines. Those character lines crossing the rear end, or the double creases framing the hood, seem a bit overdone. In any case, none of this seems to have hurt 5 Series sales, and five years into its model run the current generation has subtly evolved.
The clear headlight covers have chrome surrounds highlighting individual lights inside. The chrome edging on BMW's trademark double-kidney grille is flush with the surface on the front air dam, while the full-width air intake below the front bumper curls up in the corners to match the shape of the headlights. In back, the rear lights are covered with the same clear glass as the fronts, and the turn signals are LEDs.
Those 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 ABS system engages or, in other words, when the brakes are being applied as hard as possible. The point is to inform drivers in cars following the 5 Series that it's stopping quickly, possibly in an emergency situation. It could help, but only if the driver following correctly interprets the increased intensity of the brake lights.
The 5 Series Sports 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 gate also has a soft-close feature. When it's lowered, it automatically closes itself, with no slamming required. The glass window opens separately, which is convenient when dropping a briefcase or a couple of bags in back.
This 5 Series sedan is roomy, warm and inviting. Front and rear passengers have sufficient shoulder, head and leg room, and the cabin space puts the 5 Series on solid footing with key competitors like the Mercedes E-Class, Audi A6, and Lexus GS.
The finish and quality of materials inside are quite nice. Soft plastics covering the dashboard and doors are handsome and rich to the touch, and the seats feature a draped-leather look, with the upholstery hung loosely rather than pulled taught over the seat frames. Leather inserts in the front door panels compliment the seats.
The door panels have a two-tone finish, with the tops covered in black while the lower portion matches the interior color. The look adds depth and enhances the visual integrity of the doors and dashboard. The same goes for the amount of wood trim, which flows from the instrument panel into the door panels, creating an integrated look.
The Bamboo wood trim is stained close to black. We liked it a lot. The walnut-colored dark Poplar trim is the most traditional, while the light Popular is almost blond. Any of the three are available at the customer's choice, at no additional cost.
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 on the 550i 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 set 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 dash center 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.
The window switches are flat in the armrest on the door, and sit right at the fingertips when the driver's arm lies on the rest, and the mirror adjustor sits just beyond the window switches. Beyond these, manual control switches are few. 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. 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 iDrive, the computer interface that manages virtually every system in the car. The master control is a big knob on the center console. The 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. In effect, the system works something like the point-and-click operation of a computer mouse, though there is no cursor.
In general, it can be confusing using iDrive; at best, it's difficult to master and takes time to get used to. Operation becomes more intuitive with time, but many still find it a cumbersome way to make some fairly basic adjustments.
The enhancements for 2010 help a lot. The new screen has attractive graphics and is easier to read and understand. The controller benefits from biomechanical science, and operates with a better feel and more clearly-structured motions. A graphical depiction of the controller in the display also helps orient the user to the next step in the sequence. In practice, rotation of the controller takes the user through menu selections and pressing it makes the choice ? just as using a mouse on a computer. And, it is now easier for the user to view relatively numerous options without switching screens, and the various functions are arranged so that the most important options are reached more rapidly.
An additional enhancement is the placement of four direct-selection keys, next to the controller, for those menus used most frequently, thus allowing quicker selection of the CD, radio, phone and navigation menus. Three other keys are for general use: One (MENU) takes the user directly to the start menu, another (BACK) to the most recently active menu, and the third (OPTION) offers various options within the currently used area.
Finally, there are now eight Programmable Memory Keys, which are arranged above the audio controls and allow the user to capture and store favorite functions, such as radio stations, phone numbers or navigation destinations. Furthermore the keys are sensitive to touch, so touching a key will show the function on the display, and pressing the key will activate it.
When iDrive was first introduced a few years ago several people found it very intimidating, but BMW has made serious strides in simplifying its operation and greatly enhancing its user-friendliness.
Any 5 Series model can be loaded up with high-tech electronic systems. 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 signal strength changes, the same way a conventional FM radio can switch from stereo to mono when the signal weakens. It can happen several times a mile, and become a big annoyance.
BMW's optional 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. 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. Some of us like it, some of us don't.
Storage inside the 5 Series is so-so. The door pockets are deep enough to actually contain something like a CD case. They're also lined with a velveteen material, which keeps sunglasses from scraping on hard plastic if they slide in stop-and-go traffic. The glovebox is fairly big, but so is the portfolio that holds the owner's manual and other reference material, and usuable space in the center console is small.
The back seat in the 5 Series makes good accomodations. There's plenty of space for two average-size adults, or three in a pinch, with all the amenities. The reading lights are excellent. Our 550i had rear-seat heaters, with switches on the back of the center console, along with two high-flow airvents and a pair of 12-volt power points.
With 14 cubic feet of trunk space, this BMW is mid-pack among sedans of similar dimensions. Load height is just above the rear bumper, and the 5 Series will accommodate even larger items with the folding rear seatback, which is optional. It's hard to imagine a buyer not wanting the flexibility the folding seat offers, and the seatback can be locked to prevent access to the trunk. Still, if hauling pets or cargo is a priority, there is always the 535xi Sports Wagon.
The 5 Series wagon gives up nothing to the 530xi sedan in terms of handling, accelerating and braking, and it adds another dimension of utility. We like it. Cargo volume is 33.6 cubic feet, floor to ceiling, with the rear seat in place. With the rear seat folded forward, the 5 Series wagon can swallow up to 58.3 cubic feet of stuff, or more than the typical small SUV. The load area is flat, too, and nearly four feet wide. The cargo area is fully lined with thick, soft carpet, and it's full of convenient features, including four separate enclosed bins, cargo tie-downs, bag holders, a power point, a cargo cover at seat height and a roll-out cargo net.
The base 528i is the most powerful entry-level 5 Series ever. With a new twin-turbocharged engine, 535i and 535xi Sedans and Sports Wagon are the quickest six-cylinder-powered 5 Series cars yet. The six-speed Steptronic automatic transmission has been improved as well, and buyers can choose manual or automatic for the same price in all models.
In any iteration, the 5 Series is a pleasure to drive, though it's hard to say which model we'd choose. The least-expensive 528i feels delightfully light on its feet for a clean, satisfying driving feel without a lot of high-tech aids to get in the way. On the other hand, those high-tech systems like BMW's 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 down in a 550i.
The 5 Series is not whisper-quiet like the BMW 7 Series, so a bit more road and ambient 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.
The 528i engine generates 230 horsepower and 200 pound-feet of torque. The 535i engine is considerably different. It has gasoline direct injection, the most advanced means of delivering fuel to the cylinders, and twin turbochargers that boost power to 300 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque. That's more power from a six-cylinder than the V8-powered 5 Series cars had a few years ago.
BMW's inline six-cylinder engines remain among 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, but we're glad BMW sticks with its trademark inline engines.
The 535i's twin-turbo 3.0-liter engine might be the finest yet. From a stop or a high-speed roll, the 535i delivers as much or more torque than some thirstier V8-powered sedans. Off-the-line acceleration surpasses probably 80 percent of the vehicles on the road, and top speed exceeds anything you'll get away with anywhere outside of a desolate Nevada desert. Power delivery in the 535i is very linear, even with the turbochargers, 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. There's virtually no turbo lag in this engine.
The 550i with its V8 engine appeals to those who put a premium on straight-line acceleration and turbine smoothness. This 4.8-liter engine delivers 360 horsepower and 360 pound-feet of torque, and its impressive power flows in the same even fashion as it does from the six-cylinders.
The 550i is a true high-performance sedan; holding its accelerator to the floor is a truly exhilarating experience. The 550i will squirt from 0-60 mph in about 5.4 seconds, and its 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 gearbox. 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 of buyers will choose BMW's six-speed Steptronic automatic, and they won't give up much. The Steptronic features a drive-by-wire electronic gear selector, meaning the shifter merely sends an electric signal to the transmission, rather than mechanically engaging the gears. A Sport Automatic is available for the 535 models and 550i, which adds paddle shifters on the steering wheel and delivers even quicker, crisper shifts in manual mode.
The Steptronic automatic reacts to the gas pedal in fine style. Full-throttle upshifts are quick and smooth, and downshifts, in most cases, come quickly. We like to leave the automatic in Sport mode, as it responds even more quickly, shifting down instantaneously when you dip the gas pedal and allowing the engine to rev higher more often. The downside is that the automatic can feel more jarring in Sport mode. If a serene experience is preferred for the drive home, choose the Comfort setting.
When it comes to handling, we like the six-cylinder models, and particularly the 528i. Despite its horsepower deficit compared to the other models (it's no lightweight), it's spry, and light on its feet. This is a good, honest sedan in the BMW tradition, with a comfortable ride, precise steering and nice, sharp handling, and without a lot of high-tech stuff to muddle the picture.
Still, those high-tech add-ons have their appeal. BMW's optional Active Steering, for example, is more than a gimmick. Maneuvering through tight confines is a breeze, and pulling into an empty parking space is a quick swoop of the steering wheel. On a tight slalom course, a 5 Series with Active Steering is more responsive than one without it. Weaving through the cones is less work, 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. Active Steering is tied into the electronic stability control. It can automatically make slight steering adjustments without driver intervention.
Another such system is BMW's Active Roll Stabilization. ARS replaces what enthusiast drivers know as conventional anti-roll or anti-sway bars with an electronically controlled, hydraulically operated system. It helps reduce body roll, or lean, in corners, allowing flatter cornering at higher speeds while not compromising the nice smooth ride. With Active Roll Stabilization, the 5 Series stays remarkably flat through fast, sweeping curves, with just enough body lean to remind a driver that he or she is hurtling down a public road at considerable speed. And the best thing about ASR is that it accomplishes this without the stiff springs and shocks often used in sports suspensions. When the car is traveling straight, the effect of the roll stabilization is essentially negated. The 5 Series rides firm, without a sensation of floating, but always smoothly and comfortably.
BMW Night Vision uses a thermal-imaging camera with Far Infra-Red technology that highlights sources of heat (the tailpipes on cars ahead, for example, but more importantly the cyclist or deer lurking beyond the headlights). The camera has a range of nearly 1,000 feet, and it displays a high-contrast image on the navigation screen when Night Vision is turned on. By design, the image is not highly detailed, and those high-heat people or animals are supposed to stand out more quickly. The system is intended to work like a rear-view mirror, with potential hazards standing out in a quick scan. Our time in a BMW 550i equipped with Night Vision was confined largely to an urban setting, and in this environment its value is reduced. With so much ambient light, and traffic, the camera doesn't offer much more than an alert set of eyes. Yet a drive into the dark countryside expressly to test Night Vision demonstrated the system's potential. The thermal-imaging camera picked up a truck's exhaust pipe almost as far ahead as its tiny taillights were visible. Had that exhaust been the body heat of a large animal, with no taillights to mark it, the 5 Series driver would have been aware of the animal long before it was visible to the naked eye. The problem with Night Vision, beyond its high price tag, is the novelty factor. We found ourselves occasionally fixating on the screen, noticing which parts on SUVs ahead were warmest, or looking at the warm bodies walking into restaurants, at the expense of peering through the windshield. We suspect that it will take some acclimation, and discipline, to get past the newness and use Night Vision as it is intended.
The optional Adaptive Xenon Headlights are excellent. They deliver bright, even light and real a benefit on winding rural roads at night.
BMW's brakes are large by industry standards, and they remain one of the most impressive components in the performance package. They slow the car from high speed in sports-car fashion, and they hold up under harder use than any driver is likely to dish out. Even after repeated stops that would smoke the brake pads on lesser cars, the brakes showed very little fade.
The BMW 5 Series is a true driver's car among mid-sized luxury sedans. It mixes comfort, performance, high-tech features and passenger-friendly accommodations in a fairly compact package. Any 5 Series is remarkably well balanced, and satisfying to own and drive.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent J.P. Vettraino filed this report from Detroit, with Mitch McCullough reporting from Charlottesville, Virginia.
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We have information you must know before you buy the 550.
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