The BMW 5 Series is all-new for 2011. Virtually no hardware was carried over directly to the 2011 BMW 5 Series from the previous models. The all-new 2011 5 Series lineup includes the BMW 528i and BMW 535i with six-cylinder engines, and the BMW 550i with a V8.
You'll never hear it from BMW. But with no less than nine new models arriving all at once in the 2011 line, to a significant degree, BMW is starting over. Not surprising. Under the guidance of controversial American Design Director Chris Bangle during the past decade, BMW took an excursion into doing some very un-BMW things. Contour by contour, the Ultimate Driving Machine became overstuffed looking, given BMW's famously aggressive design language, downright frumpy. Simultaneously, with the debut of the first-generation iDrive system several model years ago, Munich offered to the world the single most counter-intuitive, infuriating cockpit management system ever brought to market. Ever since that bleak debut, the revered company has been backtracking at a stubborn, no-we-never-screw-up rate. But at last, the news is spectacular; 2011's fourth-generation iDrive is wonderfully intuitive, a pleasure to use.
There are further good tidings. The broad line of new 2011 BMWs, far from looking frumpy, has regained the aggressive, exciting enthusiasm that had been the company's trademark since long before these difficulties began. From 7 Series to 5 Series to 3 Series, 2011 models are back to the reliable old BMW formula: Same sausage, in three different lengths. But oh, what sausage!
Dead center in the BMW sausage case is the 5 Series, always a strong choice for buyers who want vigorous acceleration and crisp handling, but not the limited interior space of the 3 Series, nor the girth, weight and fee-fye-foe-fum price of the 7 Series. As a luxury midsize sedan, the 5 will hit the sweet spot for many families that include a driver or two with a strong taste for performance accompanied by all the latest safety provisions.
In comparison with the previous 5 sedan, the 2011 version is two inches longer, with a three-inch longer wheelbase. That translates to one inch less frontal overhang than in any previous 5. This will certainly be helpful in tight parking situations, but far more than that, it give the 5 its stunning visual impact. With its forward-lunging shapes, muscular flanks, and low, road-hugging front end, the 5's appearance accurately communicates its racerly velocity and apex-strafing agility. Said agility is aided and abetted by the new 5's near-perfect 49/51 front/rear weight distribution. This package delivers levels of handling that have inherent stability, with no sudden surprises. Very, very BMW.
Sliding into the new 5's interior, you will find a typically German environment. The BMW representatives we spoke to describe the cabin as contemporary but warm, and so it is. The dashboard surfaces of our test BMW 550i were a combination of bright tan and matte black, highlighted by the expected graceful brushstrokes of wood. The instrumentation is thorough and easy to use, and the seats are covered in either leatherette, for the 528i and 535i, or leather in the 550i. As has been the case from nearly the beginning, cloth interiors will not be imported to North America.
And somewhat surprisingly, comparing content to content in the 2011 5 Series versus its predecessor, the 5 Series furnishings represent a drop in prices.
The outward appearance of the 2011 5 Series is unmistakably BMW. It has no odd rear horizontal surfaces or Bangle bustles in its profile, adhering instead to the strictly functional appeal that has long been BMW's signature. The traditional kidney grille is present, and the 5's short frontal overhang, a BMW trademark, is accompanied by a traditional long hood and long, segment-leading 116.9-inch wheelbase.
The cabin is set considerably to the rear, giving the profile a slightly wedged, coupe-like forward-thrust shape that, given the car's performance, is in no way misleading. Handsomely flared wheel openings filled with stylishly modern wheels and large tires underline the car's muscularity and its rear-wheel drive layout. And the signature kink in the rear side window's aft edge confirms that this is a bona fide BMW.
At the nose, the 5 Series features BMW adaptive xenon headlights (optional on the 528i) for powerful, safe forward illumination. And in daytime running, the headlight complex is illuminated by LED rings of light. The new turn indicators, as well, are illuminated by LED. And following Audi practice, new taillight clusters are illuminated in an LED pattern distinctive to BMW.
The cockpit of the 2011 BMW 5 Series is all business, deferring in every way to the driver. The dashboard is angled towards the driver, while the horizontal lines of the dash add to a feeling of spaciousness for both front-seat occupants. And as expected, all controls are well placed, with the driver-only functions situated to the left of the steering column or on the wheel itself. The steering wheel contains 12 fingertip adjustments for audio, phone and adaptive cruise control. It also has a convenient tilt-away provision for easy ingress and egress.
The front seats are supportive and grippy, with unobtrusive but firm side bolstering. Both front seats have 10-way power adjustment, though with the Sport Package, for maximum comfort and driver alertness, the driver's seat is provided with deluxe 18-way multi-contour seats. The rear seats offer decent side bolstering, while rear seat legroom is generous, a half-inch greater than in the preceding 5.
Instrumentation includes four classic circular gauges set against a black panel for optimal legibility. The optional navigation system, located in the center console, proved easy to use, delivering a fine three-dimensional display and excellent, well-timed verbal instructions even in the most complex of multi-lane maneuvers. Combined with the navigation option, this entirely user-friendly fourth-generation iDrive is contained in a large and legible 10.2-inch screen. (Without navi, a 7-inch console screen is standard.) The display is transreflective, sunlight beating on it actually enhances its legibility. And if the head-up option is included, relevant navigational instructions are added to the head-up display.
Six different two-tone interior color schemes are available in the interior, and the standard Dakota leather can be replaced by optional, more luxuriant Nappa leather. The strokes of wood that give the 5 interior its deluxe feel are available in three colors, with Ash Anthracite and Fineline Matte optional.
Climate controls and ventilation are as expected: superb.
We drove both the 535i and 550i on the racetrack and were stupefied by how extremely competent and balanced this midsize performance sedan really is. The chassis of both models had exceptional poise and pace.
The 550i's front/rear weight balance was slightly more nose heavy, at 52.4/47.6 percent, than the 335i's 50.9/49.1, but it would take Mario Andretti to notice the difference, which he no doubt would. For the rest of us, merely bringing our game up sufficiently to fully exploit the real potential of the two different 5s was an all-day exercise.
So what does racetrack performance have to do with everyday driving in these 5s? Absolutely everything. Virtually any emergency maneuver in normal traffic demands near maximal use of a car's balance and grip. On the racetrack, a car's balance, grip and maximum performance and being assessed constantly. We found the two 5s to be extremely controllable at massive levels of acceleration, stopping and cornering. Compared with their competition, the BMWs should provide excellent performance in accident avoidance maneuvers.
One of the singular components of the new 5 is a superb new eight-speed automatic transmission, up from six speeds last year. This eight-speed, combined with newly intense weight-saving provisions with aluminum doors, hood, front side panels and suspension components, produce good fuel mileage for such a strong performer, in part because gears seven and eight are both overdrive.
Fuel economy are an EPA-estimated 20 City/29 Highway for the 535i and 17/25 mpg for the 550i. Not bad for a racing sedan. The 535i and 550i, after all, achieve 60 miles per hour in 5.7 seconds and 5.0 seconds, respectively.
Much as we admired the new eight-speed gearbox's quick shifts and energy efficiency, the shifter had a bit of the first-generation iDrive about it. It has a P button on top for Park and an unlock button on the left side. To get out of Park, you depress the unlock button and move the shifter forward or backward for Reverse or Drive. Sounds simple enough. You can only go from Drive to Reverse, and vice versa, by first pressing the unlock button. If you move the shifter left, you get manual selection of the eight gears. To return to Park, you must place the lever between D and R, in neutral, and press Park on the top of the lever. It takes a bit of self-training, and a goodly number of mistakes, to master the three simple goals of D, R and P. Like some other German carmakers, BMW thinks it's important to do things their way, even when there is absolutely nothing about their way that is superior to the utterly conventional PRNDL auto-shifter. On the plus side, the manually selected eight-speed did its very best to give us the shift we wanted every time.
The new 5's steering is electronic, variable ratio and feels seamless and precise. And breaking with longtime BMW practice, the new front suspension eschews struts in favor of a proper multi-link system.
To heighten controllability and give the driver an improved platform, available dynamic damping control constantly adjusts shock rates to match the current road surface. The system is so fast that when a front wheel senses a pothole a highway speed, the rear shock can adjust before the pothole arrives. In addition, active roll stabilization curtails body roll in hard cornering, giving the driver a heightened sense of command. As we found on the racetrack, these advanced electronics work wonderfully well.
The new BMW brake system is combined with the other stability control systems, pre-setting the brakes in heavy braking, drying the brakes in wet driving, and compensating for brake fade in vigorous driving. And the brakes have a regenerative-energy feature, not unlike in a pure hybrid, that captures electric energy and recharges the battery during slowing. This reduces the net amount of time the alternator must regenerate charge, cutting engine drag and improving fuel efficiency. You can actually feel the regenerative feature engaging during gradual braking. Nice.
The BMW 5 Series is dramatically updated and improved for 2011. If you've held back because you've heard complaints about some of BMWs' cockpit controls, the waiting is over. The 5 is unquestionably one of the premier performance sedans in the world.
Ted West filed this NewCarTestDrive.com report after his test drive of the BMW 5 Series at New Jersey Motorsports Park and around greater Philadelphia.
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