For 2011, BMW debuted an all-new, winsome range of BMW 5 Series luxury mid-size sedans. Not surprisingly, 2012 sees the continuation of two of these offerings in reasonably unchanged form, with one very interesting exception, the 2012 528i.
Last year's BMW 528i was powered by a 240-horsepower version of BMW's 3.0-liter inline-6. For 2012, however, the same entry-level 528i is now powered by a very different engine that points far into BMW's green future. Instead of a three-liter six-cylinder, this new engine is a clean, extremely efficient turbocharged four-cylinder of only two liters. Despite being one third smaller in cubic capacity than the prior six, this Twin-Power turbo four-cylinder generates greater torque and horsepower, and much better fuel mileage, than the three-liter six-cylinder it replaces.
Otherwise, the 2012 BMW 5 Series is unchanged from 2011. The BMW 535i and 550i were all-new for 2011.
The three variants, the BMW 528i, BMW 535i and BMW 550i, remain chic, crisp and distinguished for their aggressive styling and driving character. For the most demanding sporting driver, they are a bit on the big-and-heavy side, but their excellent vehicle dynamics and agility make them assertively proactive and manageable when faced with the necessity of an emergency avoidance maneuver, making them excellent family sedans.
In furtherance of their safety-car orientation, the 5 Series contain a comprehensive inventory of passive safety provisions, the multiple airbags and structural provisions that protect occupants in the event an impact occurs. The 5 Series models are substantial, well-engineered passenger cars, yet they are gifted with an exciting athleticism that keeps the driving experience engaging and pleasurable.
BMW's fourth-generation iDrive cockpit-management system is much easier to use than previous versions, but it is still not the most intuitive, straightforward system to be found. With patience and a little insight, though, the 2012 BMW iDrive delivers results that make you feel you're almost as smart as your car. The modular BMW interior, much of which finds its way into models from the top of the line to the bottom, is handsome and contemporary. Glowing tan and matte black contrast handsomely on the dashboard, these surfaces punctuated by elegant swatches of exotic wood. Instrumentation is comprehensive and flawless, in the German manner. For those who see themselves as having reached a certain level, there is nothing in this stylish cabin that will contradict that view.
But driving excitement has always been BMW's stock in trade. And the 5 Series, whether in its surprisingly spirited turbocharged four-cylinder 528i form, its smooth-as-glass inline-6 535i form, or its forceful, V8-powered top-of-the-line 550i, fully earns its reputation in motion. With minimal frontal overhang and muscular flanks that seem shaped by this car's dynamic forward thrust, the 5 Series never quite looks at rest. And for those susceptible to real driving enthusiasm, the 5s seem to exhort you to drive them vigorously, confidently, with pleasure. Their over-the-road qualities, or at least the promise of them, are surely what motivate many BMW aspirants. That these roomy sedans also provide safe, sumptuous family transportation qualify them as a highly desirable mid-size entries.
All-wheel drive is available on all three versions and is designated with an x.
The outward appearance of the 2012 5 Series is unmistakably BMW. It has no seemingly extraneous horizontal surfaces, as some recent BMWs have had, adhering instead to the functional appeal that has long been BMW's signature. The traditional kidney grille is present, and the 5's shorter-than-ever frontal overhang, a BMW trademark, is accompanied by a traditional long hood and long, segment-leading 116.9-in. 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. 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 for powerful, safe forward illumination. And in daytime running, the headlight complex is illuminated by LED rings of light. The turn indicators, as well, are illuminated by LED. Following Audi practice, taillight clusters are illuminated in an LED pattern distinctive to BMW.
The cockpit of the BMW 5 Series is all business, deferring in every way to the driver. The dashboard is angled slightly toward 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, the driver's seat is provided with deluxe 18-way multi-contour seats. The rear seats offer decent side bolstering, and rear seat legroom is generous. 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 more user-friendly fourth-generation iDrive is contained in a large and legible 10.2-inch screen. Without navigation, a 7-inch console screen is standard. The display is trans-reflective: Sunlight 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, and 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 the BMW 550i, the 535i, and the brand-new 528i, and were were stupefied by how competent and balanced these mid-size performance sedans really are. All three had exceptional poise and pace, and some interesting surprises.
The 550i's front/rear weight percentage was the most nose heavy with its big V8 at 52.5/47.5 percent, with the 535i coming in at 50.9/49.1 percent, and the 528i at 49.4/50.6 percent with its lighter engine. Surprisingly, these seemingly insignificant differences produce better balance and less understeer in the 528i, the best handling of the three.
So what does maximum driving performance in these 5s have to do with day-to-day driving? Absolutely everything. Any true emergency maneuver in normal traffic demands near maximal use of a car's balance and grip. Driven on the racetrack, we found the two 535i and 550i to be extremely controllable at massive levels of acceleration, stopping and cornering. They will provide responsive performance in accident avoidance maneuvers. But the 528i's lightness resulted in exemplary quickness and agility, which was noticeable in more everyday driving.
The 5 Series uses a superb 8-speed automatic transmission. Combined with weight-saving provisions, including aluminum doors, hood, front side panels and suspension components, the transmission improves fuel mileage, in part, because gears seven and eight are both overdrive.
Fuel economy for the BMW 528i is a stellar EPA-estimated 23 City/34 Highway. The 535i scores 19 City/28 Highway; the 550i V8 gets 15 City/22 Highway.
The 528i and 535i are furnished with BMW's first-ever automatic stop/start system, which stops the engine when the car is not in motion, conserving fuel. Unfortunately, at each restart, our 528i shuddered noticeably each time the engine restarted. Stop/start is a very smart idea, but some systems from other manufacturers perform more seamlessly.
Zero-to-sixty for the 550i, 535i, and 528i are, respectively, 5.0 seconds, 5.7 seconds, and 6.2 seconds. While the 550i is the obvious choice for real speed, the 528i's strong handling, fine fuel mileage, adequate acceleration and attractive base price will attract many, including us.
Much as we admired the new 8-speed transmission's quick shifts and energy efficiency, its shifter is needlessly iconoclastic. 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 press Park on the top of the lever. It takes a bit of training and a goodly number of false starts. Like other German carmakers, BMW believes it's important for you to do things their way, even when there is nothing about it that is superior to a conventional PRNDL auto-shifter. On the plus side, the manually selected 8-speed did its best to give us the shift we wanted.
The 5's steering is electronic, variable ratio and feels seamless and precise. And breaking with BMW practice, the new front suspension eschews struts in favor of multi-link arms.
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 hits a pothole at highway speed, the rear shock absorber will be prepared for it before the pothole arrives. In addition, active roll stabilization curtails body roll in hard cornering, giving the driver heightened command. BMW's advanced electronics work well. Additionally, all-wheel drive is available in all 5 Series models.
The latest BMW brake system interacts with the other electronic stability control systems, pre-setting the brakes in heavy braking, drying the brakes in wet driving, and compensating for brake fade in vigorous driving. The brakes also have a hybrid-like regenerative-energy feature; they capture electric energy generated during braking and send electricity to the battery. This reduces the net amount of time that the engine must drive the alternator producing charge. This cuts the amount of time the engine must drive the alternator belt, heightening fuel efficiency.
The BMW 5 Series is a charismatic range of agile, strong-performing mid-size sedans. The 535i and 550i are typical instances of the BMW performance sedan. The innovative 2012 528i's turbocharged 4-cylinder leads the way to more efficient small-displacement BMWs in the near future.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Ted West reported on the 5 Series from upstate New York.
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