Driven: The New BMW 5-Series
Riggers gets behind the wheel of Munich's new mid-sized exec
The just-retired E60 BMW 5-series was always going to have a tough time of it. Not only was it saddled with controversial 'high-Bangle' styling, but its predecessor - the E39 5-series - was an almost universally adored model. Road tests were typically littered with epithets like Autocar's 'close to perfection' verdict on the 528i. How do you follow that?
On the face of it this new car - the sixth iteration of BMW's mid-sized executive saloon - is going to get an easier ride. Buyers are used to the new BMW styling themes now, and design boss Adrian van Hooydonk's more fluid shapes have rather toned down the strongest excesses of the Bangle era. And the E60 5-series, while a reasonably talented machine, never stood head and shoulders above the rest of its class the way the E39 5-series did.
Visually, the new car makes a reasonable fist of things, with a welcome return to the 'cab-back' long-bonnet, short-tail profile that has so often helped BMWs look lean and handsome. There's some neat detailing, too. The pronounced creases of the bonnet converge on the centre of the kidney grille and help to focus the eye on the nose, the trademark 'Hofmeister kink' on the C-pillar is pleasingly pronounced, and the rear light clusters - reminiscent of those on the facelifted 3-series - are distinctive and elegant.
I'm less ambivalent about the inside. As with the 5-series GT, the latest 5-series saloon marks a welcome return to the classic driver-focused BMW dash layout, with the centre console canted towards the driver. It's only a matter of 6.5 degrees, but it's enough to make the driver feel special, and that's what BMWs should be about.
Another aspect of the 5-series cabin that's made a welcome return is a sense of snugness - both passenger and driver feel cocooned in a way that the previous 5-series never managed. You don't feel short of space - just secure. Other than that the cabin is typical BMW - nice finish, good attention to detail, and the ever-present - and ever-controversial - iDrive.
There's an options list as long as an MP's expenses claim form, too. Highlights of the gadgetry available include a new eight-speed automatic gearbox (a six-speed manual is standard-fit on most models), a head-up display, a night vision system with pedestrian warning, a 'surround view' camera system, lane departure warning, park assist (a first on a BMW), and a new active steering system which this time includes participation from the rear wheels.
As those familiar with BMW's magnificent straight-six turbodiesels will no doubt expect, the 530d is torquey, smooth, punchy and refined. Its 398lb ft of torque (103lb ft more than you get in the 535i) more than makes up for the 60bhp power deficit to the 535i, and there's a mere 30kg of difference in weight, too.
But we've never been big fans of 'rational' at PistonHeads, so it's with a lot more interest that we turn to the 535i. This is the first time a 5-series has been offered with a turbocharged petrol motor and the 535i replaces the naturally aspirated 540i in the 5-series model line-up. This is the all-new 'N55' engine, too - the one that has thus far only seen service in the 5-series GT - so despite identical figures of 302bhp and 295lb ft, don't confuse this with the old twin-turbo 'N54' motor as seen in the 1-series and 3-series. Instead of a pair of sequentially operating turbos, the new engine actually has a single 'twin-scroll' unit and this, we are told, improves engine efficiency without sacrificing performance.
The new optional eight-speed auto helps you out in this task - as long as you keep it out of the lazier (albeit impressively smooth) 'comfort' and 'normal' modes, the 'box holds on to ratios impressively, keeping the engine in the power zone and minimising the need for kickdowns. The gearbox's best trick, however, is putting it into full 'manual' mode, where a plate next to the torque converter creates a proper mechanical connection between engine and wheels, giving you sharp, snappy shifts just when you want them.
The problem centres on the clever active steering system. In slow corners (say, a mountain road hairpin) the rear wheels steer against the front wheels, while the variable ratio steering rack speeds up its responses. Once you're moving faster, the steering responses slow down, while the rear wheels steer with the fronts. The theory is that this increases agility at lower speeds, and stability at higher speeds.
This is more of a niggle than a catastrophe, however, because for the majority of the time the 5-series strikes a decent balance between ride comfort (the fourth-generation run-flat tyres don't even spoil the party anymore) and an ability to hang on in the corners. Even so, our time on the twisties reveals a competent, but curiously unsatisfying dynamic character
The trouble is, most owners aren't going to take their fives anywhere near a track, so they'll miss out on all the fun. Away from the track, I'm pretty sure the 5-series will make an excellent businessman's express, but as for whether it could beat an E-class or an XF? I'm not so sure. The XF tugs at the heartstrings more and, well, I reckon the Merc makes a better fist of being a Mercedes than the BMW does at being a BMW. We're not sold on this car quite yet. But we haven't seen the M5 yet...