Driven: The New BMW 5-Series

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.

The latest 5-series won't automatically get everything its own way, however - a resurgent Jaguar has rather inconveniently plonked the pretty and talented XF in the way, while Mercedes' latest E-class is a supremely capable offering. So can the new 5-series - F10 in BMW-speak - stand up to the challenge?

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.

Somehow, though, the overall design doesn't seem to hang together - weirdly, to me at least, it's a little less than the sum of its parts in the looks department. (So writes a man single-handledly pursuing a knitted tank-top revival - Ed.)

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.

The 5-series scores high on kit, too - this is the first 5-series to come with leather as standard, while all models also get alloys, parking sensors front and rear, cruise control, automatic air conditioning, Bluetooth connectivity, 'professional' spec radio and Dynamic Stability Control+ (BMW's adjustable suspension, gearbox, ESP and traction control unit). And breathe. It's an impressive standard equipment count - and certainly a lot more comprehensive than those used to BMWs of old will expect.

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.

We got the chance to try out two models, the bread-and-butter £37,100, 242bhp 530d - which is for now the most powerful turbodiesel Five - and the £37,090, 302bhp 535i - which sits below the 401bhp twin-turbo V8 550i as the second-most powerful petrol motor available at launch.

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.

The result is that the 530d reaches 62mph from rest in just 6.3secs, a scant 0.3secs slower than the 535i. But we also suspect the diesel's torque advantage would mean a mullering for the 535i on in-gear acceleration times. Combine that performance with an overall fuel consumption figure of 44.8mpg and a rational man with 20,000 miles of motorway ahead of him but still looking for something with decent performance would be hard-pressed to justify choosing anything else.

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.

Hopping behind the wheel of the 535i we're prepared to believe that. The 3.0-litre turbo petrol might not have the torque of its diesel cousin but, as long as you keep the engine percolating at reasonably high revs, you can make impressively brisk progress. This also gives you ample opportunity to sample the broad vocal talents of the engine, which has a whiff of V8 about its bass notes, and a classic straight-six yowl further up.

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.

Switching the DSC+ into its sportiest settings also sharpens up the dampers, steering and throttle response, as well as telling the traction control to relax a little. So it's in DSC+ mode that we attack the gorgeous, hilly Portuguese coastal route that BMW has brought us to. And it's here that the 5-series springs its first disappointment.

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.

It works, too. Most of the time. Sometimes, though, the transition between the two states leaves the car in limbo, leaving it feeling neither sharp nor surefooted. And that's a shame, because the sort of road a BMW ought to relish - a mix of fast sweepers and tight hairpins can leave an active steering-equipped 5-series feeling a little flustered.

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

Our run ends with a few quick laps around the Estoril race track just outside Lisbon. Here, the Five claws back some ground. Given the proper space to explore the car's limits (and the chance to fully disengage the electronic stability systems), the 535i shows itself to be a balanced, adjustable car. It also proves itself to have an endearingly adjustable rear end, and one that allows you to indulge in very BMW-esque tail-out silliness. Even the brakes last the course at Estoril - not bad for a 1760kg executive saloon.

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...

P.H. O'meter

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Comments (223) Join the discussion on the forum

  • ALittleEXcited 20 May 2010

    Just seen this thread, not sure why it's taken so long for me to notice it.

    For me, the quirky designs were a winner. Massive fan of Z4, E60, 6 series but they seem to be going the way of every other car manufacturer. Disappointing.

  • MCFCDaytona 20 May 2010

    Kivster said:
    Personally I think that BMW have totally wrecked their image in the past couple of years.

    I've always loved BMW's, my dad's always had them, from E12's, E28's through E30's and now to an E34, but I'm sorry, but what have BMW been doing these past few years? They used to mean quality, smooth and good to drive, all that they stand for now is the snob factor. "Look at me, I've got a sales rep job and a decent salary - BMW it is then."

    There is just no substance to the cars any more, even the "cooking" models used to be good to drive, they used to be brilliant cars, now they make the "M-Cars" good, and totally disregard the lesser models. They're making posers cars, not "The Ultimate Driving Machine"

    It's such a shame when you look back on the fantastic BMW's that have gone by!

    BMW's good cars :-
    2002 Tii and Turbo,
    3.0 CSi/CSL,
    Every M5 bar the E60,
    E21 323i,
    E30 M3,

    Now what do we have? This new 5 Series is one of the most bland and anonymous cars I've ever seen, bar the current Audi A6, the X6 is just pathetic, likewise with the X3 and X5, the 1 Series and 3 Series are boring and forgettable. "Aha", I hear you cry, "What about the E60 M5?"

    Well, my cousin (Typical BMW driver as well) has an 07-Reg M5 and it's unbearable. It's dated, too complicated, too uncomfortable, and just too busy to be used every day. It's taken the "M-Cars" mantra and cr*pped all over it, it's not a comfortable 5 Series saloon that just so happens to be crushingly fast, it doesn't feel like a normal 5 Series (They had a 535d previous to the M5), it just feels too wired, too vulgar. It's so much of a posers car that it should have flashing signs saying "Look at me and all my money!". I've been out in a XF SV8 and XFR, and I'd take the Jaguar any day of the week.

    The only two cars they are currently producing that I even remotely rate are the 335i and the M3. Both good cars, but I don't really WANT one, there is no lust with them. I lust after a 3.0 CSL, I lust after an XF SV8 or XFR. But there is just no feeling with them any more, they seem to bring out cars (Just like this 5 Series) on the pretence that "Oh, it's a BMW, some idiot will buy it." There is no thought or effort. Look at the innovations of the XF, look what Jaguar did to show off. There is none of this with BMW any more. I think sooner or later BMW are going to wake up and find that the XF's outselling this Grey Euro-Box 3 to 1 and have to get their rear into gear.

    Could any of you honestly say you rather have - say - the 535d version of the new 5 Series over an XF V6 Diesel "S"?

    I know I couldn't.

    Edited by Kivster on Monday 1st February 21:09

    Edited by Kivster on Monday 1st February 21:12
    The Jag would always be an interesting option - however as a Touring/estate driver - they have yet to fullfil my need for a large sporty fuel efficient estate.

    As for earlier post some people stated that having powerful cars is less necessary on todays roads. If you enjoy making swift progress across country where use of A and B roads is the right choice instead of motorways then having a powerful car makes over-taking that much easier and less stressful and so you enjoy the drive more knowing you are less likely to be held up for long periods by slower vehicles; so perhaps powerful cars are more relivant. I for one cannot wait for the F10 540d Touring with adaptive suspension; hopefully in manual as I get 50mpg from my 54 plate E39 manual 530d sport touring - that I know whatever the stats say an auto will always drink more juice as you can't coast or run up to lights downhill in gear using no fuel.

    Edited by MCFCDaytona on Thursday 20th May 10:37

  • mustard tab 20 Feb 2010

    As I had registered an interest in one of these when they first appeared on the BMW website i had a personal invite to go and view the new car before it release in March,so poped along to Sytner Sutton Coldfield yesterday and i have to say i was mighty impressed. The car does look to have followed the 3 for its styling queues but it is a very resolved design IMO. The interior was excellent, it did have the sports seat option fitted (the car was a 535 Sport) but they felt very good and the range of adjustment was impressive also. Apparently BMW expect to sell around 80% of this cars production with a diesel engine, and around 80% of those will be the 520, which personally is the one i would be allowed though my company car scheme, apparently all cars come with leather and the additional HMI screen although i dont think they will all have sat-nav as std. Due to the way the dash as slightly angled to the driver and the fact that the seat can be lowered almost to the floor the car feels smaller than it is when you are behind the wheel. All in all i will be looking forward to being able to order one of these in the comming months, when the contract on my 320D SE runs out. The E Class is and impressive design also but i just dont think the numbers stack up the way they do woth the 5, the BIK rate is 18% on the 520D which is very impressive, and makes it cheaper or should i say moretax efficient than a top spec Mondeo with comparable spec and engine.

  • Victor101 18 Feb 2010

    Read it again and use a little imagination. We're comparing 320d m Sports with big heavy 5 Series. The boggo no options 318d ES is an example.

    Edited by Victor101 on Thursday 18th February 21:45

  • jamoor 17 Feb 2010

    Victor101 said:
    The 5 Series has never been a sports car or any sort, apart from the E12 M535i and the E28 M5. But that was all a very long time ago now.

    The E12 was a nicely made middle order saloon.. With a six cylinder engine it went well, was a bit tail happy and had a BMW character echoed from the 2002 and E9 Coupes. The 528i and M535i were pretty quick but could get you into real trouble in the wet. Ask me how I know............

    The E28 was more of the same. Dull four cylinders, smooth unremarkable 520i/525i, fastish 528i and pretty good 535i. Overall better to drive than a W123 Merc and hardly a looker - old fashioned and conservative in 1982, 'classic' now of course. The M5 was probably the last exciting 5 Series, but it wasn't designed to sell 30'000 a year so it was a case of 'if you don't like it, p1ss off'.

    The E34 smoothed off all the rough edges in the E28 handling. Heavier, better ride, foolproof but not remotely exciting unless you had a manual 540i. The M5 was fast but really a well made sledgehammer. No E34 could be described as nimble but they were a nice car. The fact that they're worth 10p and a button now reflects that they were just a nice car, nicer than Mercs but that was about it.

    The E39 wasn't as robust as the E34 but they were very good really and a lot better that the horrid bug eyed E Class. Compared to the E34 is was a a bit of a fat labrador but it was very competent with a lovely interior. As an M Sport it was an excellent car, especially the 530i manual. The M5 was a bit of a tank, but is really preferable to the E60. So fast and so useable with no stronic flappy paddle nonsense with 12 speeds and 'look at me' air vents in the wings.

    The early E60 was - and remains - a shed on wheels. They were an utter abortion with a 1989 Mitsubishi interior that used plastics that would have been more suitable in a Renault Trafic van, plus the styling with the 16 inch wheels was laughable. In one fell swoop BMW took their well made interiors with logical controls and perfect finish and destroyed it. Unless yo have nav, the i-drive is still an utter pain in the arse. The M5 is just technical overkill on wheels with stupid running costs. Yes it's fast, but that's all it is.
    The E60 drives well of course, but 535d apart they're no faster or better handling than the last E39 and the fuel economy is strangely unimpressive on the diesels. The ridiculous Dame Edna headlights and rear end styling that looks like an E39 wearing a pair of tights (bank robber style), big bland doors, massive rear overhang and the silly jutted out chin of the M Sport won't be missed by me.
    The later ones were better in some ways. The repositioned window switches were an improvement, the stupid 2007 onwards play station gearlever was not. BMW love to take something is meaty and intuitive as the old 1996-2007 autoshifter and replace it with something that looks impressive to a 12 year old but is really a bit crap. Like the electronic handbrake, this electronic gearlever is just going to be another warranty claim. I've driven a lot of E60's and whilst I concede that it's a good car, I have absolutely no love for them. They just aren't as nice as the E39.

    F10. Doesn't look that great in the pics but it's very good in the flesh. Interior quality has gone back up a notch and whilst the steeing might not entertain the keenest, in reality it's perfectly okay in everyday driving situations. The F10 is the new E39. It's a nicely finished middle order saloon that has conservative styling, a very good ride, drives nicely (as good as anything else) and - if you look at the price lists - is pretty good value. The 520d when it arrives as a customer order car in mid year will be under 30k with standard leather and 180-odd bhp. Jaguar don't offer anything to compete.

    Autocarp love a controversial 'Merc beats BMW' story but on reality street, there's nothing in it. They are as good as each other and which you buy is down to personal preferences and how good your dealer is. Same with the XF which is an exceptionally good effort.

    BMW's are at their best as base models - a 320d M Sport manual for instance. Light and nimble, no i-drive crap, quick, enough equipment, cheap to run and enjoyable to drive. I've had more fun driving billy-basic 318d ES snotters than big spec stuff.
    Why does weight always come into any topic about any car?

    What difference does a few kilos of Satnav make onto the driving experience of a 320d?

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