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Thursday 28th January 2010


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.


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...

Author: Riggers