Thursday 15th April 2010


PH puts more (unexpected) miles on 'der neue 5'

After accidentally volunteering to drive a new 5-series home from the edge of the French Pyrenees last month, I found myself blundering off BMW's charter flight at a little place named Pau.

Sports fans may know Pau as the home of the first ever motor race to be called a 'Grand Prix' in 1903. It was held over a Monaco-esque street circuit that survives to this day, and which achieved YouTube notoriety last year when the BMW 320 leading a WTCC race ploughed unceremoniously into the safety car. How we laughed.

The safety car driver probably felt a bit sheepish after that incident, as I did on stepping off the aeroplane to find the pleasant little Friday afternoon hop over the channel I'd been contemplating (naturally with a stop for a decent bit of lunch at BMW's expense), had been morphed into a significant road trip by an unexpected extra hour in the air.

Still, even though it meant buying a toothbrush and wearing the same clothes two days running, I've always been seduced by the romance of a long drive so it wasn't all bad. (Not that the reality of French motorway facilities is necessarily that romantic, but you know what I mean.)

We were introduced to our steeds at a picturesque Pyrenean goat shed which some rustic types had turned into a centre for local gastronomy. And with that decent lunch under my belt after all, things were definitely looking up as with my fellow hacks we surveyed the ranks of new 5ers ranged across the hillside before us.

PH's car was to be a 535i, in Space Grey, with the new twin-scroll, single turbo version of BMW's 3.0 six-cylinder, and in SE trim which delivers a more impressive kit roster with every succeeding generation. The 535i costs £37k in standard SE guise but BMW's press fleet managers had managed to load the beast up with an impressive £14,305 of 'must have' extras.

The weightier options on our car included Adaptive Drive at £2,200, the £2,820 Dynamic package (special 19ins alloys, sports seats, exterior 'shadowline' effects and anthracite headlining), 8-speed sport auto transmission at £1,605, active steering at £1,300, a £1,210 Visibility package (Adaptive Headlights, Xenon headlights, Headlight wash, Rain and High-beam Assistant), a £1,960 Professional Multimedia package (Navigation system - BMW Professional Multimedia, Bluetooth telephone preparation with telematics, BMW Assist, BMW Online and Voice Control) and a £940 Head-Up display.

With a few other gewgaws lobbed-in, that means I'd been handed the keys to a motor with a £52k price tag and probably the logarithmic capacity to drive itself home. But I couldn't find a button for that, which suited me fine.

Although a long high-speed autoroute/motorway drive is hardly the best way to establish a view about a new car's handling, it's a great chance to build a beautiful relationship. Especially in France, where the empty autoroutes give you a chance to explore and fiddle without worrying too much about drifting into the path of other traffic at 120mph while your head is buried under the dash looking for hidden switchgear - or stray Pringles, for that matter. (And yes, I'm exaggerating. A little...)

Not that you'll find much stray switchgear on the Bimmer, as pretty much everything is automated or accessed through an iDrive unit whose functions are getting ever more complicated, yet which remains pleasingly intuitive to play with. I managed to use the nav system POIs and the integrated phone hook-up to find and make a reservation at a hotel in Tours on our way back to Blighty without pulling over, which may be old-hat to more seasoned iDrivers but made me feel quite smug.

We've reported on the new 5 series already, of course, but that article concentrated more on the car's dynamic attributes than its 'everyday' core values, which are remarkably impressive.

It's always a delight to wind a BMW six up to the limiter, and doing so in the 535i will not disappoint, either from a performance perspective or the pleasing yowl the engine makes when pressed. But on a long run like this, it's just as delightful to enjoy the peace and quietude the new machine offers. The cabin may not be quite as tactile or engaging as a Jaguar XF, but it's unquestionably an extremely relaxing place to travel. The new 8-speed auto option makes a big difference while cruising too, offering almost imperceptible changes and adding to the sense of wafting refinement. (It has an impressive sport mode with paddle shifts too, but why bother on the autoroute?)

Additionally, the latest suspension set-up seems to offer a little more subtlety and suppleness while cruising than its predecessor, while retaining great poise and stability through fast lane changes, or those rapidly tightening slip-roads the French use to tauten the sphincter muscles of excessive speeders.

As our earlier report hinted, the car's plethora of electronic systems may have slightly marginalised the driver from some of the rawer thrills of conducting this latest iteration of the 5, for instance with regard to the feel of the electronic steering. But it's undoubtedly an athletic machine in spite of that, and spending a couple of days on a high-mileage road-trip is enough to prove the new version remains one of the world's truly great all-rounders.

Author: Chris-R