Long its most profitable car on offer in the US market, BMW's 5-Series sport sedans have grown somewhat stale following more than six years of Chris Bangle-inspired "flame" designs. The new 535i and 550i hope to change all that. With his recent departure from the company, the flame and its surrounding controversy appear to be extinguished.
Corporately, what returns in its place is a more mature, buttoned-up set of vehicles. Some take chances (550 GT
), some playfulness (1-Series
), and some excitement (M3
), but there is no mistaking any BMW car with a Sock Puppet-toting Korean-branded competitor.
As far as the 5-Series is concerned, what takes their place is a new set of sculpted, muscular, chiseled set of entries that are more expressive in design. From the creased sides to the sculpted hood and new front fascia, these are no mere refresh jobs.
In the process of becoming more buttoned-up, has the new 5-Series become too refined? Too conservative?
The iconic twin kidney designed grille returns, this time in a forward leaning mode, while the scowls of the new, sinister-looking halo headlights point the way. Rear fenders lead the eyes to subtle flaring over the rear wheels while the entire rear bumper area is redesigned down to the rectangular exhaust dumps set in the rear fascia. This all adds up to a new 5-series that features the longest wheelbase in the segment, but hides its girth especially well.
The new 5-Series shares many parts and platform dimensions with its big brother, the 7-Series. Built in Dingolfing, Germany, the architecture is shared through many common components, but in the process of being the newer vehicle, comes across as more interesting by way of the precise creasing of side sheetmetal and the complex curves found on the hood.
It's more than just a platform that the cars share; the overall design language is shockingly similar. BMW's new chief, Adrian van Hooydonk, has returned the familial familiarity
to the line. The 5 looks like a mini 7 - and guess what the next-generation 3 will look like!
At first we thought our eyes were playing tricks with us, but the dashboard of our 550i appeared twisted away from us. Turns out it was. BMW designers skewed it 7-degrees right to offer a more comfortable view for the driver and to place controls in a more natural position where hands would pick them up almost instinctually. For the most part, the concept works, even if it goes against the driver-centric layout BMW has offered for as long as we can recall. Controls intended for driver adjustment only are located to the left of the multi-control steering wheel, or at the base of the centerstack, while those suited for both driver and front passenger are located on the center console.
Our Sport Package-equipped tester had BMW's ultra-trick 18-way adjustable seats with articulated backrests. Bolsters snuggle up if necessary while headrests lean forward and keep the noggins in place for accident survival. Also included are heating and ventilation functions as well as thigh rest extension pads. We think they are big in a barcalounger sort of way, but also find them to be some of the most supportive buckets available today.
i-Driving me crazy
It used to be that way, but not anymore with iDrive version 4.0. With a user interface that has improved over the years, and input controls not unlike those found in Audi's system, the iDrive is finally a well-executed system with an amazingly bright and graphically rich 10-inch display screen. An optional heads-up display shows turn by turn as directed by the navi system. Except, that is, if you are wearing polarized sunglasses. BMW is aware of the difficulties and is working to find a solution to this complication.
In addition to a vastly improved iDrive, the company joins others in offering electronic assists including BMW Parking Assist, Top View and Side View cameras, Frontal Collision Warning with Brake Activation and Active Cruise Control and Stop & Go. Blind Spot Detection and Lane Departure systems round out the list of electronic assists that impressed us with their abilities - and occasionally stymied us with their complexity. We'll wait for a longer evaluation to make a final judgment.
The new 5-series will initially be available with a 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder engine with direct injection good for 300 horsepower or a 4.4-liter direct injected V8 producing 400 horsepower - call them 535i and 550i despite their displacement or face the wrath of German engineers.
Both utilize turbocharging for added oomph. The six uses a twin-scroll model, while the eight uses a pair of turbos. Top torque for the V8 is rated at 450 lb-ft., between 1,800 and 4,500 rpm, while peak horsepower appears between 5,500 and 6,400 rpm. The 550i in standard form has a maximum speed of 130 mph; Order the Sport Package and "it will go to eleven," er, uh, 150 mph and 0-60 mph is just a mere five seconds away. For the first time, the twin turbos and catalytic converters are located within the valley of the engine's cylinder banks. With these components inboard, the exhaust cams and valves were relocated there as well, resulting in a new, more compact design. As a result, BMW claims a new era of engine development is possible.
The new I-6 in the 535i features compact design, a two-stage turbocharger, and a more compact exhaust flow system that only requires plumbing to one turbo, simplifying the path to the catalytic converters. The result is a smaller cold-start carbon signature. The end result is an even 300 horsepower and 300 lb-ft. of torque, all of which are available from 1,200 to 5,000 rpm.
In addition to minimizing power sap from the 5-Series alternator which is tasked with recharging the battery, the 5 is equipped with a Brake Energy Regeneration system to manage the times the alternator flicks on.
Power is now sent to the drive wheels by a new eight-speed automatic transmission. Two gears taller than the one it replaces, the result is a better mileage through lower revs and a quieter ride overall. Sixth speed is actually the most efficient of all the gears as it is direct drive with no gearing reduction at all. The end result of the octo-cog transmission is quicker shifts, greater smoothness and increased efficiency.
Lower-displacement (and price) 528i and all-season all-wheel-drive (xDrive) variants of all engine choices will arrive later in the year. Additionally, the 5-Series will be the only one of its competitive set to offer a six-speed manual transmission standard across the lineup.
By the way, the 535i weighs in at 4,090 pounds, while the 550i tips the scales at 4,376 pounds. EPA estimates for fuel mileage are 20 city/29 highway, and 17 city/25 highway, respectively.
Run whatcha sprung
The suspension system on the latest 5 sees BMW breaking from the past with its reliance on a strut and shock system to a new multi-link system for both front and rear chassis geometry. Made of aluminum and cast iron, it helps to reduce the overall weight, and facilitate with chassis balance. Integral Active Steering adds a touch of rear-wheel steering for more precise handling. The system varies the steering input at front depending on speed and driving conditions. Active steering, according to BMW, has helped to reduce the turning circle radius by 1.6 feet.
As tested, our 550i came with the Sport Package plus Adaptive Drive, which included Driving Dynamics Control. This allowed us to set the ride, handling and driving dynamics according to our desires, and road conditions. From downtown Philadelphia north to New Jersey Motorsport Park in Millville, New Jersey, we found the comfort setting best for some of the more questionable roads.
Using the Dynamic Damping Controls, the suspension which is about 10mm lower than the standard setup, encounters imperfections and reacts to them over 100 times per second. The result is a front wheel sensor encountering a road flaw, and the rear sensors compensating for it before it reaches the same flaw. Once on the pristine racing surfaces of NJMP, it was balls to the wall,
full Sport+ setting, which remapped engine response, transmission shift points, power-steering assistance, and Dynamic Traction Control.
Although based on 7-Series underpinnings, it was clear that the new 5 is a much more tossable sport sedan than its larger sibling, itself a sedan that has impressed us with its agility.
Our laps on the 1.9 mile circuit featured tight turns that displayed the agility that the new car possessed and after getting used to the track's layout, encouraged us to push it more to its limits. Acceleration was stout with the twin turbo V8. Tearing out of the starting area under a heavy right foot displayed the 550i's good manners and only required a light tap on the binders through the sweeping right-hander up ahead. Back on the gas, the Dynamic Damping controls set the car up for a quick right, then left with a little gas and then heavy braking to lead up to another long sweeper which begs for the near instantaneous acceleration the twin spooled V8 is capable of. Flip off the DTC and you'll actually feel the rear end try to break loose after the hard left leading to the Carousel. Whip through there, and next thing you know, you'll be through your first lap. Pull into the pits for a quick check with the track marshal and you'll be saying, "thank you sir, May I have another."
This 5 can run.
Why you would buy it:
You like a refined performer that can, when called upon, throw down with the best of them.
Why you wouldn't:
You're the president of the Chris Bangle Fan Club.
Leftlane's bottom line:
The 2011 BMW 5-Series
Sports Sedan offers a mind-boggling mix of power and technology that's sure to leave you asking, "how did they do that?" We can't wait for the inevitable M5, which, along with M-B's E63 AMG will surely become the two ranking Ã¼ber sport sedans in the segment, but this is the 550i and 535i's day.
And it's clear that these are two new successors in a long line of ultimate driving machines. It appears that the 5 is back on top of its game.
2011 BMW 535i
base price, $49,600.
2011 BMW 550i
base price, $59,700
Words and photos by Mark Elias.