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BMW 5-Series 535i SE
8/10

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BMW 5 Series 535i SE

Driven March 2010

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In testing the BMW 5 GranTurismo last year, I concluded it had more issues than a washed-up Hollywood starlet - the idea might be alluring, but the real thing is overweight, over-complicated and not that pretty. But somewhere in there was a very good saloon car trying to get out.

Well, here it is.

Or at least it is in the form of the first cars BMW has let out of the traps. These are the 535i and 530d, and they come with full Christmas-tree spec: four-wheel active steering, active anti-roll bars, adaptive dampers, eight-speed auto and a head-up display.

Which is all very well, but no sooner do we set off than we have to stop for a reality check. Both petrol 535i and diesel 530d are £37,000 cars even without that gear; add the options fitted here, and a number not unadjacent to £50k gazes right back at you. And guess what: 80 per cent of 5-Series sold in the UK are the 520d. A car BMW hasn't actually put into production yet. So as to what the 5-Series is like when fitted with the base engine and the real-world chassis spec, we have little idea.

Still, let's proceed with the fantasy version. Barrelling into a bumpy and ever-so-slightly greasy bend, a bit of unhelpful camber. Because the active steering is gearing-up the column at these speeds and all four wheels turn, only a short movement of the hands is needed to feed you into the curve. The car lets you know what it's up to, and a squeeze of the throttle spools up the turbo to impel you out the other end. On the way in, there's been just enough understeer to keep things predictable, and on the way out the sensation is of the back tyres just beginning to lose purchase. Everything seems to be getting the best out of everything else, and as the driver you're invited to join the fun. Given the immense amount of electrickery going on here, that's quite an achievement.

It's surprising how much more fluent the 5-Series is than the 7-Series. The 7, 5 GT and 5 share all the chassis tech (and a whole lot more), but the 7-Series in particular never feels at ease with itself. It's sometimes wallowy, sometimes clunky, sometimes both at once, and the steering can be indefinite. The 5 GT was far better, and I asked the chief chassis bod why. "Software algorithms," he said. "It's all so complicated that we keep finding ways to improve. And the 5 saloon will be better again." He was right.

The 5 gains from being smaller and lighter than the 7 (or 5 GT), but it's also simply better developed. Maybe you'll soon be able to re-flash the ROM of a 7-Series. All that said, while the active anti-roll works well, I'd still avoid the active steering option on the 5-Series, at least for British conditions. It's for Alpine hairpins and high-speed autobahn driving, at the expense of normal-speed steering feel.

But it's not just the cornering that's cup-winning. The 5-Series's ride is really excellent, both over big stuff and the sharp little zits that often upset ‘sporty' saloons. And wind and tyre noise are way down.

I tested the first two engines to be released - the 535i, which is a new single-turbo Valvetronic. Its power matches the twin-turbo in a 335i - and it's said to be more efficient but doesn't quite sound as inspirational as BMW sixes used to. Economy is also helped by a new eight-speed auto 'box with full paddleshift over-ride. It's smooth and decisive and doesn't feel like it has too many ratios, unlike the multi-speed Lexus and Benz autos, which are always dithering about which gear to use.

The first diesel on sale is the 530d, which real-world matches the 535i for performance, though you don't get the fun of revving it so high. It costs a mere £10 more, and will save a third of your fuel bill and go a third further between fill-ups.

But if you're counting, the miracle will come in summer with the release of the 520d. It has 184bhp and will do 0-62 in 8.1secs - and is rated at 56.5mpg. Those sadly obsessed by the company-car latter can feel elevated beyond the Mondeo/Passat hordes, and derive added smugness from the knowledge they're being so tax-efficient.

So it's fair to say the 5-Series is undergoing a serious return to form. The last one suffered from unhappy first-generation versions of several technologies: iDrive, run-flat tyres, active steering. All those are better now. The design of the old one was pretty controversial too, especially the scowling face and brutally unwelcoming cabin. It didn't seem to want to be your friend.

The style of the new one is eager to please, but I suspect it might be accused of blandness. Still, the detailing, especially the head- and tail-lamp clusters, is a delight. The smart details and lovely quality run throughout the inside too, and the ergonomics manage to be progressive but not scarily intimidating. A longer wheelbase means it's roomier in the back than it used to be. As if that matters: when do you ever see cars like this with an adult in the back? From the rear seat, the 5 GT is the one to choose. For drivers, it's definitely this saloon.

Paul Horrell

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