Just when you thought the crossover market couldn’t get any more crowded
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£43,445 when new
What’s this? The new BMW 5 Series, in what might as well be called ‘Brit-spec’ It’s the 520d four-cylinder turbodiesel, which, in regular rear-drive form, is good for up to 65.7mpg and 114g/km of CO2. We’re driving the 4x4 xDrive version, because all-wheel drive is taking the premium market by storm of late (bet Audi’s pleased), though the addition of front driveshafts drops projected economy to 60.1mpg and 124g/km. It costs £41,025 – £2,000 of that is the premium for all-wheel drive. A comparable Mercedes E-Class charges you £1,500 for upgrading to 4Matic all-wheel drive. Still, for a luxury executive saloon that’ll hit 62mph in a Toyota GT86-embarrassing 7.6 seconds, those are fairly stellar efficiency numbers. You’d be pleased as punch if the company announced its next order of fleet cars was a squadron of 520ds, so far as the numbers go. At least, apart from one thing we’ll talk about later. What about inside? All austere and German and not as nice as an Audi?
Actually, it’s a really impressive cabin, chiefly because you drop into the driver’s seat and immediately recognise the design and most of the material from the 7 Series. Like the E-Class, which copies from the S, BMW has attempted – very successfully - to pull limousine ambience down into an exec saloon. Okay, the buttons are plastic where the 7 uses metal, but the virtual dials are pin-sharp, the ergonomics irreproachable, and the sense of quality is deep. iDrive still cannot be beaten as an in-car infotainment set-up, the tactile, safecracker-style rotary control a doddle to operate without removing your eyes from the road ahead, even if (optional) gesture control is a gimmick that won’t catch on until it’s far less limited in usability than it is right now. In the back, it’s vast. Decent foot room, even when the driver’s seat is shunted into a low-slung position, and ample head and legroom. Makes you question the need for the 7 Series, really. Well, the 5 Series ought to be the one you want to drive, not be driven in… And the good news is that even as a humdrum four-pot diesel, and fitted only with the optional variable dampers (no speed-sensitive steering or rear-wheel steer either), the 5 Series drives really, really well. The most impressive improvement versus the old car is how athletic and agile it feels – how it’s shrugged off its size. The old Five swelled enormously in size, but you were always aware of it; it never shrunk around the driver. Yes, it was a good drive, but manhandling it in more noodly roads, at times, was like trying to sail a canal boat down a waterslide. The new one’s been at the Miracle-Gro too, but its body is tightly controlled while still riding quite beautifully, and the steering, which BMW’s struggled with lately even in M cars, is less gloopy and morose. This is a car you can place accurately and drive very swiftly indeed without those sharp intakes of breath as the road ahead tightens, narrows and swoops out of view. Dulled by xDrive? Not a bit of it, and that bodes rather well for the new all-wheel drive M5, doesn’t it? And sorry BMW, but if the standard car (albeit on adaptive dampers we left in Comfort mode the lion’s share of the time) is so sorted, we won’t be ordering the adaptive steering or rear-steer system. The only chassis that can get close in this class is Jaguar’s unfeasibly engaging XF, but the BMW sees to the Jaguar. It’s got the Brit’s powertrain on toast. It’s a turbodiesel. How good can it be? The refinement is even more impressive than the performance. Despite all Mercedes’ crowing about investing €2billion in a new 2.0-litre diesel, BMW’s is even better suppressed and revs more freely. It’s a great companion for the eight-speed automatic, which has calibration a Jaguar XF can’t hope to match. The 520d is spacious. It’s beautifully made and the technology on-board is, on the whole, easy to fathom. It rides with dexterity and comfort, isolating its occupants from road noise and the machinations of its diesel powerplant, which wooshes the car along with genuine verve. And in the corners, the car stops and turns with an athleticism and response you wouldn’t credit for a barge this big. It shrugs off its weight in a manner unrecognisable from its predecessor. Honestly, I don’t want to gush but this car is so, so complete. So what, if anything, is that catch? Beauty being in the eye of the beholder and all that, is it just me that finds the new Five’s looks a major disappointment? BMW has one of the ultimate car styling toolkits – it can deploy the Hofmeister kink, twin kidney grilles, plus classically correct rear-drive proportions of long bonnet and short front overhang. Now and again, they turn out some genuine knee-tremblers, like the utterly stunning M6 Gran Coupe. But the new 5 Series just looks lazy, with piggy headlights, a jutting bulldog underbite and an overall look that’s somehow fussy and plain all at the same time. And in a car that’s this sorted, and a delight to be in, that’s a pity. Where’s the swagger? Where’s the presence? Still, maybe once we’ve seen oodles of them, the 5 Series M Sport will become a grower. You will be seeing many oodles, too. It’s one hell of an everyday saloon car. Photography: Rowan Horncastle
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