- Max Speed
Is this BMW 5-Series review going to be full of surprises?
Possibly not. German car companies try very hard to avoid mistakes, while evolving their cars along a predictable trajectory. The new 5-Series is first and foremost… a new 5-Series.
But it couldn't stand still in the face of the strides made be the opposition in the past year. A very fine new Mercedes-Benz E-Class and de-stressing Volvo S90 arrived earlier in 2016, and the terrific Jaguar XF not long before that. If you're from The Land Of The Free And The Donald, you'll be thinking of the Cadillac CT6 too.
Thumbnail sketch please. What's new?
The body uses a lot of aluminium in its skin, and one big magnesium cross-member beneath. The rest of the structure is high-strength steels – the 7-Series carbonfibre is too expensive. The suspension, seats, brakes and other parts are the same weight-saving parts used in the new 7-Series. Overall it drops 100kg versus the old F10 5-series. And it eases its way through the air with a mere 0.22Cd.
Engines are BMW's latest modular family. For diesels that means a 520d four-cylinder and 530d six, and for petrols a 530i four (you read that right) and 540i six. In Britain the diesels each give you a choice of RWD, which they call sDrive or AWD xDrive. No choice for the petrols in Britain. It's sDrive only for the 530i and xDrive only for the 540i.
Chassis options include four-wheel steering, adaptive dampers, and adaptive anti-roll bars – or none of those.
The whole smorgasbord of 7-Series driver aids are available on the 5 now. In fact, they've been extended further towards self-driving.
Never mind the car driving itself. The 5-Series has usually been the best car in its class for the human driver. Is that still its draw?
I tried two versions, a 530d with xDrive and a 540i sDrive. Yeah, I know I said that 540i xDrive-only for the 540i in the UK, but I was abroad. Sorry.
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The diesel first. It's a fine engine, making 265bhp and a growl that speaks more of its six cylinders than its diesel fuelling. Not so quiet at full-power as rival V6s, but more interesting. Out of roundabouts in the wet you're using every bit of the traction the four driven tyres can provide, once the full 457lb ft torque kicks in down at 2000rpm. In fact torque bias goes rearward as you put the hoof in, so it'll do a little wriggle of its tail.
The 540i has a stonking petrol engine. Civilised, responsive and lag-free in the mid ranges, it swings into the classic BMW straight-six tunes as it races for the red.
Both those engines co-operate beautifully with their eight-speed gearboxes, as BMWs have done for years. Just as well, as the only new 5-Series available with a manual box is the 520d.
And the chassis?
Fundamentally, it's a very well developed piece of engineering. And it feels like you'd expect: a fleeter, tighter version of the 7-Series, or a bigger, softer brother to the 3-Series. But you've got to qualify any detailed impression with a mention of the particular car's options.
First the 530d, which in our example runs four-wheel-drive, four-wheel steering (counter-phase for low-speed agility, same-phase for high-speed stability) and adaptive damping. But not adaptive anti-roll. It's on 18-inch conventional tyres.
Not much is going to upset your serenity in this car. It gets along in huge security, gripping gamely and imperiously. The steering is accurate and well-weighted so it's easy to be smooth in your inputs, and if you aren't it doesn't get unbalanced. The ride's supple most of the time too, though over big bumps at slow speeds it gets a little lumpy.
There's no need to switch between sport and soft settings for the chassis and powertrain – there's a catch-all 'adaptive' setting that does it for you, taking data not just from your driving inputs or the road underneath, but the navigation system's reading of the road ahead. It works a treat.
And what about the rear-driver?
Yes, I switched to the rear-drive 540i, again with adaptive dampers and four-wheel steering. Oooh this one's nicer in subtle but definite ways: the steering has a little more crispness, and the ride is even more fluent, both over low-speed bumps and high-frequency wavelets. This improved ride surprises me given it's on 19-inch runflats. But the chassis engineer reckons it's because the diesel has a heavier engine that shakes in its mounts more.
This powerful rear-driver obviously doles out elegant rear-end skids when you inhibit the electronics and boot the pedal. But honestly it's your choice. The powertrain is so biddable, and the traction so strong, and the chassis controls so well calibrated, that you can make blistering forward progress without drama.
But you won't be able to get this lovely chassis/engine combo in the UK. My guess that our sweetest-feeling chassis will be the 530i. That's a four-cylinder, though, so won't be able to paint a particularly colourful sonic picture.
Doesn't it look a teensy bit too much like the old 5-Series?
That's the point of evolution. You don't see it unless you have the two cars side-by-side. But for the record, there are some key identifiers. The running lights trace a hexagonal border around the headlights. The grille itself no longer has a body-colour surround – it runs right up to the headlight units at either side, and to the bonnet at its top border.
In the side view, a new air breather lives low down behind the front wheel. The roof is longer and the tail lower than before so the whole thing is sleeker. Finally, a subtle extra crease runs from above the front wheel, rising steadily along the doors and finally flicks up behind the Hofmeister kink. "You see it only at the second read," says exterior designer Domagoj Dukec. "But the second read is what makes something premium."
BMW did the opposite of Mercedes here. An E-Class has its big central screen integrated into the dash. BMW puts it as a tablet above, which might not be so tidy but means the dash looks less bulky.
Usually cars get bigger with every generation just so the company can drearily claim a bit more rear room or a few more litres' extra boot capacity. The 5-Series hasn't grown, outside or within. Fair enough, as the last one was accommodating enough. And no growth means it's no more cumbersome to drive.
What about all this semi-automated driving?
The idea is it'll follow lanes and radar-adapt its speed, in a multi-lane town queue or even up to Autobahn pace. It'll also adapt speed to road signs. And warn you if you do something incorrect at a junction. Hmmm. In my testing it keeps losing the white lines even on a new and well-defined motorway.
If you hold the indicator stalk it'll look out for a gap in the traffic before autonomously changing lanes. Like a Tesla. I really object to this protocol. Image you're in the outside lane in your existing car, overtaking a new BMW.
Its driver wants his car to move into your lane. So he suddenly indicates. But the indication doesn't mean he's about to move, it means he's waiting for a space. Or does it? Is this a semi-autonomous BMW that will wait until you've passed, or just a regular one whose driver hasn't seen you and is about to swerve into your path? It's mirror-signal-manoevre for a reason. Not signal-mirror-manoevre.
OK I get it, you don't like the unfinished autonomous driving functions. But is it another knockout drivers' 5-Series?
Almost. Thing is, it doesn't quite get under your skin. And actually the 5-Series hasn't done that for a few generations. It's handed that characteristic to the 3-Series. There's a want of intimacy and sensation in the 5-er.
And yet it is a fabulously ownable car. Wonderfully secure on any road. Fast and yet refined. Comfortable in its ride and seats. With cabin quality and ergonomics developed to a world-leading pitch.
It's painstakingly evolved and definitely a 5-Series. No surprise, but exactly what literally millions of buyers want. Yes, the current 5 has now sold 2.2m copies. You don't argue with that success.