LISBON, Portugal—My colleagues at Autofocus used to heckle me for being a BMW fanboy. They have a point. It’s true, I have two very old BMWs that I generously refer to as “classics.” (They’re investments!)
If I’m being honest though, they are just old. And needy. And so I suppose it’s true: I have a soft spot for old BMWs—why else would I have spent so much money so foolishly on them?
They key word, however, is old BMWs. If anything, that makes me a harsher critic of the new models from Munich.
I know exactly how good the 5 Series was, once upon a time. And I know that for a couple of generations now, it hasn’t been living up to BMW’s old “Ultimate Driving Machine” promise.
And so it was with low expectations, and a great deal of skepticism, that I went to test-drive the all-new 5.
This is the seventh generation of the 5 Series, BMW’s longest-running line. The first 5er in 1972 passed down a few important design cues to the latest model, most importantly the kidney-shaped grille; and the “Hofmeister kink,” that little notch out of the low bit of the rear side window. There’s a lineage here.
But the 5 Series has been on a non-stop diet of wheat-beer and pretzels since 1972. Not only does the new model dwarf the original in every dimension – it’s larger even than the first 7 Series – it’s much heavier, too.
Of course, that’s not so much a knock against BMW, but rather the entire auto industry. In the quest to make cars safer and gadget-filled, automakers have made cars huge. Compared to the previous 5 Series, it’s 36 mm longer, plus a tad wider and taller. The wheelbase has only increased 7 mm, so that extra length results in longer overhangs. It’s a handsome car, but it won’t turn heads.
The seventh-gen 5 Series is technically a mid-size. It looks and feels from the driver’s seat like a full-size.
The fit and finish, the way so many materials – wood, aluminum, leather – all fit together is the most impressive part. All these complex curved shapes fit together without a millimeter between them. You don’t notice it at first. But it’s why the cabin feels expensive.
Apparently, individual parts of each car are laser-scanned to ensure perfect fit of interior trim. It’s a big step up compared to the outgoing car. I’d say it’s better even than the interior of theMercedes E-Class, the BMW’s main rival.
The extra space mostly goes to rear seat passengers, providing extra knee room. Getting into those back seats, though, you still have to fold yourself quite low.
As you’d expect, the 5 Series has every gadget and gizmo available in the automotive universe. Most of them you’ll pay extra for, but if it’s not in this car, it probably doesn’t exist yet.
There are up to seven different driving modes. “Adaptive” mode uses the navigation system to predict the road ahead and set up the car accordingly—just like a Rolls-Royce does.
BMW’s iDrive operating system is on its sixth iteration. It’ll download your work emails and read them aloud to you. It’ll transcribe a text message as you speak, and send it to anyone in your contacts. The new central display is a touchscreen, for the first time.
There’s gesture control, which will have you waving your fingers around the cabin like a madman. There’s a wireless-charging holster for your phone. There are massaging seats and a ginormous heads-up display that’d make an F-16 pilot jealous. There is a semi-autonomous “Personal Copilot” system. The list goes on.
Honestly, all the technology was overwhelming initially, and slightly ridiculous. The original model just had a radio, heater, three pedals, and a steering wheel. Our test car was fully loaded, though. You’ll only want to buy the gadgets you’ll actually use.
Ahh, performance. This is where the new 5 Series needs to prove itself. The last two models lost the top spot in the performance and handling stakes. Mercedes has been in rare form, and the new Jaguar XF is genuinely fun to drive.
On narrow, fast flowing turns the 5 Series steers with a lightness that’s been missing in recent years. It’s more eager, more deft. All-wheel steering – now available in conjunction with all-wheel drive – makes the car manageable on a road like this. The variable (ratio and weight) steering takes some getting used to. It’s better — more precise — than before but not immediately predictable.
The balance is neutral at any sane road speed, only tipping into mild understeer when you’ve gone into a corner way too fast. Nothing upsets the chassis. The ride is more compliant and body control is steadfast. That the new model is 100 kg lighter than before certainly helps.
At first, I was pleasantly surprised with its handling. Not as bad as I feared. As the day went on and it soaked up more bumps and ruts, I became genuinely impressed.
All-wheel-drive “xDrive” will be standard on the Canadian-spec 5 Series. Our test car was a 540i, with the always-amazing 3.0-litre turbocharged straight-six. It’s got 35 more horsepower than before, bringing it up to 340 hp. It doesn’t sound amazing like the old sixes, but the power and torque are in another league.
Other models in the lineup will be the four-cylinder 530i xDrive, V-8 550i xDrive, and plug-in hybrid 530e xDrive. No diesels, I’m afraid. A new M5 will likely debut late next year.
The 540 will cost $69,000; the 530 will be $61,500. They arrive in the spring of 2017. BMW didn’t have Canadian fuel economy figures yet.
This is a competitive segment, and that’s reflected in the pricing. The E-Class is priced within a couple hundred dollars. The Jag XF is within a couple thousand, although the six-cylinder models start at just $62,000. The Audi A6 is due to be replaced with an all-new model next year, so we wouldn’t recommend one right now.
The 5 Series is back. No, it’ll never be what it was, in the good old days, in the fan-boy golden era. Technology and gadgetry have taken over. But in terms of the current competition, the 5 Series is once again a top contender for best-in-class ride and handling.
To find out for sure we’d have to get it back-to-back with a new XF on local roads. I was pleasantly shocked. Between this and the M2, maybe BMW is getting back on form after a few years in the weeds.
Disclosure—This writer’s travel and accommodations were provided by the automaker for the purposes of this first-drive review.