The interface between car and driver is critical to the enjoyment of driving. I was reminded of that last week as I shifted from second to third gear in a manual-transmission version of BMW's 528i.The 5-series BMW is totally new. It has a totally redesigned body structure, sleek exterior and numerous advancements in weight saving and crash protection. It looks smaller than the car it replaces, even though it is larger. If there's any criticism to be leveled at the new 528i it could be that the exterior may be too conservative, but that's the BMW way. This is the third one I have sampled, and it may actually be the most appealing all-around configuration, especially considering its base price is $38,900 versus $49,900 for the 540i. It is not as fast as the ferocious 540i, which has a 282-horse V8, and it is not as effortless as the 528i with the automatic transmission. Yet, the properly weighted clutch and precision-shifting manual transmission connects the driver to the silky-smooth, inline six-cylinder engine so directly that you can pull off shifts that are as smooth as an automatic. For those looking to share this same powerplant in a smaller vehicle at a lesser price, it is also offered in the 328i. I often found the 528i gobbling up the interstate at a prodigious pace because it is so quiet and composed. The lack of wind and road noise contributes, of course, but the suspension is tuned to keep the tires firmly in touch with the road without extracting a penalty in ride quality, and that is not a balance easily struck. Even riding on fairly smallish 15-inch tires it clings to exit ramps like a six-year-old to a Beanie Baby. The all-aluminum suspension saves 46 pounds of unsprung weight and that means the tires and wheels react quickly to irregularities. That lessens the impact felt inside the vehicle while enhancing grip on the pavement. Anti-lock brakes and traction control contribute to its all-weather performance. The smooth ride gives passengers more time to appreciate the excellent interior layout and gauge design. Our metallic silver test car had an all-black leather interior, with dark gray wood trim. I would prefer actual wood tone instead of the dark gray, and I found that the wood on the center console occasionally reflected light back into my eyes. The texture on top of the dash not only looked rich but reduced glare very effectively. The automatic climate control system has separate controls for right and left passengers, a nice touch. BMW continues to use stereo systems that have excellent sound quality but complicated controls that often require a search of the manual in order to figure them all out. The cassette player is hidden under a strip of wood in the center of the dash, good for anti-theft protection. The standard weather band is great for checking weather forecasts if you are traveling. The back seat is not overly generous, with 0.6-inches more legroom tha n the old model, but it is more than adequate for occasional use. The redesign of the 5-series has resulted in a taut, elegant four-door that is quiet, refined and athletic. Price The base price of our test car was $38,900. Its only options were metallic paint and premium sound system, and they brought the sticker price to $41,445. Warranty The standard warranty is for four years or 50,000 miles. Vehicles for The Star's week-long test drives are supplied by the auto manufacturers. Point: The 528i with a manual transmission is a rewarding combination for folks who like to feel involved with their machines. The handling is taut, the interior plush but understated. Counterpoint: The stereo is too complicated and the dark gray wood trim looks unnatural. SPECIFICATIONS: ENGINE: 2.8-liter, 6-cyl. TRANSMISSION: Five-speed WHEELBASE: 111.4 inches CURB WEIGHT: 3,450 lbs. BASE PRICE: $38,900 PRICE AS DRIVEN: $41,445 MPG RATING: 19 city, 28 hwy.
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