If you can tell the difference between a 2007 BMW 525i and a 2008 BMW 528i — one of the models I tested — when one passes you on the street, congratulations. Most folks will need to circle the car very slowly to see the changes (hint: check out the head- and taillights).
The 5 Series' design was a radical departure for BMW when it debuted in 2003, but its dramatically raked hood and squared off rump are more widely used by many automakers today, meaning the 5 Series now blends fairly well into the flow of traffic.
New exterior trim included in the 550i's optional Sport Package gives the car the appearance of the more expensive, performance-oriented M5, but without the additional $20,000 that the 500-horsepower rocket commands. I tested the new 550i with the Sport Package, which adds 19-inch wheels and tires, more aggressive front and rear body panels, and black tailpipes. The package did alter the look and feel of the car; even though it was painted white, it was the most menacing white car you can imagine.
While BMW says the interior has been "thoroughly revised," I'd have to argue that only former owners will note the changes. There are slight upgrades to trim pieces, more console storage and, yes, even bigger door pockets.
The fact that there isn't a radical new interior doesn't mean the 5 Series isn't a nice place to reside during a commute. Indeed, the 10-way power front seats are incredibly comfortable and can accommodate any frame. My wife said they were the most comfortable she's ever experienced, and she rides in dozens of test cars a year. I'm not ready to make such a bold statement, but there's no denying they're near the top of the heap.
Rear passengers won't be as happy, as legroom is minimal. Buyers might not mind that lack of legroom in BMW's current entry-level 3 Series, but for the more expensive and considerably larger 5 Series, it might be a bigger issue. Still, the space is similar to competitors, like the Audi A6.
As in any BMW these days, driving the 5 Series means you have to learn iDrive. In the few years since it was introduced, I've grown accustomed to the complex interface that controls navigation, stereo, climate and almost every other feature of the car. BMW has taken pains to make sure there are easier-to-use knobs and buttons to control many of the same functions, like stereo volume.
All BMW 5 Series also add HD Radio standard for 2008. I initially thought this was a frivolous add-on, but after hearing local radio in high definition I was convinced of its value.
There are three distinct 5 Series models. The main difference between each is what's under the hood and how it impacts the driving experience. The entry-level 5 Series is the 528i, replacing the 2007 525i. The 528i is powered by a 230-hp inline-six-cylinder engine. While its power is adequate, it didn't supply any of the visceral thrills that most BMWs offer. There is a slight delay in acceleration off the line or when trying to hustle out of slow-moving traffic. You can use the automatic transmission's manual function for more assertive shifting, but even that wasn't impressive.
Replacing the 2007 530i is the 535i, and it gets BMW's award-winning twin-turbo six-cylinder that produces 300 hp and makes this sedan go mighty fast; the company says it hits 60 mph in 5.7 seconds. That beats a Hemi-powered Dodge Charger by a good half-second. I didn't get to test this model, unfortunately, but I've driven the 335i with the same splendid engine and would imagine this car is the sweet spot for 5 Series buyers.
There are also all-wheel-drive versions of both these models, named 528xi and 535xi, respectively.
The 550i remains the top of the 5 Series lineup, with a 360-hp V-8 engine that gets the sedan to 60 mph in 5.4 seconds, if you're keeping track. I tested the 550i with a six-speed manual transmission and was very impressed by how much fun it was to thrash around. It felt light and easy to control and didn't rattle my teeth like performance-oriented models like the M5 do.
The 5 Series comes with side-impact airbags for the front seats and optional side-impact airbags for the backseat. Side curtain airbags are standard. BMW says the backseat side airbags are optional so owners can choose whether they want the added security. Active front head restraints are also standard.
All 5 Series models come standard with BMW's Dynamic Stability Control and a number of additional safety features, including brake drying and — my personal favorite — start-off assistant. It keeps the brakes engaged when you're stopped on an incline so that in the time between your foot leaving the brake pedal and hitting the gas, the car won't roll backward. It's especially handy in manual transmission models.
The 2008 BMW 5 Series has not been crash tested. The previous models earned top scores in front-end collisions by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, but they were not tested in side collisions.
Like many luxury cars in today's market, detailing every feature in the 5 Series would bore most shoppers, but there are some interesting features to note in the 2008 models.
Cruise control is now of the advanced variety, which measures traffic speed ahead of you so it can work in heavier traffic. That doesn't mean you should necessarily use it on your bumper-to-bumper commute, but on the open highway the system can come to a complete stop without losing settings and accelerate back up to the set speed with a press of the gas pedal.
A revised lane departure warning system is also available for 2008. This option alerts the driver via a vibration in the steering wheel whenever the car wanders inadvertently into another lane.
A USB adapter for an iPod or other MP3 player is optional.
5 Series in the Market
BMW doesn't need to worry about losing its place in the mid-luxury market with the 2008 5 Series, but I still would have liked to have seen more than slight cosmetic changes to the stylish sedan. The company has a real sleeper in the 535i now, but buyers could find a number of better luxury-performance values than the 528i. That's BMW's problem these days: It can't get away with building a hum-drum sedan in such a competitive field. Luckily, the 535i and 550i don't have that problem.
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