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Expert Reviews 1 of 3
By David Thomas
June 16, 2009
In the world of luxury station wagons, there isn't much sense in trying to justify the price tag. Normally, a wagon is a practical choice for families looking for utility with improved mileage versus a similarly sized SUV. If, however, you're shopping the all-wheel-drive 535i xDrive or its competitors — the Audi A6 Avant and Mercedes-Benz E-Class wagon — you clearly have an entirely different set of priorities.
Those probably include a high level of luxury, features, performance and, yes, some utility thrown in. BMW's 5 Series wagon provides plenty of each and elicited raves from our staff, my family and even me. It's hard to fathom why anyone would purchase a $55,000-$75,000 station wagon, but if you're going to, it would be hard to go wrong with this one.
The 5 Series wagon comes only in all-wheel-drive 535i xDrive form. Its sedan counterpart can be had in 528i, 535i or 550i configurations; the 528i and 550i are covered separately in Cars.com's Research section. Click here to compare the whole lineup. Performance What sets the 5 Series wagon apart from the A6 and E-Class is the way it drives. Sure, its looks scream BMW inside and out, but so does the sweetly smooth acceleration coming from the twin-turbo six-cylinder under the hood. In today's horsepower-heavy world, where cars of all classes frequently top 400 hp, the 535i's 300 hp doesn't sound very impressive, especially when you consider how heavy a car this is — 4,101 pounds — but it's still lighter and more powerful than the A6 and E350.
It also has a superior engine in terms of refinement. The six-speed automatic features a manual setting, but rest assured that even in plain old Drive, the 535i wagon shifts flawlessly and will deliver enough thrills for most drivers.
BMW is notorious for heavy-handed yet precise steering. The 535i features what BMW calls Active Steering, which happily takes away a lot of the labor involved in turning the car during low-speed maneuvers, like navigating parking lots. It isn't as heavy as its sibling X3 crossover I tested the week prior, and during high-speed driving the steering wheel feels incredibly natural and intuitive — like a good sports car's.
The steering was probably the most surprising performance aspect, because you don't expect such a long, large wagon to carve corners like this one did. No, it isn't a sports car, nor is it an M3. But for a station wagon, it's near the top of the heap in terms of cornering and handling.
Even the ride was more comfortable than you'd expect, and it definitely felt smoother than the last two 5 Series sedans — a 528i and 550i — I've tested. (The latter one, to be fair, had a suspension-firming Sport package. The wagon did not.) Exterior The 5 Series is BMW's second-largest sedan, next to the 7 Series, and the wagon adds even more bulk. The rather large rump reminds me of more traditional wagons from the past, while competitors often try to make their wagons look as un-wagon-like as possible. Sure, the 535i xDrive may be frumpy in some regards, but it has elegant lines and a striking profile. Interior Where BMW has always done things right is on the inside. Sliding into the driver's seat — my test car had the optional contour seat package, a $1,200 option — is akin to being let into a room at the Ritz. The black dashboard is leather-trimmed with highly polished wood accents. The armrest is padded in thick leather, which feels great. The smell of new leather in a BMW is a favorite sensation, and it was still there even though nearly 5,000 miles had been put on the car before it reached my hands.
The steering wheel is nicely padded and it's heated. I drove in damp 40-degree weather most of the time I had the 5 Series wagon and loved the feature; it meant I didn't need gloves.
There are a number of ergonomic eccentricities BMW is for some reason holding onto. Cupholders pop out of the dash instead of sitting in the center console, meaning my coffee thermos or Diet Coke rests right above the stereo. The passenger's cupholder is better-placed, but both move more than you'd like, especially if you have a to-go coffee cup with an open top. Consider yourself warned.
You could also spill coffee on the new iDrive controller, which happens to be one of the few changes to the 2009 model. This latest controller adds a number of buttons encircling the main control knob so you can easily jump between audio, phone and navigation screens. I much prefer this setup, and now I'd say the iDrive system is as easy to use as similar systems from Audi and Mercedes. You couldn't say that last year.
Backseat room is very good, but you sit a bit upright and there's a large hump for the middle passenger to straddle. Parents will find plenty of room for child-safety seats and very easy-to-use Latch connectors with flip-up covers. In other BMWs, you have to remove the covers, greatly increasing your chances of losing them. Cargo In wagon form, the 5 Series is quite utilitarian. There are a lot of convenient features I appreciated during my time with it. Chief among them was the cargo cover that raised and lowered when you opened and closed the hatch. Normally I never keep cargo covers in place because they get in the way of loading groceries or other items when I'm running errands. Might as well not have a cover — except that they keep the sun out and keep everything covered from prying eyes.
BMW's solution is really simple and works flawlessly. The cargo cover also features a built-in net that attaches to the ceiling. These are generally used to keep pets safer in back, and also to keep them from drooling on your leather.
The specs for the cargo area come in at 17.7 cubic feet when the rear seats are in place and 58.3 cubic feet when they're lowered. That first number is far lower than the competition. The Audi A6 has 33.9 cubic feet, and the Mercedes-Benz E-Class has 24.4 cubic feet. The less expensive Volvo XC70 has 33.3 cubic feet. I must say, though, that those numbers really surprise me. Take, for example, the A6. It's 16 cubic feet bigger with the seats up, but only 5.5 cubic feet larger with them down, coming in at 63.8 cubic feet. Eyeballing the cargo area with the seats up, I don't think owners will notice such a significant difference between it and the 5 Series.
The Volvo XC70, on the other hand, is a considerably larger wagon in terms of interior and cargo space, both in terms of specs and my personal experience. What does this mean to luxury-wagon shoppers? Not much. Unless you're hauling large goods like antiques or boxes routinely, the 5 Series' space won't be a hindrance. Its everyday features should more than make up for the smaller area overall. Features The 535i xDrive starts at $55,800 and comes with a fair amount of standard features, like a panoramic moonroof, xenon headlights and rain-sensing windshield wipers. As with most BMWs, though, it's very easy to load it up with option packages and extravagant features. Our tester was loaded with so many it stickered at almost $74,000.
Leather seats aren't standard, leatherette is, but BMW adds leather in its Value Package, which comes at no extra cost and also includes an iPod and USB adapter, a heated steering wheel and heated seats. A Premium Package ($2,500) adds a power liftgate. The Sport Package ($1,400) includes comfort seats and black trim around the windows. An M Sport Package ($3,000) includes everything in the Sport Package plus 18-inch alloy wheels, an exterior aero kit, a sport steering wheel, and unique paint and interior combinations.
There are a number of stand-alone options as well. The one I would seriously recommend is the comfort seats ($1,200). These feature a number of additional adjustments and are some of the best seats I've ever tested. Less necessary are the heads-up display ($1,200) and night vision ($2,200). Both are intended to make driving safer, but are definitely not worth their cost.
Navigation is another $1,900, while a premium stereo is $1,200. Other safety features, like active cruise control ($2,400) and lane departure warning ($950) are nowhere near as useful as the park distance control ($750). Parking sensors have been around a long time, but BMW uses a very simple diagram on the center LCD screen that tells you exactly how close you are to objects while parking. Unlike backup cameras that distort your surroundings, this clear diagram takes even more of the guesswork out of tricky maneuvers.
As you can see, it's not that hard to get above the $70,000 mark. Safety Besides options like lane departure warning, the 5 Series comes equipped with a suite of side curtain airbags and front-seat side-impact airbags. Rear seat-mounted airbags can be ordered as a $385 option.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has crash-tested the 5 Series sedan, but not the wagon. Front and rear crash tests of the sedan received top marks of Good, while side tests produced Marginal ratings, which are second worst. This was because of specific damage to the driver's torso in the tests. BMW 535 in the Market The large luxury wagon is not the most sought-after segment in the auto industry, especially these days. The SUV has dominated this market, offering similar utility and space as wagons in a class where gas mileage matters little.
However, for those who want the utility of a smaller SUV and the driving feel of a car, wagons are still quite appealing. If the driving experience is vital to your decision, you have to look at the 535i xDrive. Audi's A6 and Mercedes' E350 compete in terms of utility and price, especially now that the 2009 A6 has upgraded to a new supercharged engine that produces similar power as the 5 Series wagon.
For shoppers in this very limited segment, the 535i xDrive is surely an ideal choice, but with the masses still choosing SUVs even today, I wonder how long any manufacturer will keep producing wagons, no matter how good they are.