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Expert Reviews 1 of 3
By David Thomas
May 21, 2010
Of the hundreds of cars I've written about over the years, there are few I would call truly ugly. The BMW 550i GT is one of those cars. Its odd proportions, hatchback body style and downright-bizarre body lines add up to one big eyesore.
On the positive side, none of those hundreds of cars are a better companion on the open road. The 550i GT is simply one of the finest touring machines I've ever piloted.
That's good, because if you're going to name your newest 5 Series "Gran Turismo," it better do one thing right: get you to your destination in comfort and with plenty of power. BMW did sacrifice solid braking for some high-tech wizardry, though, which turned off anyone with a pulse who got in the driver's seat.
The dirty little secret of this unsightly hatchback is that it shouldn't be called a 5 anything. It's based on the 7 Series sedan, sporting nearly identical interior and exterior dimensions, plus the same engine and features, but for about $18,000 less. If you can stomach its looks, this is an impressive $63,900 bargain. Looks While I really want to get to the best part of the 550i GT — the driving experience — there's no escaping the first thing people will take into account when it comes to this car: its looks. Not one of our staffers liked how the 550i GT looked; perhaps even worse than the negative feedback from those of us in the know, however, was the total lack of attention paid to this car by passers-by.
Controversially styled cars often attract stares of some kind — disgust or otherwise. But not our beige — BMW calls it Orion Silver Metallic — test car.
The front is rather aggressive-looking and very similar to the larger 7 Series, and it's the GT's hatchback body style and truncated rear that upsets my inner car designer. It looks like someone took a 7 Series, cut the trunk off with a laser and didn't do any cosmetic surgery to round out the look.
The GT's bulbous profile also offends. The week before our tester arrived, I saw a new, black 550i GT on the road, and even that flattering color didn't do much for it. Performance BMW has done a lot to the 550i GT to make it a touring car and not the typical performance-oriented machine the automaker has striven for ... well, forever. This will likely upset many BMW purists, as it did Cars.com senior editor Joe Wiesenfelder, who thinks the X5 and X6 crossovers do a better job preserving the BMW spirit.
While the previous-generation 5 Series sedan was an unabashed performance machine, the 550i GT is designed for a more sedate life. Cars.com editor Mike Hanley reviewed the redesigned 7 Series, which you can read about here, and thought this hatchback should be called a 750i GT.
At its core is a 400-horsepower, twin-turbo V-8 engine teamed with an eight-speed automatic transmission and standard rear-wheel drive; all-wheel drive is standard on the 550xi. A 535i GT and 535xi GT with a 300-hp, turbocharged six-cylinder is also available, starting at $56,000.
The 750i features the same twin-turbo V-8 but a six-speed automatic transmission.
The 550i GT has a standard rear self-leveling air suspension for an even greater level of comfort — and no, the 750i doesn't have that either, not even as an option. My test car also had a Dynamic Handling Package ($2,700), which adds Adaptive Drive. That feature adjusts suspension, steering and throttle control among four modes: Comfort, Normal, Sport and Sport+.
Unlike a lot of systems like this that I've tested, you can really feel a difference when you shift from one mode to another, using a well-positioned rocker switch on the center console. Most of the time — including most of a road trip between Chicago and Indianapolis — I left it in Comfort, for the comfort of my wife, who was seated in the plush passenger seat. It's also incredibly silent, whether you're requesting all 400 horses or sitting at a stoplight.
Steering in this setting was a bit numb — light for a BMW, which is nice on long drives. Plus, you can still put the accelerator to the floor when you want to pass semis with gusto. Speed-sensitive steering is standard, with an active steering setup optional ($1,750); my test car had this setup.
When moved to Sport — why would you ever drive in Normal? — the 550i GT turns into more of a typical BMW, with more responsive steering and a touchier right pedal.
No matter which setting, it always feels like you're piloting a large car when driving the GT, and you are. Those 7 Series comparisons relate directly to the driving experience; even though it's 3 inches shorter in overall length, the 550i GT's wheelbase is a mere 0.2 inches shorter, while carrying 374 extra pounds. Yes, some will call it a porker. Turning radius, front and rear track, and the cars' widths are either identical or nearly so.
The least impressive part about the driving experience was the maddening regenerative braking system that BMW thought it needed to add to make the GT more efficient — and we're not even sure it does that; the GT is rated 1 mpg worse on the highway than the 750i that doesn't have it equipped. And yes, you're still subject to a $1,000 gas-guzzler tax because of the GT's 15/21 mpg city/highway gas mileage rating. The good news is I returned 20 mpg overall in real-world driving, which included bumper-to-bumper commutes on top of that road trip on open highways.
It's not just the numbers that are distressing; the braking system intrudes on the overall driving experience. Once you start to decelerate — even if you're just coasting to a stop without brakes — the system kicks in and you feel a lurching as the car starts recapturing energy. Hit the brakes, and that lurch is even more intrusive. Who in their right mind spends $64,000 — or $83,000 if you get a version like our well-appointed test car — to get this kind of annoyance, with no seeming gain in terms of efficiency? Plus, once you're shelling out nearly $1,400 a month for a car — that's the going lease rate for one with our as-tested price — do you care whether the fill-up is an extra $5 or $10? Interior OK, I need to settle down a bit, and thinking of the 550i GT's interior is a peaceful way to do that. While some bits of the GT were less than praiseworthy — especially a flimsy cubby drawer in the middle of the dash and the bulky plastic surrounding the center console and lower door pockets — overall, the interior shined.
Chief among the highlights were plush, 20-way powered front seats with first-class airline-inspired headrests (part of a $2,950 option package). The rear seats were almost as comfortable, with power reclining and plenty of leg- and headroom for adults.
Then there are the readouts and controls. The gauge cluster — nearly identical to the 7 Series' — is a mix of analog needles and fully digital readouts. That means the numerals for your speed and revs are digital, and at night they don't glow the classic BMW orange; they're orange numerals.
The lower part of the gauge cluster is also a digital readout that seamlessly swaps out trip information, time and temperature. Plus, when you're adjusting the stereo, radio station presents or song titles pop up for you to sort through using a steering wheel switch, similar to Audi's layout.
The latest iDrive is now teamed to a gigantic center LCD screen. Navigation, which comes standard, is gorgeous in full-screen mode with a satellite overlay. You can easily make it a split screen with other menus, like trip information or stereo settings, as well. Now in its fourth generation, iDrive has gotten much more intuitive than ever before, but I still found myself fumbling with the main controller knob. Mainly, when I tried to go backward through the menus — which requires a significant leftward push — I would spin the knob around instead.
However, that was a minor annoyance in an otherwise flawless infotainment system. Our test car was upgraded with a $1,400 Premium Sound Package with an iPod adapter and 16 speakers. Sound quality was very good, but it didn't compare with Audi's more expensive Bang & Olufsen option, which costs around $6,000 in some models.
While our test model had many options and packages added on, even the standard-features list on the 550i GT is pretty extensive, including Bluetooth, a panoramic sunroof, push-button start, folding side mirrors, a power tilt/telescoping steering wheel and parking sensors.
Oh, and many of you will be happy to learn that BMW has fixed its cupholder problem. No more do fragile plastic stirrups pop out of the dash; a more substantial pair of cupholders is now located in the center console, and they fit large drinks comfortably. Skinny water bottles, though, will slide out when you make a turn. Cargo It's hard to gloss over the GT's unique cargo area, given it's the main reason the car looks like this. There's a unique dual door on the back that you can open like a trunk or like a traditional hatchback. I have absolutely no idea why anyone would want to open the narrow trunk to access anything, unless it were a wildly windy day and they were afraid their loose papers would end up flying all over town.
Honestly, that's the only time I would use it, because the liftgate isn't that heavy.
What was really a pain was simply lowering the rear seats down to create a flat cargo floor — and they were power operated! You have to lower the seats separately from a hard cargo floor backing. First, the leather seat folds down via a power switch on the left side of the cargo area, which seemed to take a very long time. Once the cushy seats are down, you must then pull two latches, one behind each seat, to lower the hard piece of carpeted flooring that creates a flat load floor. What a pain. And from what I could tell, there wasn't any reason to have these steps separated.
It's also not that roomy back there; golfers will be hard-pressed to get two full-size sets of clubs in the back with any extra room for luggage. Safety A number of passive and active safety features are standard, including a basic array of airbags, but there aren't rear-seat-mounted side airbags, just curtains. There's also no knee airbags for either driver or passenger, which the 7 Series has.
BMW also has a feature called BMW Assist that's similar to GM's OnStar, automatically sending out collision notifications and other services. Four years of the service are included, but you'll have to pay a fee past that time.
An optional Driver Assistance Package is available for $1,350, including blind spot detection, lane departure warning and automatic high beams. 550i GT in the Market While one of my major hang-ups about the 550i GT might be subjective — its looks — every Cars.com staffer who tested it complained about those regenerative brakes. I suspect many buyers of such a pricey auto will be as bothered by it as we were.
And that's unfortunate, because the 550i GT is a unique luxury car that matches up well to BMW's flagship sedan. In terms of price, it trumps it considerably.