Editor's note: This review was written in November 2010 about the 2011 BMW 550. Little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2012, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
I don't walk away from every new model with a single overriding impression, but sometimes a car grabs me by the collar and shakes me. While that wasn't exactly the case with the redesigned 2011 BMW 5 Series, that car did consistently whisper in my ear.
If the new 5 Series is anything, it's quiet and comfortable.
This new level of comfort broadens the sport sedan's appeal, but at the same time the newly redesigned car gives up even more of its old visceral experience, which has been abating generation by generation.
The 5 Series sedan comes in three levels: the 528i, 535i and 550i. (The bizarre 5 Series Gran Turismo is reviewed separately.) Though there was a time when those numbers represented engine sizes, BMW's recent embrace of turbocharging has cast off any semblance of meaning. Suffice it to say the 528i has a six-cylinder, the 535i has a turbocharged six-cylinder and the 550i has a turbocharged V-8. See them compared here.
I tested the 535i and 550i with rear-wheel drive. All-wheel drive is available for both of these levels, designated "xDrive."
Exterior & Styling
The 2011 5 Series is further proof that BMW is pulling itself out of an awkward design era. Recently, the only element that had seemed to tie one model to another was an ill-conceived — and poorly received — rear-end design nicknamed the "Bangle butt," after former chief designer Chris Bangle. Though the previous-generation 5 Series' trunklid was better integrated than the one on the earlier 7 Series, its too-small grille and raised-eyebrow headlights were an aesthetic failure. With a design inspired by the headlights, the taillights looked like they were trying to escape the car altogether. Blech.
Refreshes weren't enough to cure the 5's ills, so 2011's complete redesign is a godsend. The grille is stronger than ever, the taillights look like they want to be there and the headlights are more aggressive than fey. They aren't perfect, though: There's a translucent white stripe along the top of the headlight clusters, also seen on other BMWs. It looks like something that was supposed to be removed after shipping.
The hood is sculpted in the fashion of other recent BMW redesigns, including the Z4 and 7 Series. In lieu of faux vents on the front fenders, chrome surrounds the side marker lights — relatively subtle by today's standards. The 528i has 17-inch alloy wheels, and the 535i and 550i have 18-inchers. Larger wheels are optional.
Compared with the 2010 model, the 2011 is 2 inches longer and a half-inch wider, with 3.2 more inches of wheelbase. The car is easily mistaken for the redesigned 7 Series, though the flagship is almost 7 inches longer and nearly 2 inches wider.
In the Cabin
Because each was equipped with the optional Sport Package, both of our test cars had "multi-contoured" power sport seats, which we found comfortable. An additional seat adjustment, which tilts the upper section of the backrest forward independently, is a cherished feature. Likewise for the power-extending bottom cushion, though the gap it forms collects enough crud to clog a Dustbuster. We were satisfied with the front seats' overall comfort and dimensions, but we wouldn't have minded a little more front-seat legroom.
Despite the larger exterior, the 5 Series' interior isn't notably roomier than before. Most seating dimensions increase or decrease by no more than a tenth of an inch or so, though front headroom is up 1.4 inches, and there's an inch more shoulder room up there. Shoulder room is an inch narrower in the backseat. While it's workable, the backseat isn't exceptionally roomy. By the numbers alone, nothing in this class has impressive rear legroom, though we found the Infiniti M sedan's backseat more accommodating. The midsize luxury sedan class is dominated by rear- and all-wheel-drive cars, which mean a large center floor hump. Call them five-seaters if you want, but those center seats are less usable than in other cars.
Characteristic of BMWs, the 5 Series' cabin is relatively simple and spare, mostly in a good way. The instruments, though, are too plain in a market segment full of glowing electroluminescent gauges, though you can opt for a head-up display that projects crucial info onto the windshield. The 5 Series' interior is otherwise a deft exercise in restraint. The materials are high-quality overall, with elements like standard genuine wood trim, or real aluminum available as a no-cost alternative. One big sticking point for me — which, again, is par for the course with BMWs — is the standard leatherette (that's fake leather) seats in the 528i and 535i. Real leather is optional on these and standard on the 550i.
Though BMW has high-quality vinyl, the lack of real leather at these prices is hard to swallow. Archrival Mercedes-Benz is guilty of the same, but comparable models from Audi, Infiniti, Jaguar and Volvo all have leather to start, and some of those are priced lower.
Frankly, this isn't a new phenomenon for BMW, or even for the luxury class, where you're more likely to pay for features that come standard in the most affordable of vehicles. For example, practically every new entry-level car comes standard with a folding backseat, and, increasingly, an iPod connector. In the 5 Series, they'll cost you $475 and $400, respectively.
One after another of our editors remarked about the shortage of features at our 535i's $58,275 as-tested price. It had no navigation, no heated or cooled seats, no backup camera. On the upside, though some of these items are included in packages, you can also get them a la carte, so you're not forced to pay extra for something you might not want.
The standard sedan has a 7-inch display and an abbreviated version of the iDrive control system, which employs a multifunction knob/joystick and a cluster of buttons on the center console. With the $1,900 navigation option, the screen increases to 10.2 inches and includes voice activation and traffic information. iDrive controls many audio system functions, the telephone, the BMW Assist telematics system and numerous vehicle settings.
BMW's iDrive has earned disdain over the years, but the current generation is actually pretty good. To my way of thinking, the issue has never been how hard it might be to learn but how simple it is to operate once you do learn it, and that's the aspect that has improved. Don't let iDrive's reputation distract you from the true ergonomic foibles on this and other BMWs: I speak of the electronic gear selector and turn-signal stalk, both of which immediately spring back to a center position after you move them rather than stay where you put them. With this design, you lose the ingrained and perfectly natural feedback of a turn signal that's still on and a transmission that's in the gear you want. As a result, you're always looking for displays just to make sure you don't, for example, roll the wrong way when you lift off the brake.
Are these controls bothersome enough to break the deal for a would-be buyer? You'd be surprised, but the BMW faithful have overlooked such things because of the vaunted BMW driving experience. So how's that going in 2011?
The 528i, 535i and 550i are rated at 240, 300 and 400 horsepower, respectively. The turbocharged version of the 3.0-liter inline-six-cylinder in the 535i makes the 550i superfluous, rocketing the car to 60 mph in less than 6 seconds. If you prefer 5 seconds, the 550i's twin-turbo 4.4-liter V-8 will deliver, but the 535i's character is more than you might expect from a turbo-six. There was some hesitation at times, but I wouldn't attribute it to turbo lag, because it's intermittent. Almost across the board, this turbo-six feels like a V-8. It's damn impressive, and plenty efficient at 20/30 mpg city/highway with the automatic transmission. This beats practically all competitors. Only the base Audi A6 tops it, at an estimated 21/30 mpg.
All-wheel drive, in the 535i xDrive, gives up 1 mpg. The six-speed manual transmission, available only with rear-wheel drive — is rated lower still, at 19/28 mpg. The 528i, which comes only with an automatic and rear-wheel drive, saves you a couple of mpg, rated 22/32 mpg. The 550i's best performance is 17/25 mpg with the automatic, 16/24 mpg with xDrive and 15/22 mpg with the manual transmission. All the cars require premium gas.
Where does this efficiency come from? Direct fuel injection plays a part, but as the mileage ratings reflect, the new eight-speed automatic transmission is a major player. My impressions of it are positive overall, though it's more effective with the 550i's larger engine (as is often true of automatics). What stood out was how quickly it kicked down under all circumstances, be it one gear, three gears, basically anything. This isn't always the case. In fact, historically, an increase in the number of a transmission's gears hasn't always guaranteed satisfying performance.
The transmission's responsiveness was still good in the 535i, but it wasn't quite as quick and decisive on the downshift as it had been in the 550i. In either car, sliding the gear selector to the left (the only position it actually stays in) activates an automatic Sport mode, which raises the rpm at which the transmission upshifts. It's a sportier approach, but it doesn't seem to speed the actual gear-change time. You can also shift manually by then pushing the stick forward or back, or by using paddles on the steering wheel. Frankly, with eight speeds to work with, you're always wondering what gear you're in, where you need to be and if it will even let you shift higher or lower from your current speed. The fun is lost.
Automatics have become so smooth that you often can't tell when they're shifting up. In normal Drive mode in the 535i, I was quite aware of the shifting. It's under heavier acceleration that the transmission is its smoothest. It's an odd approach, but we don't object.
Braking: One Step Up, Two Back
There is an aspect of the 5 Series that we do object to, though, and that's the braking. To be clear, the car stops well enough; it's not a safety concern. The problem is the feel of the braking, which pays the price for one of BMW's "Efficient Dynamics" provisions. Like the new 7 Series, the 5 Series employs Brake Energy Regeneration, which is a distant cousin of the regenerative braking that hybrids use to recover spent energy and use it again. In this case, there's no motor helping propel the car, but the generator (alternator) can be turned on and off with a clutch.
Driven by a belt, an alternator puts a constant load on an engine, and that hurts efficiency. This is the same reason belt-driven hydraulic steering pumps have been replaced by electric power assist in many cars, including the 5 Series. The alternator must be turned by the engine, but it doesn't have to be all the time. BMW's alternator has a clutch that releases the belt drive as often as possible, allowing the ignition and any accessories to run off the battery. The battery isn't much different from a regular 12-volt starter battery, though it's designed for deeper cycling — to discharge as much as 40 percent and then recharge. (Conventional starter batteries are kept topped off all the time.)
It's when the car is decelerating that the alternator reengages and recharges the battery. This is a clever idea that BMW claims is good for a 3 percent efficiency boost, or roughly 1 mpg in mileage terms. Unfortunately, it makes the braking feel uneven, nonlinear. As you brake, the transmission downshifts through the gears as the car decelerates, aggressively locking the torque converter whenever possible. This allows the car's inertia to turn the engine and its alternator, optimizing electrical regeneration. In a normal arrangement, an automatic transmission holds on to a high gear as you decelerate and brake, ultimately downshifting when you come to a stop. That sensation is smoother.
The problem is that the degree of engine braking varies as the 5 Series' transmission downshifts through the gears, so even though you're applying steady pressure to the brake pedal, the deceleration is uneven and you tend to come to an abrupt halt. For what it's worth, we thought this sensation was worse in the 550i Gran Turismo we tested, but it's still a problem here — and it's not what we'd expect from a company that once touted "The Ultimate Driving Machine" (recently overshadowed by the ill-advised "Joy" advertising campaign).
Given a choice, I'd want BMW to tweak the operation or eliminate the transmission's downshifting behavior during braking. I don't know how much that would hurt the mileage, but I suspect any driving enthusiast would prefer it. The driving experience is neither ultimate nor joyful. I wouldn't like it from any brand, but it's especially hard to accept from BMW.
Ride & Handling
Both our test cars had the Sport Package, which includes several features that affect ride and handling, so bear in mind that the base suspension will perform differently. The package adds an adaptive suspension and active stabilizer bars, both of which are controlled by the Driving Dynamics Control rocker switch next to the shifter. DDC's four modes — Comfort, Normal, Sport and Sport+ — vary the suspension settings, along with accelerator sensitivity, automatic shifting behavior, power-steering assist and traction control. It's much simpler to use than the old approach, which included multiple buttons for the various systems. Now you can program the Sport mode to vary the chassis settings, the drivetrain behavior or both, making your preferences just a push or two away using the DDC buttons.
The 5 Series rides comfortably indeed in the Comfort mode, and it's not bad in Normal. I was surprised by that because the Sport Package equipped both of our test cars with 19-inch wheels and lower-series run-flat tires. Sounds like a recipe for jarred bones, but that wasn't the case. Cycle through the modes, and you can feel the ride firm up and soften, but it's not always as noticeable as you'll find in some cars, and that's fine. One gets the impression the system is designed for true performance differences, not dramatic effect, so it really depends on the type of road and driving conditions.
The handling is interesting. Both the 535i and 550i are true to BMW's founding principle of balanced front/rear weight distribution: The 535i is rated 50.9/49.1 percent and the 550i is 52.4/47.6 percent. The automatic is light enough that the manual transmission relinquishes only a tenth of a percent to the rear in either car. More important than the specs, the cars feel wonderfully balanced and controllable. Size be damned, you can four-wheel-drift these things all day. The standard electronic stability system can be dialed back or defeated entirely.
The standard suspension and different wheel sizes and tire types will all affect roadholding, but there's no mistaking when the dynamic basics are there, and in the 5 Series, they are. My main complaint is about the sense of involvement. Dynamically, the 5 Series does what you want it to and more, but it's less visceral than I'd like, and maybe even less than the version that ended in 2010. Generation by generation, BMWs are becoming less engaging to drive. Though it had its own shortcomings, the 5 Series of two generations ago, coded E39, felt more ultimate.
The electric power steering might play a part, as its feedback isn't as good as it was in the best of BMW's now-endangered hydraulic-assist implementations, but it's good enough that a casual driver wouldn't know the difference. (For the record, I'm talking about the standard steering; the active steering option, which is sometimes criticized for its feel, wasn't on our test cars.)
The BMW 5 Series has earned Top Safety Pick status from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety for top scores in frontal, side and rear crash tests and a roof-strength test that reflects rollover protection. The 5 Series is also among the first models tested under the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's revamped New Car Assessment Program, in which it earned an overall score of five stars, the highest possible composite score. Of the various separate tests, however, in the frontal crash it scored four rather than five stars for both the driver and front passenger. That wasn't enough to bring down its overall score.
There are six airbags: two in front, a seat-mounted side-impact airbag for each of the front occupants, and side curtains that cover the side windows flanking the front and rear seats. Standard safety features include four-wheel antilock brakes, a stability system with traction control, and active head restraints for the front seats. For a full list of safety features, click here.
5 Series in the Market
The things that trouble me about the 5 Series — high price, fewer standard features than some competing models — are things that sort themselves out. If BMW is asking too much for too little, consumers will make it clear in the only language that matters: money, or the lack thereof, in the hands of BMW dealers. There's a lot to like about the 5, not the least of which is its admirable mileage.
The 5 Series' combination of capability with unprecedented comfort is bound to broaden its appeal overall. BMW isn't the only brand that has attempted to provide all things to all buyers. Lexus and Mercedes have been chasing that ghost for decades. Technology enables a single car to deliver a broad range of comfort and sportiness, and in some ways the new 5 Series sedan is a high-water mark in this regard, both for BMW's line and for the entire midsize luxury car segment. It succeeds in behaving like two types of car, but what it doesn't do is feel like two types of car, and I suspect the loss of that visceral feeling will disappoint the BMW faithful.
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