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2011 BMW 5 Series: Up Close

The 5 Series amends much of its predecessor’s cutline-and-eyebrow styling. In my estimation, it looks as good as the beloved 1997-2003 E39 5 Series – all the reserved elegance of the 7 Series without that car’s pointlessly wide lower air dam. The taillights, in particular, are a job well done.

The cabin feels on the smaller side for a midsize sport sedan. The rear seats have long cushions and ample thigh support, but 6-footers will find legroom tight, particularly compared with the Mercedes E-Class’ voluminous backseat. Materials up front are good, though BMW’s penchant for businesslike austerity will distinguish the car from its Japanese luxury competition. (Even among the Germans, the 5 Series feels all business.)

Like in the 7 Series, the 5’s climate settings illuminate out of inky black surroundings that you’d otherwise mistake for some sort of trim piece. Behold, there are real cupholders below – not the sturdiest ones, but worlds better than the flip-out dashboard cupholders employed elsewhere in BMW’s lineup.

For some time now, the automaker’s electronic automatic shifter has never been my favorite. The new 5 feels more ergonomic, complete with a gathered boot at its base. Still, its operation imparts the same robotic sensation. God bless BMW for still offering a stick shift on the 535i and 550i, though. Here’s hoping it will be more like the short-throw unit in the Z4 and less like the rubbery manual in the outgoing 5 Series.

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