Controversial redesign adds up for BMW 530i

What's 7 plus 4, plus 5, plus 6, plus 3? The answer: 1.

That is, one redesigned fleet of BMW passenger cars, beginning with the 7 Series, then the Z4, then the 5 Series, the imminent 6 Series, and, likely sometime next year, the 3 Series.

BMW is literally putting an edge on the appearance of its automotive lineup. Beginning with the controversial design of the 7 Series, onto the Z4, and now the 5 Series, BMWs feature sharp-edged lines that run fore to aft, headlight to tail- light. Along the way, those lines highlight areas of convex and concave body parts, metallic arcs, and high chopped rear ends, which have drawn the most ire from critics of the redesign. And on this point I'd agree. The backside works on the two-seater Z4, but it seems a humped and abrupt ending to the longer lines of the sedans.

Most recent of the redesigns is in the mid-lineup 5 Series.

The 530i, sport package equipped model just tested, was imposing in its sharp stance. Its headlights -- wide slits below, the narrower slits of blinkers sitting atop like eyelids -- looked absolutely reptilian.

Its high-riding body, aluminum in the front, steel from the front pillar back, made the glass look small, like the outside view of the cockpit windows of a big airliner.

You know a lot is going on in there, but you can't see much of it.

The outside lines, as in the Z4 and 7 Series, are recreated in the interior, where pockets and bumps define arm rest areas, gauges on the dash, the upper lines of door panels. Even the gauges, mid-dash and behind the wheel, are sheltered by protruding eyebrows.

The leather package is, of course, firm and superbly bolstered. There'll be no sliding around in these seats at speed. Even the outer rear seat passengers sink into butt-grabbing pockets of comfort and protection.

For those who criticized the 7 Series for its iDrive system -- basically a computer "mouse" in the form of a diabolical dial between the front seats -- and its hundreds of functions, good news.

The new 5 has iDrive but the seemingly endless number of compass points leading to functions to menus to submenus to minutia has been simplified to just four areas of entry. Still complicated, but a bit better.

BMW has performed one remarkable bit of wizardry with the 530i. It made the car nearly 1 1/2 inches taller, almost two inches wider, and 2.6 inches longer. It sits on a 1.8-inch wider front track, a 2.2-inch wider rear track, and a wheelbase that is about 2.5 inches longer.

The result is excellent leg room in the rear and, because of "scoops" in the ceiling above outer rear passengers' heads, there's plenty of noggin niche. And all this was accomplished while dropping 50 or so pounds from the previous model's curb weight.

The 530i comes with three engine options: a 2.5-liter, inline 6 that produces 184 horsepower; a 3.0-liter I-6 that delivers 225 horsepower (as tested); and a 4.4-liter V-8 with 325 horsepower.

Transmission options include a 6-speed manual (again, as tested), a 6-speed manual with automatic shifting and clutch, and a 6-speed automatic.

The 225-horsepower engine makes this a fine driver's car -- elegant, sure, powerful. It does not leap from the line (I can imagine what the 325-horsepower unit would do), but it rises steadily to cruising speed and, once there, becomes an effortless devourer of open high-way. The 6-speed manual was precise if a bit heavy, but I suspect that's because it's designed to handle a wide range of torque: 175 lb.-ft. in the smaller engine, 214 lb.-ft. in the test model, and a whopping 330 lb.-ft. in the V-8.

The aluminum suspension is a strut/lower-link setup in the front, while the rear is a four-link system. Aluminum, in fact, plays a significant role in this car's weight los even in the face of greater size. Besides the suspension, the engine blocks and heads are aluminum, and the aluminum nose further cuts weight, with that lightweight alloy atop the engine helping to give the car an almost perfect 50-50 weight distribution. I was most impressed with the electronically variable, speed-sensitive steering on this new model. Drive it slowly and it takes just over 1 1/2 cranks to turn the wheels from full right turnout to full left turnout (lock-to-lock).

Using a gear/speed-sensitive system that determines how far you have to turn the wheel given how fast you're driving, steering is odd, at first, but wonderful to sense once you become used to it. By the time you have hit 75 miles per hour, the lock-to-lock turn is a super-sensitive five rotations of the wheel.

The redesigns of the BMW passenger cars continue amid criticism of the iDrive, but as 7 yields to 4 yields to 5, I sense a growing acceptance of what is taking place. An engineering marvel is just getting a sharper skin.

Now bring on that M5 with the V-10 engine, 40 valves, and 500 or more horsepower.