The question before the house is, can a V-8 lover find happiness with two cylinders gone AWOL? Corollary query: Can a driving enthusiast find happiness with an automatic transmission? In the case of the BMW 525iA, I was surprised to find the answer was a resounding yes.

Surprised, because I had earlier sampled the transcendant delight afforded by the fire-breathing 540i with 6-speed manual. To be sure, THAT one is lamentably far more car than we can properly exercise in a country with the world's best roads, worst drivers and, consequently, rather conservative speed limits. And - reality check - it costs 20 large more than its humble series sibling.

The BMW 5 Series, generically, is the middle car in the Munich manufacturer's current U.S. lineup, falling between the 7 and 3 series. In terms of interior volume, it's labeled a compact by Environmental Protection Agency Ping-Pong-ball counters.

For 2001, the 5s got what the company labels a "discreet" design freshening, with new grille frames, new front lighting units, revised fog lamps, updated rear lights, which feature LEDs as their light source, monochromatic side treatments and body-color protective strips on front and rear bumpers.

The erstwhile base-level machine, 528i, has been dropped from the lineup, replaced by the 525i on the low end, the 530i upstream. Base price on the 525i, $35,400, is $3,500 less than what was asked for the 528i. This effort to democratize the line entails some sacrifices, of course. The most obvious is in engine displacement, as reflected so Teutonically in the name. The 2.5-liter inline six has been tweaked, however, so that it makes a mere 9 hp less than its retired big brother.

The climate control was made manual, rather than automatic (oh, the hardship!), and the passenger's seat is manual, instead of power-assisted. By way of compensating for this austerity plan, BMW has provided 16-inch alloy wheels instead of the 15-inchers the 528i had.

The engine is such as to forever banish the stigma of those porcine 525e machines BMW briefly made as an expedient answer to an earlier fuel-price shock. Where those were low-compression, low-revving affronts to what BMW stands for, the new 2.5 seems at its merriest near its power peak - 6,000 rpm - where it is churning out 184 horses, a BMW-worthy specific output, if not quite so far-out as some. BMW gets there by using a dual intake resonance system and variable valve timing on this all-aluminum powerplant.

The torque peak - 175 foot-pounds - is achieved at a more workaday 3,500 rpm, and its curve is sufficiently flat to make it a relatively content partner to the automatic transmission I experienced.

The 325iA weighs 3,505 pounds. Just looking at the numbers cited, one might conclude that performance would be on the languid side. But without any heroic efforts, I found the machine could leap from a standing start to 60 mph in 8 seconds flat. Hardly awesome, but adequate for the " entry-level" platform. The manual-shifted version should take that down into the low 7s, which is considered fairly zippy.

BMW has evidently sacrificed a little fuel economy to achieve a better seat-of-the-pants experience for its customers who, saddled with low top speeds, focus on blastoff brio.

In the manual machine, fifth gear is not even an overdrive cog. It's a straight-through, 1:1 ratio, backed by a final drive ratio of 3.15:1. The 5-speed automatic has a 0.75:1 ratio in fifth, working through a stouter 3.46:1 rear end.

A more conservative approach might have squeezed an extra mile or two per gallon out of the EPA test cycle, at the expense of making the car seem a slug. As it is, the EPA numbers are 19 mpg city, 27 highway. I logged an overall score of 20.7, not wasting the car's corner-munching prowess on much freeway time. With its compression ratio of 10.5:1, the engine expects 91-octane fuel.

Working through traffic, I kept the engine humming around 0 rpm, and was consistently gratified by the strength and immediacy of the response. The Steptronic shifter (licensed from Porsche) allowed manual gear selection when the spirit moved, although it was quite competent doing its own thing.

On the whole, in a variety of driving circumstances, the available power seemed sufficient, despite my nostalgia for the wretched excess of the 282-hp, 324-foot-pound 4.4-liter V-8 that comes in the 540 model.

Handling was average BMW fare, which is to say better than almost any production car in the world. BMW clings resolutely to the rear-drive configuration, which has inherently better handling because it separates the chores of steering and propelling. Even the low-end 5 series cars have both traction control and stability control. I've found in winter tests that BMW's traction control makes its cars at least the equal of front-drive machines. Not only does the car perform superbly, it makes the driver feel like part of the loop, an active participant.

The seats are firm and supportive, with good lumbar support. The steering wheel tilts through a short arc and also telescopes for a good fit.

The tested car had the "sport" suspension, which involves tougher springs and shocks, as well as beefier anti-roll bars. The bulking-up notwithstanding, it still delivered an extremely livable ride, especially over nasty pavement, where lesser lights might feel overwhelmed. The 111-inch wheelbase kept pitching to a minimum, and an impressively low (0.30) drag coefficient kept the cabin quiet at legal speeds and beyond.

The optional wide-profile tires, which sometimes can degrade ride, seemed in this case merely to enhance grip, as they're supposed to.

Instruments were but the usual four, though well-placed and paragons of visibility. I suppose oil pressure and temperature gauges are superfluous on a modern car, but on one as intense as this would nonetheless be appreciated.

You won't want to stop in this car, but you might have to, so it's fitted with potent 11.7-inch ventilated discs front and rear. Pedal feel is superb, and the antilock was quiet and competent. Stopping distances from 70 were impressively short.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has not crash-tested a 5-series. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has. In IIHS's demanding 40-mph offset barrier collision, the 5 earned a top mark in every category of occupant protection, and was deemed a "best pick" in its class, which IIHS curiously defines as "large luxury." One might reasonably infer five-star ratings on the government's frontal crash, too. The 5 series has dual-stage front air bags and door-mounted side air bags for the front seat occupants.

The standard stereo is a powerful 10-speaker job, with an AM-FM-cassette front end. It's prewired for a single-CD player or a remote 6-disc unit. A 12-speaker unit with two subwoofers is available. Sound quality on the supplied unit was very good, and the 4-channel FM antenna "diversity" system provided enough signal to avoid dropouts and distortion even in fringe areas.

One point to ponder: in addition to the sedan, there's a sport wagon variant for just $1,800 more that adds a soupçon of practicality.

Base price on the 525i is $35,400. The tester had a mere sampling from the smorgasbord of available options: the Steptronic transmission, $1,275; in-dash single-CD player, $200; and the sport package (17-inch specific and very handsome alloy wheels, 235/45 performance tires and sport suspension), $1,500. Total cost, with freight, was $38,945.

"Gannett News Service"