The BMW 535d is a highly capable midsize sport sedan made better by the power and efficiency of its new diesel engine — but adding options quickly spends any money saved by choosing an alternative-fuel powertrain.
Diesel-powered luxury cars are huge business in Europe, where government subsidies and tax structure make diesel a preferred fuel in dozens of countries. They're starting to become more common in the U.S., as well, as German automakers slowly introduce them to a curious American audience that's coming to realize they can have both performance and fuel efficiency. For 2014, BMW is offering the 535d, its midsize, rear-wheel-drive luxury sedan powered by a turbocharged, inline-six-cylinder diesel engine. It marries the torque and efficiency of BMW's diesel engines to the popular styling and athletic chassis of the 5 Series sedan, but will Americans be willing to give up the gasoline engines they're familiar with in favor of something new? Does the new 535d deliver on the idea of efficient performance?
The 5 Series got a freshened look for 2014, with updated styling front and rear, but the overall design remains very typical of the BMW lineup (many sizes, one basic shape). It's more attractive than it has been in recent years, but European pedestrian safety regulations are evident in the square, blocky front end that somehow manages to seem both blunt and aerodynamic. My test car came with the M Sport package, which adds 19-inch wheels, an aerodynamic body kit and ''Shadowline'' exterior trim that eliminates most of the car's chrome. It would look menacing and sporty in a darker color, but it made my silver test car seem rather ordinary and nondescript.
How It Drives
It frankly amazes me that anyone, after driving a diesel-powered luxury car like the 535d, would decide instead on a gasoline-powered model. The 535d has a turbocharged, 3.0-liter inline-six-cylinder engine under the hood, making an uninspiring 255 horsepower but an extremely healthy 413 pounds-feet of torque. Such is the nature of turbo-diesels — horsepower numbers are never that big, but the scads of low-rev torque they produce are what you feel when accelerating away from a stoplight, and the 535d has plenty of that.
Power normally goes to the rear wheels through an eight-speed automatic transmission, but my test car came with the optional xDrive all-wheel-drive system. Punch the start button, and the diesel engine purrs to life with none of the clatter Americans associate with how diesel engines used to be; new diesels are smooth, quiet and odor-free.
Slip the transmission into gear, take off and you'll be pleased at the gobs of low-end torque that shoot the 535d from zero to 60 mph in just 5.8 seconds (all times are manufacturers' estimates). While that's not as impressive as the V-8-powered 550i's 4.5-second zero-to-60 time, it's still more than enough to outrun most family sedans and keep up with other six-cylinder luxury-car competitors. It's quicker than the smaller, four-cylinder diesel in the Mercedes-Benz E250 Bluetec, which gets to 60 mph in 7.0 seconds, but it's a tick behind the 5.5 seconds the Audi A6 TDI quattro takes with its higher-torque 3.0-liter turbo-diesel V-6.
Handling is another matter, with the BMW's more sporting nature trouncing competitors like the softer Benz and Audi in road-holding and adjustability: BMW Dynamic Drive is standard, allowing drivers to switch between Comfort, Sport, Sport+ and EcoPro modes to vary ride firmness and other parameters, depending on their mood and conditions. Even in Comfort mode the ride is firm — almost uncomfortably so on broken pavement, thanks in part to standard run-flat tires that transmit big bumps directly to the cabin with a bang.
Handling is tight, with excellent steering feel that only gets firmer and more communicative in Sport modes. The brakes are firm and progressive, with no fade under hard use or jerkiness to their operation. Of its rivals, only the Lexus GS 450h hybrid matches the sporting feel of the BMW 535d, with its own athletically tuned chassis and sporting-rather-than-luxury intentions.
But the reason for getting a diesel in a luxury car is largely fuel economy, and the 535d provides an impressive mix of sport and efficiency. The all-wheel-drive car is EPA-rated 26/37/30 mpg city/highway/combined, making it the most efficient 5 Series in the lineup; it bests the four-cylinder 528i xDrive's 22/33/26 mpg and trounces the 550i xDrive's 16/24/19 mpg. My week of mixed driving netted 32.4 mpg, and it's not like I was easy on the go pedal. This is comparable to diesel-powered German luxury competitors, with the E250 Bluetec 4Matic just barely beating the 535d, at 27/38/31 mpg, while the A6 TDI quattro roughly matches it, at 24/38/29 mpg. Lexus' non-diesel but hybrid-electric GS 450h is rated 29/34/31 mpg, but makes do with rear- rather than all-wheel drive.
Inside, the BMW looks the same as nearly all BMWs, with swooping shapes and high-quality material choices that in the version I drove had eschewed the warmth of wood for the cold precision of optional hexagonal-print metal trim. The effect was to turn the BMW interior into something rather drab and boring — especially considering there are other color combinations available that look far more rich and appealing.
While it may look uninspiring, comfort is considerable, with big, highly adjustable seats, a thick steering wheel and a fluidity to the controls that hints at sophistication and precision engineering. Just about everything you can touch feels expensive.
Visibility is good in every direction, and backseat passengers have plenty of window space to let light in to what is otherwise a low bench that's short on legroom. It's unusual that the 535d has the longest wheelbase of its competitors yet the least backseat legroom. The latest Mercedes-Benz E-Class feels more spacious, front and back, while the Audi ups the ante on interior materials to even higher levels of quality. The Lexus GS 450h is more of an acquired taste, with a dash design that looks a little low-rent and a noticeable deficit in head and shoulder room when compared with the bigger Bimmer.
Ergonomics & Electronics
BMW's iDrive system is standard in the 5 Series, and it works better than it has in previous years. A simple controller on the center console handles operation of the large display screen, as well as switching between audio, navigation and internet-based apps. A trip computer rests among the gauges, but aside from these systems there isn't much on the 535d that doesn't cost extra. For the $66,425 that BMW was asking for the car I drove, you would expect certain equipment to come standard, yet at this price there aren't any parking sensors, there's no backup camera, no heated or cooled seats, no lane-keep assist or collision warning system — all things that are included on mainstream cars costing less than half what this 535d costs. Many of these features are also extra-cost on the E250 Bluetec, but most are standard on the less expensive A6 TDI.
Cargo & Storage
The BMW 5 Series is sized comparably to its competition and has no advantage in trunk space. The 535d delivers 14.0 cubic feet of cargo-carrying capacity, comparable to the A6's 14.1 cubic feet and more than the GS 450h's 13.2 cubic feet, but considerably less than the E250 Bluetec's 15.9 cubic feet. The BMW does feature a standard 60/40-split folding rear seat for longer or more bulky items, something the German cars all offer but the Lexus does not.
The BMW 5 Series received a five-star rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and several good scores from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Most cars in this class score similar rankings; the big differences in the luxury field are in how well each electronic active-safety feature works. You can see the complete results for both organizations' tests here. Most of that active safety equipment on the 535d costs extra and is available in packages, but if you're willing to pay their steep prices you can get one of the more advanced cars on the road. Automatic cruise control, lane keep assist, blind spot warning, a backup camera and parking sensors are all optional, but all are available. Forward collision warning and autonomous braking are not available. See what comes standard and what doesn't here.
Value in the Market
As with most German luxury sedans, value isn't the primary goal here — image and technology are. You can start at $57,550 for a rear-wheel-drive 535d or $59,850 for the all-wheel-drive xDrive model I tested (all prices cited include destination fees). Options on my test car included the $3,150 M Sport package that brings 19-inch wheels, aluminum interior trim, LED fog lights, blacked-out exterior trim, a dark headliner and a special steering wheel. The full LED headlights were $1,900, while a Premium Package added a power trunklid, keyless entry and satellite radio for another $1,500. Multicontour seats added $1,300 while paddle shifters for the automatic transmission cost $500, bringing the total for this not-even-close-to-loaded 535d to $66,425. Keep adding all the available technology and luxury trim options, and you can get a car that's just a few thousand dollars shy of $100,000. Option up a 535d your way here.
Not that the 535d's competitors don't offer equally astonishing prices for their wares. The Mercedes-Benz E250 Bluetec is the 535d's main competitor, but its smaller four-cylinder engine emphasizes frugality over sporting pretensions. It's also cheaper than the 535d, starting at $52,325, with the all-wheel-drive 4Matic model coming in at $54,825; a model equipped comparably to the 535d I tested would still be a few thousand dollars less. Like BMW, Mercedes-Benz soaks you on options — for instance, any paint color other than black or white is an extra-cost option (Audi does this, too), as is genuine leather seating. Audi's A6 TDI tends to give you more for the money, starting at $58,395 with quattro all-wheel drive. A comparably priced A6 will have far more technology packed into it than the 535d does, including blind spot warning and park assist, ventilated seats and four-zone automatic climate control. An interesting alternative may be the Lexus GS 450h, a high-performance hybrid that starts at $61,340. It offers the power of a V-8 with the fuel economy of a V-6, but is priced similarly to its German competitors — yet even at this price, navigation is an extra-cost option. Compare all four competitors here.