The Morning Call and's view

When it comes to a heavy dose of automotive Bavarian creme de la creme, few models satisfy like BMW’s new-for-’97 5-series.

Oh, sure. The Z-3’s have been grabbing all the headlines. But let’s face it, unless you’re James Bond — or Pierce Brosnan, for that matter — you probably can’t find one at your local dealer at a sane price anyway.

Just because the 5-series is a four-door sedan doesn’t mean it’s dull as dishwater. This is a BMW, after all, and that means sports sedan.

To get the most out of the new car, BMW went to work to make the structure more rigid. They enlarged the passenger compartment and made it more resistant to crashes. The front and rear suspensions were revised, and now ride on aluminum subframes. The steering is still a recirculating-ball type, but it transmits less road shock to the driver than rack-and-pinion, which the Mercedes E-Class has adapted.

All this is meant to handle the power coming from either a new 2.8-liter 190-horsepower double-overhead-cam six-cylinder or a 4.4-liter 282-horsepower double-overhead-cam V-8.

The six has sufficient power to motivate this sedan. It’s smooth and quiet, with enough reserve to make things moderately interesting. It is subtle.

The V-8 is much more responsive, and in many respects wakes this car up. The effect is overindulgent, serving up 310 foot-pounds of torque at 3,900 rpm. This makes spirited driving easy to dial up. The V-8 is more appropriate for a car of this stature than the six, but both are sophisticated and silent.

The willing chassis has BMW’s sporty, sure-footed feel. With typical Bavarian attitude, this road car takes no prisoners, charging down the autobahn … er … interstate without missing a beat. The car is much more fun to drive than the comparable Mercedes, thanks mostly to steering and suspension that are tuned more for sport than comfort. If a pillowy ride is your idea of nirvana, look elsewhere.

Brakes are discs at all corners with anti-lock. Their stopping ability is of the swift, silent type.

At 288 inches, the car is just about the right length. Although some competitors have more room inside, none matches this car’s road-going poise. But while inside, you’ll find the usual array of luxury and convenience features buyers in this stratosphere expect.

All four power windows are one-touch power up and down units. There’s a multi-function onboard computer, power tilt-telescoping steering wheel and — well, I could go on. But the image of the BMW as a stark driver’s car isn’t really accurate. There are enough power gimmicks here to challenge any car from Detroit or Tokyo.

The 10-way power driver’s throne is really comfortable, if somewhat stiff. It allows for long, relaxed stints behind the wheel.

When you’re not too busy tearing up the twisties, you’ll appreciate the fine audio system that BMW fits to these cars. Standard is a 10-speaker 200-watt audio system. Optional is a 12-speaker, 440-watt system with Digital Sound Processing. (That means you make Kurt Cobain sound like he’s singing in a jazz club).

In either case, the radio forms part of the control center for the onboard computer and cellular phone, meaning it won’t fit into other models, lessening its chance of being stolen. A trunk-mounted CD changer is available. Steering-wheel-mounted controls for the audio system and phone, available on the 540, are useful.

Safety is pretty typical of this league as well, with dual front air bags, anti-lock brakes and side-impact air bags as well. Traction control is standard.

The only down note — one that has always irked me — is that, on the 528, leather is an option (it’s standard on the pricier 540). The leatherette seems inappropriate for this league. Ditto some of the hard plastic that decorates the dash. But otherwise, there’s little to fault here.

The 5-series BMWs are in some ways BMW’s best cars. Sized r ght, with plenty of power and ability, they are the very definition of what a sports sedan should be.

What price for all this goodness? The 528i starts at a reasonable $38,900. But for that price, leather is an option, along with such goodies as the onboard trip computer, seat heaters, premium sound system and power moon roof. The 540i automatic starts at $49,900. The moon roof is standard, but some prime features are still extra. If you’d like your 540i with the six-speed manual, the tariff is higher. Base price is $52,350, plus a $1,300 gas guzzler tax that doesn’t apply to the automatic models.

But if you’re looking in this league, it’s hard to resist the siren call of these Bavarian sweethearts.

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