2009 Frankfurt Auto Show: First drive in 2010 BMW 535i Gran Turismo

By Joe DeMatio

I'm in Lisbon, Portugal, where I just drove the all-new 2010 BMW 5-series Gran Turismo, or GT, for the first time. Here are some initial thoughts.

First, I liked the vehicle much more than I expected, both in terms of its design and packaging and in the way it drives. It feels much more like a 5-series than like an X5. In fact, it has virtually nothing in common with the X5 other than its largely successful attempts at utility, but in the way it goes down the road, it's very close to a 5-series.

I drove two examples of the 535i GT, which is powered by BMW's new, turbocharged 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder. Unlike the twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter that we've come to know and love across the BMW lineup in recent years, this engine has a single, twin-scroll turbocharger, and it's the first BMW turbo engine with Valvetronic. It makes the same 300 hp and 300 lb-ft as the previous turbo six. Why the new engine? Because it allows BMW to more easily meet newer, more stringent emissions regulations.

The new six is every bit as satisfying as the twin-turbo six, with strong, linear power across the band and really nice initial acceleration from a stop. In other words, it has no discernible turbo lag. It's mated with BMW's all-new, eight-speed automatic transmission, which is also standard in the new twelve-cylinder 7-series. This new powertrain is truly a winner. The engine makes just the right amount of noise, although some might find it just a tiny bit coarse. But with speeds of up to 135 mph easily attained today on the Portuguese freeway system, we'd have to wonder why anyone would opt for the available 4.4-liter twin-turbo V-8, which is the engine that the 5-series GT will debut with when it goes on sale in early December. The V-8 will also be mated with the eight-speed automatic. The 535i doesn't go on sale until April 2010, when optional all-wheel drive will also come on-stream.

The biggest surprise for me was how light the 535i feels, even though it weighs a not-inconsiderable 4586 pounds. From the first moment you pull away from a parking space, there's an unexpected feeling of lightness to the entire vehicle, engendered partly by the light-effort but very communicative steering. I drove two test vehicles, one with regular steering and one with BMW's optional Active Steering. I definitely preferred the regular setup, which was precise, required just the right amount of effort, and made the GT easy to place in a corner. The Active Steering car, on the other hand, seems to confound any effort to storm through a corner with grace and composure. It also provides weird feedback in low-speed, parking-lot maneuvers.

Ride comfort is fine, and also definitely much closer to that of a 5-series sedan than the stiff, heavy feeling you get in an X5 or X6, which seem to beat the pavement into submission. Or, maybe it was just the flawlessly smooth Portuguese pavement that we drove on, unlike the pockmarked roads of my native SE Michigan. Like the new 7-series, the X5 GT offers the ability to choose between normal and sport suspension and throttle settings via an easy-to-identify rocker switch on the center console near the shift knob.

In terms of interior comfort and usability, front-seat passengers get most of the same amenities and features that you see in the 7-series sedan. Auto-close doors like those in the 7 are standard. The rear seat is the big story here. Standard is a 60/40 setup for three passengers, but two captain's chairs are optional. With either setup, the rear seats move fore and aft and recline; the captain's chairs do so electrically, and they even have BMW's noted Comfort seatbacks, which allow you to adjust the top of the seatback for better neck and head support.

The signature utility feature here is the dual-function rear hatch. Grab one handle under the lip of the trunk, and a trunk-lid-style door swings up to expose a good-size opening to load cargo. Or you can push a different button and the entire rear liftgate rises electrically, creating a far bigger opening. The rear seatbacks fold forward (with optional electric operation), and a 60/40-split rear panel folds forward as well. When it's in place and the hatch is down, the cargo compartment is completely sealed off from the passenger compartment; in fact, the hatch door has a sizable rubber gasket to make sure of the seal. This is both to stave off noise intrusion as well as odors from potential stinky cargo (like, you know, your gym bag).

The rear-seat area proved to be very comfortable for a 30-minute ride from the Lisbon airport to our hotel. It's even more inviting, I would say, than the rear thrones in the BMW X6, and it's almost as comfortable as sitting in the back of a long-wheelbase 7-series. Owners of the 5-series GT certainly won't be embarrassed to ask friends, family, or clients to sit back there.

Will the 5-series GT find favor in America? It's hard to say, but our initial experiences with the vehicle indicate that it's a nice combination of driving and utility.

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