Not in the USA: 2011 BMW 530d Wagon

#BMW, #535i

The BMW 5-series Gran Turismo is a thorn in the side of fans of the German brand’s 5-series wagon. The sedan meets wagon meets SUV has left long-time BMW enthusiasts scratching their heads due to the Gran Turismo’s weight, less-than-sporty styling, and subpar (for the brand) driving dynamics. As is common with this type of vehicle, it tries to be everything and as a result, it shines in very few areas. The Gran Turismo (GT) was offered alongside the last generation 5-series wagon (E61) and sedan (E60) during the 2010 model year. For 2011, Americans had only the choice of either the new 5-series sedan (F10) or 5-series GT (F07). A new 5-series wagon (F11) is available but not in the States. BMW USA product planners don’t see room in the market for both the GT and the wagon. I recently spent 10-days in England in a 530d SE version of the wagon to see if we are missing something in the USA.  

The newest 5-series sedan and wagon both moved away from the Chris Bangle design of the previous version and picked up a style that’s a mix of the soon to be replaced 3-series (E90/E91/E92) and latest 7-series (F01/F02). The interior is heavily influenced by the 7-series as well. Compared to the old 5-series wagon, the new car picks up a bit more space inside and the rear seats are able to fold in 3-sections (40/20/40 split) by either buttons on the top of the rear seats or with release levers inside the cargo area. An interesting feature that BMW recently previewed but wasn’t on our test car is the ability to open the tailgate by moving your foot under the rear bumper (as long as you have the key in your possession). It’s a nice trick to use when your arms are full of grocery bags or children. Despite the bump in size, the BMW wagon still gives up some cargo space compared to its Mercedes E-Class competition. The Mercedes is also the only car in the class to offer two additional rear-facing jump seats.

The Mercedes may still offer more space and people carrying ability but the BMW has always been more about driving dynamics than outright interior volume. The new 5-series sedan has taken some heat in the international press due to its driving dynamics. The wagon doesn’t change this complaint. The only mechanical difference between the wagon and the sedan is that the rear springs are auto levelling air compared to conventional springs in the sedan (this was also the case with the E61). When you’re really honking on the BMW on the back roads, the 5 wagon can still dance and make ground quickly but not with the same level of driver’s involvement as previous versions of the 5-series. The car feels softer and heavier and the new electric power steering just doesn’t offer the same feedback and tactility of BMW’s hydraulic systems. It’s interesting that BMW also fits electric power steering to the four-cylinder-powered 3-series models in Europe. I tested a 320d M Sport wagon in England in 2010 and I found the steering miles better compared to this 530d wagon. Volkswagen and Ford also build impressive electric steering systems so you can’t just blame it for not being hydraulic. I think BMW can make the new 5-series drive far better without a major rehash of the mechanicals of the car. It may just be a matter of tweaking and development. Behind the wheel, you can fiddle with the various chassis settings but the car just never feels right.

Speaking of settings, I’ve been surprised how many reviews of the new 5-series have failed to clarify what options are fitted to the test car. The 5-series (sedan and wagon) offers a multitude of different suspension, steering, and wheel options that make a huge difference on how the car drives. As an optional extra, you can fit active steering (which includes rear-wheel steering and is only offered on rear-drive 5-series), adjustable dampers, and active sway bars. Our 530d had the active dampers and sway bars but did not have active steering. Wheels and tires are another can of worms in the voodoo world of ride and handling balance. The 530d comes standard with 17-inch wheels and run-flat tires. Our car was fitted with the plus-two setup, 19-inch wheels with Goodyear Excellence performance run-flat tires (245/40-YR19). The large wheels and low profile run-flat tires cause the BMW to ride especially rough over broken pavement. The ride isn’t necessarily poor but there is a large amount of shutter and crashing through the cabin when running over less-than stellar pavement. Without testing other setups back to back, I’d say the 18-inch option is the way to go for the best aesthetics to ride quality balance. I found the combination of the low profile tires with the suspension in sport mode to be especially harsh but nice for ultimate grip and control in the corners. Sport mode also adds a nice dose of additional body control at the expense of rebound dampening that is too aggressive. Still, most UK road tests reveal that active dampers are a must-have option for the best ride quality. To make things more complicated, BMW also offers a non-adjustable sport suspension on M Sport model wagons and sedans but the suspension setup goes back to SE specification (like our test car) if you spec the optional adjustable dampers. The available active steering is another grey area. I have not personally tried it but I’ve never been a fan of the system in other BMW models. Reviews of active steering in the 5-series by the UK press have been mixed. So, it’s quite clear that the multiple combinations of options on the 5-series make it a “must try before you buy” vehicle. I recommend having a go in multiple configurations before pulling the trigger.

And then there’s the powertrain. The 5-series wagon is offered in the UK with seven different engines, all powering the rear-wheels (all-wheel drive is available in other markets including Germany). There are three six-cylinder gasoline engines ranging from 204 to 306 hp and a total of four diesel engines. The entry-level diesel is a 2.0-liter four-cylinder diesel with 184 hp and it is the model that the British magazines are touting as the preferred model (it’s interesting that the 520d, like the 528i in the USA, isn’t available with active steering or active sway bars, only active dampers.) There are three six-cylinder diesels ranging from 204 to 299 hp. Our 530d test car falls in the middle and is rated at 245 hp and 398 lb-ft. The twin-turbo 535d develops 299 hp and 443 lb ft (compared to 265 hp and 425 lb-ft for the 335d and X5 xDrive35d in the USA). The 530d comes standard with a 6-speed manual. Our car featured the optional 8-speed sport automatic transmission with paddles (an auto is standard on the 535d). Overall, the power and economy of the 530d is an excellent balance. There is minimal turbo lag and the engine is smooth and near-rattle free. Also, I rarely was left wanting for the more powerful (and more expensive) 535d. The automatic transmission is overall very smooth through it is slightly more lethargic in normal mode than I would like. This is no doubt due to fuel economy as it is always eager to grab the next highest gear and is slow to downshift. A quick flick of the transmission lever into sport mode takes care of that complaint when more control is needed. Manual shifting with the paddles or gear selector is intuitive and responsive though the torque of the engine rarely calls the driver to take over the commands. Fuel economy is impressive, especially when you consider the size and weight of the wagon.  The car returned a touch over 40 mpg (indicated, U.S. mpg) on easy runs on the English motorway and hard driving and short trips over a tank of fuel resulted in an average reading of 28 mpg (indicated, U.S. mpg). Based upon my time in other 5-series models in the USA, I’d say that is about 6-8 mpg better than a 535i would return in similar driving. This agrees with the fact that European fuel economy tests of the 535i and 530d reveal the diesel returns 26% better fuel economy.

So, is BMW’s decision to not offer the new 5-series wagon in the USA a mistake? From a handling and dynamics aspect, the wagon doesn’t fix the issues I have with the newest 5-series range. The new car feels like a slightly smaller 7-series from behind the wheel where the last generation 5-series drove more like a bigger 3-series. If BMW went back and fiddled with the steering, it would be a big first step in fixing the issue. Still, the wagon no doubt beats the taller and heavier 5-series Gran Turismo dynamically. From a styling aspect, the 5 wagon is the best looking of the range. The proportions are fantastic and the wagon rear end nicely balances the car from the side and rear ¾ profiles. From a practicality aspect, the wagon easily trumps the 5-series GT as well. It has more headroom front and rear and the cargo area is over 25 percent larger in the wagon. The GT does have slightly more legroom and a tiny bit more interior width.

But the 5-series wagon has never been a giant sales hit in the USA. My understanding from talking to dealers is that the Gran Turismo hasn’t been a big seller either. When was the last time you saw one on the road? You also have to keep in mind that the new X3 is a five-seater, has a cargo area nearly the same size as the 5 wagon, and is significantly cheaper than the 5-series. And there’s also the X5 to think about. If BMW was to offer a 5 wagon in the USA, it would most likely be an all-wheel drive 535i xDrive (based upon their past wagon offerings). The wagon costs around six percent more than the equivalent sedan in the UK. Based upon that, a 535i xDrive wagon would logically start around $55,500 in the USA (maybe a bit more depending on what would come as standard equipment). The 535i xDrive Gran Turismo starts around $59K. If both the Gran Turismo and wagons are niche products for BMW in the USA, why not offer the product that better fits in with the German company’s DNA? Just fix the steering before you gift us that wagon.

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