The current 5-series is a bit long in the tooth and, some would argue, has been compromised since its debut by awkward styling and frustrating technology. But from the driver’s seat, it still represents the nexus of BMW’s best attributes. Less claustrophobic, more comfortable, and more luxurious than the 1- and 3-series, it’s still infinitely more engaging to drive than the bigger, cruising-oriented 7-series, not to mention the various X-crossovers. I was simply astounded by how well it tracked through corners — better than some sports coupes — while absorbing bumps as well as on would expect of a $60,000 luxury sedan. I’ll admit I was also seduced by the presence of the smooth, six-speed manual transmission. How many cars this size even offer a stick shift these days? It’s become popular to compare any decent-driving rear-wheel-drive sedan to the 5-series, but I can honestly say that with the possible exception of the Maserati Quattroporte, I’ve never been in a car this size that dances so well.
I’d also argue that time has provided some perspective on this Bimmer’s oft-cited flaws. After five years on the road and a subtle face-lift, the Chris Bangle design is no longer jarring, and, if anything, receives no attention at all. We’ve also all learned to accept that modern luxury cars come festooned with technology. In fact, compared with some of BMW’s newer efforts, the 5-series cabin seems positively quaint, with a conventional shift lever and real analog gauges.
My only beef with the 5-series is the price. The 535i starts at $51,925, and options quickly kick it beyond $60,000. That means the 300-hp 5-series is essentially the same price as the 556-hp Cadillac CTS-V.
David Zenlea, Assistant Editor
I agree with David: The 5-series has really come into its own late in life (it’ll be usurped by a new model for the ’11 model year, and the new 5-series GT has already debuted those underpinnings).
I found the desing of the original fifth-generation 5-series to be quite unpleasant, what with its big eyelashes, strange hind quarters, and slanted interior styling. But the mid-cycle face-lift that BMW applied starting in the 2008 model year really improved the look of this car in my eyes. And it’s very good when a car that drives this nicely is not offensive to look at.
Indeed, as Zenlea pointed out, the 535i handles — and rides — incredibly well for a 3700-pound biggish luxury sedan. The steering is very sweet and smooth (not surprising in a Bimmer), and overall the car is a supercomfortable highway (and, one would also assume, autobahn) mile-eater. The 3.0-liter twin-turbocharged I-6 and six-speed stick work well in this application. In BMW’s entry-level model, the 1-series, this same powertrain yields a crazy-fast muscle car; the heavier 5-series, on the other hand, comes out of the 300-hp oven as a highly refined automobile that still has plenty of power to get you ahead of fellow motorists — particularly on the highway, where a downshift isn’t usually even necessary. Sure, the extra 60 hp and two cylinders in the 550i are cool, but I’d probably save the nine grand and get the 535i. You even get lovely motor music that nearly equals the song of the 550i’s throaty V-8.
Rusty Blackwell, Copy Editor
You might think the idea of dropping a turbocharged six-cylinder into a luxury sedan is a new idea if you listen to Lincoln’s marketing propaganda, but BMW has offered a wonderful twin-turbo I-6 in the 5-series since 2007. Not only does the 535i cost significantly less than the V-8-powered 550i, it weighs less and burns less fuel. Plus it’s still good for a 0-to-60-mph run in the five-second range.
Unlike David, I don’t think the price of a 535i pushes it to compete with the Cadillac CTS-V. The BMW is more about balance and luxury than the Cadillac, which many people will find too extreme for daily driving. It’s easy to complain about the price of a 5-series (or most any other BMW) because there are virtually no other flaws with the vehicle. And the price is a double-edged sword — those who can afford a BMW want a car that not everyone can afford, which is part of the allure of a luxury vehicle. A Cadillac CTS-V may start at $62,000 (with destination and gas guzzler tax), but the extra money is primarily spent on powertrain upgrades, not on refinement. The 5-series uses a less exotic powertrain and refines the interior and adds optional equipment to reach the $60,000 range.
It’s a good thing the next 5-series is right around the corner, because Infiniti is about to launch a new M sedan, a car conceived to knock the 5-series off its pedestal, much like the G37 was supposed to do to the 3-series a few years ago. With both BMW and Infiniti offering new luxury sedans in the 2011 model year, which is really only a few months away, I foresee a comparison test on the horizon. If you need the newest sedan right now, Mercedes-Benz will happily sell you a redesigned 2010 E-class, although the six-cylinder car isn’t nearly as appealing as BMW’s 535i.
Phil Floraday, Senior Online Editor
2009 BMW 535i sedan
Base price (with destination): $51,925
Price as tested: $63,820
Xenon adaptive headlights with auto-leveling and cornering
Rain-sensing windshield wipers
2-way power moonroof
Auxiliary audio input
3-spoke leather-wrapped multi-function steering wheel
Tire pressure monitoring system
Front side-impact airbags
BMW advanced safety system
Adaptive brake lights
10-way power adjustable seats
Options on this vehicle:
Premium package – $2200
-Universal garage door opener
Sport package – $2900
-Sports leather steering wheel
-18 in. wheels with run-flat performance tires
Lane departure warning – $950
Parking sensors – $750
iPod and USB adapter – $400
Navigation system – $1900
Head-up display – $1200
Satellite radio with 1-year subscription – $595
Comfort access keyless entry – $1000
Key options not on vehicle:
Cold weather package – $750
-Heated front seats
-Heated steering wheel
-Retractable headlight washers
M sport package – $4500
-Active roll stabilization
-18 in. aluminum alloy wheels with performance tires
-Shadowline exterior trim
-M steering wheel
Premium hi-fi sound system – $1200
HD radio – $350
Rear side-impact airbags – $385
Night vision – $2200
Automatic high beams – $250
Active cruise control – $2400
Power rear sunshade with manual side window shades – $575
Heated rear seats – $350
Split fold-down rear seats – $475
Active steering – $1550
Sport automatic transmission with shift paddles – $500
17 / 26 / 20 mpg
Size: 3.0L twin-turbocharged DOHC inline 6-cylinder
Horsepower: 300 hp @ 5800 rpm
Torque: 300 lb-ft @ 1400-5000 rpm
Weight: 3660 lb