Over the past year, much ink has been spilled in editorials about the incontrovertible direction in which Chris Bangle has taken BMW design, while the Internet has fairly crackled with rantings from hot-and-bothered fans of the propeller badge. Many BMW owners have hunkered down in front of their computers, firing off enraged missives to BMW, this magazine, and probably Kofi Annan, when not composing the HTML code for ChrisBangleIsAnAss.com. Well, save your keystrokes, folks, because, as BMW chairman Helmut Panke confirms in his interview on page 64, BMW design chief Chris Bangle isn’t going anywhere, and the 7-series, the Z4, the new 5-series, and flame surfacing are the reality-and the future-of BMW design.
Bangle shrugs off the unrelenting criticism: “It’s nothing, really. Whenever you’re moving something ahead, you’re going to leave some people behind. That doesn’t mean you’re deliberately trying to upset people, and it doesn’t mean that you won’t try to communicate what you’re doing and why.” The bearded, blond American continues: “I think that once people see the 7-, 5-, and 3-series together, they’ll find that we’ve been progressively less avant-garde with the cars.” That said, Bangle admits that “the 7 generally works better in darker colors, the 5 with lighter.”
Color schemes aside, what we’re concerned with is whether the 5-series is still a great sport sedan. In the United States, the new 5 again will be offered as six-cylinder 525i and 530i models, but the 540i morphs into the 545i, reflecting the new, 4.4-liter DOHC V-8 from the 7-series, which produces 325 horsepower and 330 pound-feet of torque. U.S.-bound 530i models go into production in July, while the 525i and 545i begin rolling out of the Dingolfing, Germany, factory in September. On all models, a new ZF six-speed manual transmission is standard; a Sequential Manual Gearbox and a ZF six-speed automatic are optional.
The 525i and the 530i retain their relatively modest 184 and 225 horsepower, respectively. “We are not keen on developing new engines and cars at the same time,” says vice president of powertrain development Klaus Borgmann. “It was not easy to do both the new V-8 and the 7-series simultaneously. But we have the new six-speed gearboxes, and we will have a new six-in-line in less than two years. With Valvetronic and more horsepower, it definitely will be a step forward.” We’d venture that in 3.0-liter guise, the new engine would produce upward of 275 horsepower.
The 5-series wheelbase, at 113.7 inches, is 2.3 inches longer than before, and overall length is up 2.6 inches to 190.6 inches. At 72.7 inches, width has increased nearly two inches; height is up by 1.3 inches, to 57.8 inches. This all translates into a bigger trunk and a roomier cabin, especially in the rear seat, where a six-foot, two-inch man has plenty of leg- and headroom.
Overall weight is down by as much as 165 pounds, so the 530i weighs about 3500 pounds. This was achieved partially through a new, aluminum front body section, which is about 80 pounds lighter than if it were made of steel. Both front and rear suspensions and subframes also are made of aluminum.
Active Steering is perhaps the most significant new technical achievement. This system, part of the optional Sport package, electromechanically adds a positive or negative steering angle to the setting chosen by the driver, via a planetary gearset integrated into the steering column. This reduces steering motion at low speeds (say, while parking) and when negotiating tight turns on curvy roads, requiring only two turns lock-to-lock rather than three. It also makes the steering much more direct at high speeds. Driving two 5-series-one equipped with Active Steering and one without-back-to-back on an autocross course, we found the car equipped with Active Steering allowed us to hustle through much more quickly and with far less understeer than the car with BMW’s conventional, but still excellent, rack-and-pinion setup. (The 540i’s recirculating-ball steering is history.) On twisty seaside roads, it takes a little getting used to, because you’re expecting to have to cross your arms a lot more than is actually necessary, but the results are noteworthy. Philip Khn, Active Steering project manager, maintains that the system “is such a huge leap in technology, it’s comparable to the introduction of ABS.”
The 5-series’ aluminum-intensive suspension, featuring struts at the front and multiple links at the rear, is similar to that in the 7-series. When the 5-series is equipped with the Sport package, it includes the 7-series’ Active Roll Stabilization, or ARS. BMW’s answer to Mercedes-Benz’s Active Body Control, ARS splits the front and rear anti-roll bars into two halves, linked by a hydraulic motor. A controller commands that motor to adjust roll stiffness over a broad range.
Run-flat performance tires and a tire-pressure monitor also are included in the Sport package. Sixteen- (for the 525i), seventeen-, and eighteen-inch wheels shod with 225- and 245-series tires will be offered; the 530i we drove had Bridgestone Potenza RE050s. The run-flats mount on wheels with double rim humps, so the tires won’t jump off the rims under a sudden loss of pressure. Aside from providing better control of the car in a blowout, the run-flats save weight by eliminating the spare wheel and tire, and they can be driven nearly 100 miles, even when completely deflated.
Having spent a couple of days in the new 530i on the spectacular roads of Sardinia’s Costa del Sud, we can tell you that the new 5-series drives brilliantly. It’s a significant leap forward from the outgoing 5, a car that, even in its final days, would have been a major achievement for most other carmakers. When the new E-class debuted last year, some people thought that Mercedes-Benz had overtaken BMW in the mid-size luxury-sedan segment, but the 5-series is back, and, quite simply, it’s once again the best.
This truth was evident the moment we turned into the first decreasing-radius corner on the coastal roads south of Cagliari. With the electronic traction and stability police off (as confirmed by the new, optional heads-up display), both automatic- and manual-equipped 530i models moved fluidly from corner to corner, with easily controlled oversteer surfacing on occasion. When the road followed the unpredictable curvatures of a mountain, body roll obviously was not as well snubbed as in the best sports cars, but it was mighty impressive for a four-door luxury sedan and is without a doubt best in its class. The lightweight, aluminum front structure and the Active Steering pay handsome dividends every time you turn the steering wheel, because the 5-series eats up corners with the enthusiasm of a dog that has stumbled upon a plate of steak tartare.
Active Steering is all the more useful the faster you go. At 100 mph, flick the wheel left or right a few degrees, and the car remains so composed, your mother-in-law could apply lipstick in the back seat without painting her ears. Go ahead and dab the brakes before she realizes how fast you’re going; pedal feel is perfect, and deceleration is rapid and reassuring.
The 3.0-liter in-line six might not be new, but it’s still one of the most rewarding engines in the world, with a deliciously broad torque output and a predilection for keeping its rev needle in the upper ranges of the tach. The six-speed manual gearbox and the creamy clutch pedal are, in typical BMW fashion, paragons of the breed, and even the new six-speed automatic makes the most of the 214 pound-feet of torque, snapping off shifts in a predictable manner. Unfortunately, the manu-matic setup is counterintuitive: You push up to downshift and down to upshift, which is the opposite of what your brain directs your right hand to do.
The new cabin is handsome but not as elegantly turned out as that of the new E-class. Still, its colors, materials, and shapes will appeal to those who favor Barcelona chairs over Barcaloungers. The twin-hood instrument panel from the 7-series reappears, but the interior shares more cues with the Z4 than with the flagship sedan. “The 7 has to have some distance from the rest of the cars,” explains Bangle. The iDrive controller makes its 5-series debut and is packaged neatly in the center console with both the gearshifter and the parking-brake lever. It moves in four directions now rather than eight and so is more likely to find acceptance than the 7-series unit has.
Will the 5-series itself be accepted? The 7-series, which is perhaps less attractive (or more unattractive, depending on your point of view) than the 5, is doing quite well, even though it is geared toward a conservative audience. Bangle has alienated some hardcore BMW-philes, but the 5-series provides the BMW driving experience in spades. That alone will attract plenty of moths to the flame.