For nearly four decades, the BMW 5-series has walked the tightrope between luxury and sport, satisfying the demands of both buttoned-up executives and driving purists. It has been the benchmark -- often an unmatched one -- for just about every automaker looking to build a mid-size sport sedan. Even the last-generation 5-series, distracted by flawed iDrive technology and controversial "flame surfacing," possessed the magical ability to indulge and engage.
There was thus little question we'd want to spend a year with the new, sixth-generation 5-series, which debuted for 2011 with more creature comforts, more technology, more sophisticated engineering, and better efficiency than ever before.
We ordered our test car with a mind toward maximizing the aforementioned selling points. To balance performance and efficiency, we opted for the midlevel engine -- the 3.0-liter turbocharged in-line six we already know and love from the 3-series. Although we energetically applaud BMW for offering a manual transmission, we decided to test the new eight-speed automatic. Then there was the matter of a few options -- $14,950 worth. They included leather, navigation, automatic high beams, lane-departure warning, blind-spot warning, keyless ignition, an iPod adapter, and metallic blue paint.
Still, initial comments expressed regret over not having enough options: "I longed for satellite radio and heated seats," groaned copy editor Rusty Blackwell, who picked up the car from BMW in New Jersey. Somehow, he survived his 638-mile journey back to Michigan, achieving an indicated 29.9 mpg along the way. "Pretty good for a mid-size luxury car, even if it does have 'only' 300 hp," Blackwell noted.
That impressive highway performance set the tone for a year in which the 5-series crisscrossed the eastern half of the United States, piling on 29,324 miles and astonishing drivers with its fuel economy and range. Overall, it returned 25 mpg, slightly bettering the EPA's 24-mpg combined rating.
"I'm blown away by the fact that I got 31 mpg in such a big, luxurious, and fast machine," marveled senior editor Joe Lorio after a trip to New York.
As Lorio implies, there's more to the big Bimmer's appeal than efficiency. Unlike some pairings of fewer cylinders and more transmission speeds, this powertrain exacts no fun-to-drive penalty. The automatic is smooth and quick, happily serving up giant eighth-to-third-gear downshifts. The engine, meanwhile, met our expectations for a BMW six-cylinder, which is to say it's the best in its segment. Our only complaint was with a slight hesitance to move away from a stop -- something we've observed on V-8-powered BMWs as well. Despite that momentary turbo lag, the 535i could rip to 60 mph in 5.8 seconds and through the quarter mile in 14.2 seconds. Our fuel economy might have been even better had we not indulged in this capability so frequently. "I included several full-on acceleration runs during my trip to Ohio," wrote West Coast editor Jason Cammisa, who claimed he was trying to prove to his passengers that a six-cylinder is sufficient in such a big car. Consider us convinced. As senior web editor Phil Floraday concluded, "Fuel economy is spectacular, power is plentiful, and you save $10,100. Why would you want the 550i?"
We never wanted for luxury, either. Editors instantly took to the supple black and tan interior, which held up very well through the year. Most of us found the optional multicontour seats exceptionally supportive. Our main ergonomic gripe was with the shallow center-console cupholders. Whereas criticisms of iDrive dominated reviews of the last-generation 5-series, it received mostly passing praise here, a tribute both to improvements in the system itself as well as how accustomed we've all become to cabin technology over the last decade. The 5-series particularly excels at seemingly complex feats such as downloading CDs onto its internal hard drive, finding navigational points of interest, and interfacing with iPods and iPhones. On the other hand, BMW still overcomplicates simple tasks such as changing radio stations and turning off the car.
The 535i's touring and technological prowess did take a hit during its longest journey -- creative director Kelly Murphy's drive to Florida -- when it went into reduced-power mode, flashed a warning light, and then quit completely. Stranded on the side of I-75 in southern Georgia on Christmas Eve (with two cats squalling in the back seat, no less), Murphy deduced that he'd been misled by the 5's fuel gauge.
"The gauge indicated that I had half a tank -- and a range of 250 miles -- even though I'd traveled 557 miles since my last fill-up. That's an impossibly long range, even for a long-distance cruiser."
BMW roadside assistance flatbedded the car to the nearest gas station. Sure enough, the gas tank gulped 0.6 gallon more than its official capacity and the engine fired right up. Once the 5-series was back in Michigan, our BMW dealer determined that a fuel-level sensor had failed and replaced the part under warranty. On the plus side, that was the only time the 5-series visited the dealer during our entire test, thanks to its incredibly long recommended maintenance interval (about 21,000 miles per our car's service-interval indicator).
To recap, the 5-series is fast, efficient, comfortable, technologically astute, and -- but for a bad sensor -- reliable. All that remains is to tell you it's a driver's dream before mailing this article to Munich in a perfume-scented envelope, right? Well, not quite. For all the 535i's well-rounded brilliance, it was a surprisingly less-than-ultimate driving machine.
It's not for a lack of trying on the part of BMW engineers. The 5-series rides on an aluminum-intensive chassis similar to that of the 7-series and exchanges its traditional front struts for a more sophisticated multilink arrangement. Our car's optional dynamic handling package ups the ante with active antiroll bars and variable-rate dampers. Its capability initially wowed us. "The ride-and-handling balance is nearly ideal," reported deputy editor Joe DeMatio after his first drive. He also praised the "discernible differences" among the four dynamic settings -- Comfort, Normal, Sport, and Sport +.
As time wore on, though, complaints rolled in about the suspension's tendency to crash over large road imperfections. The harshness soon took a toll on the car's nineteen-inch wheels and Goodyear run-flat tires. Within the first 10,000 miles, they'd developed uneven tread wear and multiple sidewall bulges bad enough to send vibrations through the steering wheel. In fairness, some of the blame may lie with the larger wheels themselves, part of the optional sport package. Indeed, the complaints died down when, at the recommendation of BMW and Tire Rack, we stepped down to the standard eighteen-inch wheel size for winter. Shod in Dunlop SP Winter Sport 3D tires, our rear-wheel-drive 5-series clawed its way handily through winter's worst.
We'd have been more accepting of the harsh ride impacts and short tire life -- neither being all that unusual for a performance car -- if the 535i hadn't at the same time been strangely uninvolving. It starts with the electrically assisted steering, which helps improve fuel economy, but at a cost. Although the steering was direct and well weighted, it sent precious little road information through the thick-rimmed wheel. "I'd sacrifice 0.5 mpg for a more communicative hydraulic steering rack," griped Cammisa.
A bigger factor may be that the 5-series has become a big, 4120-pound car. "Size has a direct correlation with sportiness -- the 5-series isn't a sport sedan, it's a large sedan underpinned by some dynamic hardware," noted associate editor Eric Tingwall.
The net effect is a capable performer that elicited adjectives like "uninvolving," "boring," "Lexus-like," and even "soulless." Mind you, this was hardly unanimous. "If this 5-series is soulless, then consider me soulless, too," associate web editor Evan McCausland wryly noted, adding, "I think it offers a fine mix of comfort and sport." DeMatio agreed and further posited that the problem could be one of perception: "Perhaps the 5-series of the late 1990s was so much better than its contemporaries that it still sticks in our minds as being incomparably brilliant."
Perhaps. Or maybe the 5-series has just grown up. If building an efficient luxury sedan that could melt highway miles was BMW's mission, it has been accomplished -- and that's hardly faint praise. If it's damning, it's only because our expectations for a BMW sedan are so high. Floraday put it best: "The 2011 535i is an amazing car that would be a crown jewel in most automakers' stables. I just wish it were as rewarding to drive as an old 5-series."
The 5-series was in many respects the first modern BMW: the first to use the company's current naming convention, the first developed under now-legendary CEO Eberhard von Kuenheim, and the first aimed at premium buyers. The E12-chassis 530i reached our shores in 1975 with a 176-hp in-line six. Reviews named it one of the best-driving "compacts" (but for its rubber bumpers, it's about the same length as the new 2012 3-series sedan).
You have to squint hard to see the difference in the second-generation (E28) 5-series, which debuted for 1982. However, it had a more lavish interior, a revised suspension, and a more efficient 2.7-liter in-line six, which earned it the 528e designation. At the opposite end of the spectrum was the 1988 M5, with its 256-hp six and 150-mph top speed. Americans could buy it only in black.
There was no doubting the freshness of the third-generation (E34) 5-series when it arrived for 1989 with smoother, 7-series-like styling. The M5 upped the ante with a 310-hp, 3.5-liter six-cylinder.
The fourth-generation (E39) 5-series and the V-8-powered M5 set a standard that may never be equaled, with handsome appointments and spot-on driving dynamics. This generation earned Automobile Magazine All-Star awards every year from 1998 to 2003.
When the E60 5-series debuted for 2004, it earned derision from some for its styling and its iDrive technology, but it still excelled as a driver's car. The 2006 M5 arrived with a 500-hp V-10 and an automated manual that displeased U.S. buyers enough that BMW added a six-speed manual the next year.
The latest (F10) 5-series has a more conservative exterior. Under the skin, a multilink setup replaces BMW's traditional front struts and the steering is electrically assisted. The wagon was discontinued for our market in favor of the 5-series GT hatchback. A 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder joins the lineup for 2012. The 560-hp, twin-turbo V-8 M5 is scheduled to arrive this summer.