More than any other BMW product, the 5-series must walk a fine tightrope to balance the company’s reputation for sport sedans and luxury cruisers. That responsibility, to be all things to all people, is a particularly tough job for the 5-series, but with new engines, a fresh look, and refined adaptive dynamics, the new 2011 BMW 5-series is eager to battle the diverse competition in the mid-size class from Lexus and Mercedes-Benz to Infiniti and Audi.
Undoing the last 5-series
As an evolutionary design, the new 5 seems to ignore the previous-generation car and jump back to the 1995-2003 E39-series for inspiration. The kidney grilles are more rectangular, and the headlights are less stretched back. Recalling the original 1972 car, the front fascia is slightly canted forward, a look that worked much better on the crisper shapes of that era. The character line has also been lowered, cutting through the door handles. In all, it’s more conservative than last year’s 5, but also more attractive in our opinion.
To shorten the overhangs of the new car, BMW has increased the wheelbase by 3.2 inches while only stretching total length by 1.9 inches. The 5 also grows half an inch in width and just one-tenth of an inch in height. While weight has increased by about 100 pounds in the new car, this 5 uses the most aluminum ever, largely in the hood, doors, and suspension components.
A familiar interior
We’ve already seen the 5-series interior in the Gran Turismo hatchback that is now on sale in the U.S. The controls are all logically arranged, with functions primarily operated by the signature iDrive controller below the electronic shift lever. The biggest difference between the sedan and the Gran Turismo is the rear seating. Where the GT pampers passengers with options like power-operated, heated, and ventilated buckets, the sedan only offers the traditional three-seat bench. Still, it’s a comfortable place to be with plenty of legroom and optional seat heaters.
No shortage of technology
BMW classifies its driver-assistance technologies into three categories: comfort, safety, and dynamics. The 5-series is loaded with offerings in each group, including adaptive cruise control, a head-up display, automatic high beams, lane-departure warning, blind spot warning, and a forward-facing night-vision camera. Additionally, BMW is debuting two brand-first features on the 5. The BMW parking assistant identifies and steers the sedan into a parallel parking spot while the driver modulates the brake and gas. Video demonstrations show the system working in much the same way Ford’s auto park assist does, but we were unable to test cars equipped with the feature. Surround view mimics Infiniti’s system of showing a bird’s-eye view of the car and its surroundings using four small cameras on the exterior and is useful for parking or backing out of a tight space. The fourth-generation iDrive infotainment is standard on all 5-series models, but adding navigation to the system upsizes the screen from 7.0 to 10.2 inches.
New engine, same numbers
In Portugal, we sampled a 535i, powered by BMW’s new N55 single-turbo inline six-cylinder. The new engine is rated at the same 300 hp and 300 lb-ft of torque as the outgoing twin-turbo unit, but it doesn’t have quite the same punch at the low end. Still, this is a quick car and BMW has done a commendable job eliminating a turbo’s less desirable traits—namely lag. Direct injection, a twin-scroll turbocharger, and Valvetronic (which replaces the throttle with variable-lift valves) allow engineers to calibrate the powertrain for quick response to pedal inputs. The optional eight-speed automatic transmission is just as quick in reacting, although it’s possible to catch it off guard. Shifts are typically imperceptibly smooth, but at low speeds or starting from rest, the transmission occasionally stumbles and shudders.
Buyers can also choose the 550i with a 4.4-liter twin-turbo V-8 making 400 horsepower, or the 528i with a 3.0-liter naturally aspirated inline six turning out 240 hp. A six-speed manual is also available on the 535i and 550i.
The always-changing chassis
Electric power steering makes its debut on the 5-series with this new generation and—like the 1-series and 3-series—the BMW system sets the standard for feedback and weight. Our tester was equipped with the optional active steering, which dials in small degrees of rear-wheel steering and varies the steering ratio depending on speed. Cars equipped with the Sport Package receive Driving Dynamics Control that allows the driver to choose Comfort, Normal, Sport, or Sport+ mode to alter the throttle mapping, shift points, and damping. There’s also available Dynamic Damping Control that continually alters suspension stiffness based on road conditions.
Dynamics tuned for any situation
Summed together, the adaptive controls create a car that is impressively competent in any driving situation, but dilutes a bit of the purity. As we wound up the coast of Portugal, we found the variable steering to be a bit unpredictable, causing you to slam the wheel against the stops when winding on full lock at low speeds. Driving with turned rear wheels also changes the experience, eliciting a bit more kick as you apply throttle mid-corner. The ride is comfortable, but it appears that BMW’s adaptive dampening has encouraged the engineers to quell bumps with less suspension travel than a traditional car. There’s nothing wrong with that approach, but it does create a distinctive sensation compared to the traditional suspension.
In Sport+ on the Estoril race circuit, the electronic limited-slip differential and rear-wheel steering, along with the loosened traction and stability aids, keep the 5-series neutral. You’ll also quickly appreciate the powertrain’s responsiveness on a track, because the engine always has thrust on tap and the paddle shifters deliver gear swaps without hesitation.
This car has range
The new 5-series continues to pack some of the best adaptive controls that allow an impressive spectrum of behavior from comfort to sport. It’s comfortable for commuting and competent on the track. For that range of capability, the 5-series is a standout in its class and in the entire automotive market.
The first 5s will arrive in the U.S. in mid-June with rear-wheel drive in either 535i or 550i trim. All-wheel-drive variants and the 528i will arrive in the fall. While pricing hasn’t been announced, expect a 535i to start near current stickers, in the mid-$50,000s.