First Drive: 2011 BMW 535i and 335is Coupe

Tim Andrew

We were already pretty familiar with the sixth-generation 5-series sedan before we drove it. The eight-speed automatic, the single-turbo in-line six, and the chassis design shared with the 7-series were all present in the Gran Turismo hatchback that we reviewed in the December 2009 issue. Although we found the 5-series GT to be sufficiently agile, deputy editor Joe DeMatio noted, "There does come a point where the GT's higher center of gravity will remind you that you're not in a 5-series sedan or wagon."

Happily, we can now say that the new 5-series sedan does remind you that you're in, well, a 5-series sedan. After the last generation, a competent but less involving car, the new 5-series has regained its focus. And the sedan is a wholly different machine than the taller, longer, and 400-pounds-heavier GT.

That being said, the driver's view is plenty familiar, with a dash that mirrors that of the 5-series Gran Turismo. The controls are all logically arranged, with functions primarily operated by the signature iDrive controller and surrounding function keys below the electronic shift lever. The fourth-generation infotainment system is standard on all 5-series models and is more natural to use than previous iterations. Adding navigation to the system upsizes the central screen from 7.0 to 10.2 inches. In the interior, 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 bucket seats, the sedan offers only the traditional three-seat bench. It's still a comfortable place, even if legroom is adequate rather than generous.

You can stuff the cockpit with an array of BMW's latest technologies, such as a head-up display, lane-departure warning, blind-spot assist, adaptive cruise control, automatic high beams, and a forward-facing night-vision camera. BMW will also debut two brand-first technologies on the new 5: First, a parallel-parking assistant operates much like Ford's system by identifying a suitable spot and steering the vehicle into a space while the driver manipulates the throttle and brake. Second, a surround-view device uses four cameras integrated into the body to provide a bird's-eye view of the car and its surroundings for parking or backing out of tight spaces - we've seen this already from Infiniti.

We've seen parts of the exterior styling before, too, but from within BMW's gene pool rather than from other automakers. As an evolutionary design, the new 5 ignores the discordant previous-generation car and turns to the 1997-2003 E39-series for inspiration. The kidney grilles are more rectangular, and the headlights are less stretched. Recalling the original 1972 car, the front fascia is canted slightly forward. The character line has also been lowered, cutting through the door handles. In all, it's more conservative than last year's 5 but, in our opinion, also more attractive.

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