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."