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Driven: 2010 BMW 535i Gran Turismo

As Lufthansa flight 4532 skimmed the hills of Lisbon on its landing approach, we reflected on the five-year journey that had brought us to Portugal to drive the newest BMW, the 5-series GT. It was back in the March 2004 issue that our European bureau chief, Georg Kacher, provided the scoop: BMW was planning an unusual new type of vehicle, one that was known within the company as the "space-functional concept" or RFK (for, in German, Raum-funktionales Konzept). Two models, one based on 3-series components and the other drawing from the 5-series, would differ substantially from BMW's existing wagons and SUVs and provide seating arrangements akin to - don't say it - a minivan's. By our June 2008 issue, we were able to report that this not-quite-a-sedan, not-quite-an-SUV, not-quite-a-wagon concept, which had become known as the V-series, had evolved into a four- or five-seat hatchback sedan called the V5. (BMW's second-generation, seven-passenger X5 apparently met the company's needs for a people mover.) We were wrong about the name but right about everything else, and we observed that, like the X6, the new vehicle would attempt to "tap into a niche that you didn't even know existed." Fast forward to September 2009: As we arrived in Lisbon, the 5-series Gran Turismo still seemed to us as unlikely a vehicle to wear a BMW badge as it did back when our man Kacher first reported its conception.

BMW doesn't disagree. "There has never been a BMW quite like this," says Torsten Müller-Ötvös, BMW's vice president of product management. "We are breaking new ground." Over dinner the night before our drive, Müller-Ötvös discussed the role of the 5-series GT in a lineup that, as he pointed out, consisted only of the 3-series, 5-series, 7-series, Z3, and X5 a decade ago. Although BMW maintains that the United States will be a key market for the 5-series GT, the vehicle seems to owe its existence mostly to European market considerations. First, there's a growing backlash against sport-utilities across the Atlantic; in Berlin, they've been vandalized and even burned. Second, SUVs are often not allowed as company cars in many European countries. Third, Müller-Ötvös observes a new trend among Europeans who might naturally gravitate toward the 5-series wagon: they consider it too family-oriented and lacking in elegance. The solution to all these concerns? Build a hatchback version of the 5-series that seats no more than five people, weighs as much as an SUV, and - with its ungainly rear styling - is nowhere near as attractive as the X5, let alone a 5-series Touring. That's right: the six-cylinder 535i GT weighs 4586 pounds, and the V-8-powered 550i tips the scales at a breathtaking 4938 pounds. For a company whose representatives uttered the slogan "EfficientDynamics" as often as Guten Tag during press days at the Frankfurt auto show, the 5-series GT's weight problem is a bit rich.

If you can get past its looks and weight, though, there's a lot to like about the 5-series Gran Turismo. First off, it drives much better than we ever imagined, even though it is almost three inches taller than a 5-series Touring, and it feels much lighter from behind the wheel than it actually is. Dynamically, it's much closer to a 5-series Touring than to an X5, because it lacks the overwhelming feeling of heaviness that so characterizes both the X5 and the X6. So, although the 535i GTs that we drove in Portugal might have weighed close to two and a half tons, they didn't feel like they did, thanks partly to light door swings (frameless windows do the trick) and light-effort but communicative steering.

Props also to the 5-series GT for its interior packaging, especially of rear-seat passengers and cargo. BMW's goal was to provide rear-seat comfort on par with that of the short-wheelbase 7-series, since the two vehicles' wheelbases are virtually identical, at just under 121 inches. To that end, even the standard three-position rear bench's 60/40-split sections slide fore and aft, and the seatbacks recline. The optional rear captain's chairs are electrically operated and flank a roomy center console, while the standard panoramic sunroof floods the rear compartment with sunlight. Add the optional DVD entertainment screens, and it's hard to imagine anyone complaining about being relegated to the rear.

As for cargo, BMW decided that owners of the GT ought to have two ways of loading it and that they should be able to sequester it from passengers as thoroughly as you would in a normal sedan. A rigid vertical panel and a removable parcel shelf separate the passengers from the cargo area, which is sealed via a thick rubber gasket inside the hatch lid. The hatch itself has a smaller inset door that amounts to a flip-up trunk lid. When only that lid is opened, the passenger compartment remains immune to chilly gusts of wind or odorous cargo. Close the lid and depress a different hidden button, and the entire hatch rises and exposes the complete rear aperture. At this point, you can move the divider panel forward gradually, following the arc of the rear seatbacks, to expand cargo space from 15.5 cubic feet to 20.8 cubic feet. If the rear seats are folded forward (sadly, they don't go completely flat) and the parcel shelf is stowed under the cargo floor, you have 63.6 cubic feet of cargo space to fill, a bit more than in the 5-series Touring but about 12 cubic feet less than in the X5. The two-part rear hatch is clever, but it undoubtedly added weight, and when only the smaller lid is open, the visual effect is a bit like a cat that has raised its tail.

Shut that trunk quick, and slide behind the wheel. This is your first look at the next-generation 5-series sedan that will debut in the first half of 2010. It's a very nice environment, similar in feeling to the new 7-series, with clean, modern shapes and high-quality materials. Like that car, the 5-series GT gets the latest version of BMW's iDrive system, plus self-latching doors. A new black ceramic trim is available for the shift knob, iDrive controller surround, and audio knobs.

In addition to its interior aesthetics, the GT shares its multilink front suspension design with the 7-series (as well as the X5). The standard, all-new, eight-speed ZF automatic transmission recently debuted in the V-12-powered 760Li. In the United States, it will be mated to either a new version of BMW's 3.0-liter in-line six (see sidebar) in the 535i GT or, in the 550i GT, the twin-turbo V-8 from the 750i and the X6. We get the rear-wheel-drive 550i GT first, in early December, followed by the 535i GT and an all-wheel-drive option (which adds yet another 150 pounds) by April.

We drove two examples of the 535i: one with optional active steering, and one with the standard hydraulic setup, both with optional nineteen-inch Goodyear Excellence run-flat tires (eighteens and twenties are also available). As is often the case with BMWs, we preferred the vehicle without active steering, as it felt more natural and was easier to place in a corner. The new in-line six, with an even 300 hp and 300 lb-ft of torque, had plenty of power to hustle the 535i through the coastal mountain roads above Lisbon, and it mates seamlessly with the eight-speed auto. You can move the gearshift lever into M for manual mode and shift for yourself, but you'll seldom bother when you have a gearbox this good. The new turbo six sounds just a bit coarse when you're really hammering it, but otherwise it's a gem.

We rode in the 535i in the driver's seat, the front passenger's seat, and a rear captain's chair, and the vehicle felt composed and comfortable in all three positions, even when it was being flung around like a sports car. Supple ride quality, responsive brakes, good steering and body control, and all the usual BMW dynamic strengths are evident. That said, 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. The overall impression, though, is of a refined, luxurious, and reasonably sporty vehicle, not a soggy crossover.

It all comes at a price: roughly $8000 more than comparably equipped 5-series sedans and about ten grand more than the X5, such that the 535i GT will likely start in the high $50,000s and the 550i GT in the high $60,000s. Given those tariffs, it's hard to say whether the 5-series GT will find much of an audience here in America, where BMW finds only a few hundred buyers each year for the 5-series wagon and where other premium-priced, unconventional utility vehicles, such as the Mercedes-Benz R-Class, have bombed. BMW's Müller-Ötvös is uncharacteristically and refreshingly candid for a car-company executive. "It is, at the end of the day, an experiment," he admits. "But we would not have done the car if we did not think the market would respond."