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First Look: 2011 BMW 5-Series

The technology-laden sixth edition of the BMW 5 Series sedan is perhaps the finest distillation of all that makes enthusiasts love BMWs as driver's cars, incorporating as it does myriad features intended to improve both its environmental credentials and its sporting performance qualities. Indeed, model for model, every new 5 will surpass the ability of its immediate predecessor, whether powered by gasoline or diesel fuel. Even more important, it's a good-looking machine, with beautifully refined surfaces, elegant detailing and, above all, no "funny stuff." No flame surfaces, no sow-belly side treatments, no awkward bustle back, nothing to cause a paroxysm of apoplectic fury in potential clients.

There is a reassuring classicism in the flowing lines, the artfully shaped cut lines that are part of the graphic composition, and the longer hood, managed despite reduced front overhang. The wheelbase is longer, the overhangs shorter and there is more legroom in the rear seats. One of the nicest little touches not seen before is coat hooks on the rear side of the B pillars, ideal for a driver to hang his jacket out of the way of passengers yet readily reachable. That may not be as important as the energy saving use of a clutch on the alternator so it charges only while the car is decelerating or under braking, but it is indicative of the thoroughness with which every major or minor detail is treated.

The long elegant coupe-like roof does not ape the Mercedes CLS or VW Passat CC that gain sporty profiles by reducing rear headroom. The 5 cabin is spacious to the point that the new car may well attract some former 7 Series clients, especially those who choose the shorter wheelbase model. In fact, the new 5 Series was developed in parallel with the 7, and incorporates many of the same components, including the complete suspension systems front and rear. Control arms are aluminum, as are the brake disc hub sections, part of a serious weight reduction effort that includes light alloy for all the movable panels, hood, doors and rear deck.

Within the dimensional envelope of the former six-speed automatic gearbox BMW and ZF engineers have managed to insert eight, with a broader ratio range than before, and with fuel-saving direct drive in eighth. The gearbox can lock up the torque converter more often for even more savings, and its electronic and mechanical systems are clever enough to allow changes down from eighth to second for hard acceleration without passing through intermediate ratios. For the moment, the US gets the new V-8 with twin turbochargers and the catalytic converter in the vee between banks and a new turbocharged inline six with direct injection and variable cam timing. Both are more powerful and cleaner than those in the current E 60 Fives.

With all the options, a 550i will definitely be in the luxury class. But so will the person who buys one. This is one fine sports sedan.