First Drive: 2017 BMW 5 Series Prototype
Refreshing Dynamics 1.0: A proper driver’s car in a bland wrapper
If there ever was a mule that did not need the full black-and-white camouflage treatment, this is it. After all, the new 2017 BMW 5 Series, code-named G30, is anything but a breakthrough design, such as the BMW i8. Instead, its shape is reminiscent of a downsized 7 Series, nicely proportioned but about as unexpected as snowfall in December. The interior owes even more to the 7 Series than the exterior. It can be spec-ed up with so many electronic gadgets that one almost needs a spare brain and a few extra digits to make full use of its talent.
Indeed, this might be the last BMW to sport a conventional overkill cockpit offering the latest in terms of infotainment, connectivity, and semi-autonomous driving. The new 3 Series due in 2018 will likely feature more advanced, yet with easier-to-use ergonomics. But this early drive of a 5 Series prototype through Northern Wales is not about buttons, switches, monitors, iDrive, or gesture control. It's about evaluating its ride, handling, road holding, and performance.
Dressed up in identical whirly shower-curtain foil, the three near-identical pre-production cars lined up in the hotel car park are a 540i sDrive with dynamic damper control (DDC) and rear-wheel steering (IAS), a 530d xDrive with sports suspension and IAS, and a 530i sDrive with base steering and suspension. Derived from BMW's modular CLAR matrix pioneered by the new 7 Series, all 5 Series variants will shed a claimed 220 pounds. Key improvements include the variable-rate-and-effort hydroelectric steering, a redesigned double-wishbone front axle, and a new multilink rear suspension. The optional adjustable anti-roll bar system known as Adaptive Drive has switched from hydraulic to electrically operated actuators. Not available for this generation 5 Series is the air suspension offered on the A6 and the E-Class. "It's too heavy," according to senior chassis guru Peter Langen, "and in this car you don't really need it. But go ahead and find out for yourself."
We grab the key to the no-frills 530i first, powered by BMW's humble 2.0-liter four mated to BMW's familiar eight-speed automatic. (The only 5 Series models still fitted with a manual gearbox standard will be the 520i and the 520d.) Over the first few miles, the new steering doesn't feel much different than that of the current car. Even after two hours of giant slaloming through sheep and cattle, the low-spec 5 Series emerged as a remarkably unremarkable automobile: homogenous, competent, and fail-safe. It's easy to drive, comfortable, and totally effortless, but not really torquey enough to notice the absence of xDrive, which has become a friend and is no longer merely an acquaintance. While the engine won't win any prizes for above-average grunt and refinement, when pushed it's perfectly competent.
And yet in this context that may not be quite enough, at least against the new E-Class, the future A6, and the recent XF. You see, a premium driving experience should make the going more rewarding than the getting there, and for that purpose it is best to switch to a more potent 5 Series specimen like the 540i xDrive.
Back in the old days, the 540i was powered by a sweet V-8; today the moniker denotes a version of BMW's classy 3.0-liter, twin-turbo straight six we know from the 3 Series. This engine captures the essence of the Bavarian Motor Works. It doesn't need a trick exhaust to make all the right noises. It almost matches an electric motor for smoothness, and it delivers in a seamless, relentless manner.
From a ride and handling perspective, the 540i feels more agile, authoritative. The new front axle is more sensitive than the previous one-dimensional spring/strut layout, the steering more prompt and accurate. In a nutshell, it needs fewer small adjustments and minor corrections at the wheel to stick to the plotted line. The rear-wheel steering (IAS) setup is without a doubt a contributing factor to its improved handling prowess, and makes the 540i feel as nimble and chuckable as a 340i. Since busy motorways were off-limits for secrecy reasons, we could not check on the system's claimed contribution to high-speed stability. But there is no doubt that with IAS fitted, the front and rear ends are connected in a more intuitive manner that subtly supports any change of direction.
In combination with the stiffer body, the lightweight aluminum suspension, and the new-generation 18- and 19-inch tires, the new 5 Series feels better tied down and commendably neutral, even in rear-drive models. DDC widens the comfort zone, which ranges from almost cushy to quite firm. Although BMW invites buyers to combine DDC, xDrive, IAS, and Adaptive Drive (which includes DDC), such a high-tech infusion may well be too much of a good thing, and it will certainly hurt the budget.
All 5 Series models are equipped with latest-generation Bilstein dampers. "They do everything better than the previous hardware," claims a smiling Jos van As, the man in charge of fusing all dynamically relevant elements to one nicely balanced whole. "It is my job to match mechanical and electronic integration, not to mention plenty of fine tuning. What makes this task so challenging is the need to cater to a wide spectrum of customer profiles. But when it comes to the crunch, driving pleasure always is the top priority."
The final variant to be put to the test is the 530d xDrive complete with the sports suspension that lowers the car about 0.4 inch and IAS. In the case of the diesel, 530 still stands for six cylinders—BMW's 3.0-liter inline six unit, in fact. That's plenty to entertain keen drivers, especially in combination with AWD, which elevates lateral grip, take-off bite, and out-of-corner traction. The fine art of carving through bends is further enhanced by the more aggressive torque split, which unashamedly favors the rear wheels. The drive program selector features two new settings named Sport Individual and Adaptive Mode. While the former lets you compile your favorite cocktail of attitudes, the latter automatically adjusts most systems to route and driving style. Depending on whether you're in Drive or in Sport and whether you are on the autobahn, in town, or a twisty back road, the new black box with integrated sat/nav chip will choose whatever mix of steering, drivetrain, and chassis calibration it deems best for the occasion.
In Adaptive Mode, the car can coast or cut off overrun, its shift strategy controlled by various parameters. The overriding algorithm will instantly process every steering and throttle input. Sounds complex and is complex. We didn't have the opportunity to fully assess this innovation, but we know for a fact that the three basic settings — Eco Pro, Comfort, and Sport — are now more clearly defined than before. Like in the 7 Series, Adaptive Mode is an economy-minded compromise designed for relaxed cruising, not for pressing on regardless. When you feel the itch, it's best to combine Sport with dynamic traction control (DTC) for flat cornering, quick turn-in, a smidgeon of power-on oversteer, and brisk engine-transmission interaction. The 3.0-liter diesel actively supports spirited driving with a fast rising torque curve. On the back roads through the Welsh mountains, the 530d never lost touch with the more powerful 540i lead car, which depended on higher revs and more frequent gear changes to keep its position.
Production of the new 5 Series sedan starts in November. The car is expected to debut in full production guise at the 2017 Detroit auto show, with sales commencing next February. The touring follows in early spring. The GT, which will likely be marketed as 6 Series, and the M5 are both due to appear in late 2017. In total, we expect 10 different engine variations worldwide, including a plug-in hybrid.
Our preliminary verdict? When funds are tight and a six-cylinder engine is definitely out of reach, we would look in the mirror long and hard before choosing between the comfy standard suspension and the sporty setup. While DDC should broaden the compliance spectrum irrespective of the engine size, the true value of xDrive depends almost entirely on your home address. IAS and Adaptive Drive may well be deemed as must-haves by rich tecchies, but determining their dynamic assets sure takes more time than a single sunny day in Wales.