It was inevitable. The new BMW 5-Series was always going to be bigger, better engineered and more advanced than its predecessor. But does that make it a superior product? And to what extent is it encroaching on the territory occupied by the flagship 7-Series?
For BMW, launching an all-new 5-Series at the tail end of the global economic crisis must have been a tough call.
More than four years in gestation, and aimed at the very people now worst affected by the meltdown, the new Five was supposed to boost the Bavarian brand’s market share and regain the advantage over arch-rival Mercedes-Benz in the critical medium premium saloon sector.
Instead, the newcomer has had to face the unexpected challenges of a much softer premium market, a resulting trend focussing on smaller, greener cars, and an economic landscape that hasn’t recovered as expected – and, in fact, is now grappling with the Greek tragedy that is the Euro’s precarious state.
Despite this rather more challenging landscape, the latest 5-Series is a fine car – perhaps its finest effort in this segment thus far. But because it is so good, it has created another problem for BMW: It could well emerge as the most dangerous rival of its larger sibling, the 7-Series.
We’ll return to consider that aspect in more detail, but first, let’s take a closer look at the Five. It’s a lot more conventional than its rather oddball predecessor, which was inevitable. BMW took a lot of flak about the previous car’s design, and it took almost two years of nips and tucks before customers were appeased.
Those same critics now complain that the Five looks too ordinary. But the fact that it has strong visual links to the larger Seven Series, and also continues some design elements previewed in the 5-Series Gran Turismo, adds a welcome aesthetic cohesion and continuity.
The front-end is particularly powerful, with the combination of a very short front overhang, big wheel arches and the blunt, pugnacious treatment of the grille creating an aggressive, arresting appearance.
By comparison, the rear is the new sedan’s least distinctive aspect. Actual scale apart, it is very reminiscent of the current 7-Series, which dilutes some of the essential 5-Series’ personality, while the haunches can look too heavyset from some angles.
In profile, the car is clearly larger than its predecessor, but design details such as the sharply pressed crease of the waistline, and the intricately profiled bonnet, continue to tease and please the eye, while also alluding to the sedan’s dynamic promise.
The interior is every bit as luxurious and sophisticated as one would expect. And owners of current-crop BMW models will recognise much of the layout and the switchgear. A bit like Airbus, which ensures pilot familiarity by configuring all its cockpits almost identically.
It does make the cabin a more generic place, albeit one that bristles with technology. The iDrive driver interface system has evolved into a useful and more intuitive tool to access the car’s plethora of features and tweaks, and the list of driver assistance systems is exhaustive – literally.
Surround camera systems, active cruise control, headlights choreographed to turn with the steering wheel, park distance sensors – these and the car’s many other advanced systems elevate the Five to new heights in sheer technology terms.
The finishes – leather, wood and metal, in various combinations, depending on model – are top-class (as they should be for this kind of money), and the controls and switchgear have the requisite heft and precision.
Given the car’s dimensions, one would expect capacious interior accommodation, but the reality is rather more snug, especially at the rear, where leg-room is ample, but certainly not expansive. The boot is big enough for the obligatory golf bags, or a full complement of family luggage.
But how has all of this impacted on the single most important trait associated with BMW’s cars?
The Bavarians have always been proud to emphasise its carefully nurtured image as a brand for driving enthusiasts, and the 5-Series has been a key part of that ongoing strategy. If the new car’s apparent bulk and opulence suggest a certain softening of dynamic intent, the driving experience thankfully proves otherwise.
Despite dimensions that have increased in every plane, the intelligent use of lightweight materials, and especially the reduction of unsprung weight, has ensured that the new Five feels lithe and honed when pressing on.
The model range comprises a choice of turbocharged petrol and turbodiesel engines, headed up by the V8-propelled 550i flagship – a car with all the apparent characteristics of a muscle car.
Our test car for this driving impression was the rather more mainstream 535i , which employs a 3,0-litre straight-six petrol engine with a twin-scroll turbocharger to deliver big dollops of power and, even more importantly, steam-train-like torque.
With 225kW and 400Nm on tap, there’s never any doubt that the car delivers on its sport sedan promise. Drive remains to the rear wheels, but the transmission is an eight-speed Steptronic automatic with shift paddle-actuated manual override for those who prefer to be in control.
I spent the best part of a full day traversing the scenic and challenging mountain routes that embrace the Stellenbosch, Franschhoek, Paarl and Worcester regions – ample opportunity to put the 535i through its paces, on surfaces only too eager to show up any flaws as far as road manners and composure are concerned.
Just how one perceives the Five depends very much on driving style and intent. If it’s simply a matter of commuting from A to B, the 535i feels swift and smooth, with the suspension soaking up road irregularities, and the ample power ensuring effortless, seamless progress.
Switch to manual mode, select the Sport Plus mode (which sharpens the steering and throttle response, dials in tauter suspensions settings, and reduces the stability control system’s intervention), and the 535i is transformed into a keener, more athletic machine.
The car’s bulk seems to shrink around you at the same time, while the chassis’ feedback is immediate and unequivocal.
Threading the Beemer through a series of twists and turns with verve proves just how lithe and wieldy it can feel, rewarding the driver prepared to push hard into corners with an impressive display of poise and balance. The brakes provide incisive retardation when required, adding to the car’s overall aura of efficient confidence.
I can understand why there have already been grumblings from some quarters that the new Five is too refined, too easy and not sporty enough. It is a car that flatters the driver, and makes it easy to achieve cornering speeds that used to feel scary in lesser machinery.
In reality, however, it’s simply a matter of BMW having upped the ante. To really extend this car to the point where you feel the chassis working, and where you start approaching the limits of traction, you need to drive it with a level of vigour simply beyond the capabilities of most drivers.
And that’s not a bad thing: it makes the Beemer a safer car, and one that will make up for its driver’s shortcomings under most conditions.
But yes, because the sharper dynamics expected of the Five are further out of reach, there is the temptation to describe it as a baby 7-Series – a view emphasised by some of the visual similarities and by the similarly configured interior.
It’s a perception strengthened even further by sheer ostentation of the Seven, which has become a car associated with government ministers and profligate excess, and encouraging high-worth individuals to seek less-opulent alternatives.
The new 5-Series fits that bill quite nicely. It offers a slice of luxury, safety, technology almost as big as that of the Seven, but in a more palatable package. It costs a lot, but not as much as a Seven. Purchasing a car like the 535i could even be considered downsizing by those usually in line for a 7-Series.
No wonder then that the popular verdict on the New Five is that it’s nothing more than a baby 7-Series, and that it has lost some of its dynamic excitement in the process. But I beg to differ. This is an accomplished luxury saloon with all the graces of the Seven, while offering a more athletic, more involving driving experience.
It’s not a sports car (we’ll have to wait for 2012’s M5 replacement). But it proves, quite comprehensively, that BMW continues to build fine sports sedans. You just need to drive it a bit harder …
By Deon Schoeman
BMW 535i Steptronic
In-line six-cylinder, 2 996 cc, turbocharged
Eight-speed Steptronic automatic
225 kW @ 5 800 rpm
400 Nm @ 1 200 rpm
8,4 litres/100 km (combined cycle)
Carbon dioxide emissions