LISBON – BMW’s reputation as “ultimate driving machine” has suffered a bit as of late. The M5, once the most sporty of sedans, have become overweight blunderbusses and more American — overweight and over-powered — than European. The company’s more basic sedans — the 3 and 5 Series — have likewise followed suit, each iteration seemingly letting its competition — Mercedes-Benz, Audi and, most recently, Jaguar — catch up. BMW may be posting record sales numbers, but its reputation has taken a bit of a beating.
Recently, however, there has been some hint of rejuvenation. The M3 sees a return to lighter inline six power, the 2 Series is (something of) a return to BMW’s small and nimble halcyon days and BMW has promised that the subject of this test — the totally remade 5-Series — will mark a further resurrection of traditional BMW values.
The question, of course, is could it? What with the pressures of fuel economy regulations and the company’s ever steady march towards the mainstream, could it find enough cajones to revive the lithe handling 5-Serieses of years past? The definitive answer is …
Maybe.2017 BMW 5 Series
The good news is that the 5 Series — a 540i sDrive — we drove at the recent introduction in Spain was, if not quite a gem, then at least some finely hewn cubic zirconium. Indeed, the 540i is everything the current 5 is not. For one thing it’s lighter — BMW officially says 100 kilograms, but that, as always, “depends on the exact model and trim.”
More importantly, the handling was something to a return to the 5 Series of old, balance of front and rear grip extremely linear, body roll well contained and directional changes on twisty backroads — of which Portugal seemingly has a surplus; can we import some, pretty please? — well managed. The steering is still a little numb — it is, after all, still electro-mechanically boosted — but that’s more a case of “you can’t have everything” than serious failing. Indeed, the most serious handling flaw is that the 5 Series has again grown in girth — not in weight, but still — and is some 36 millimetres longer and 6 millimetres wider than its predecessor. It’s starting to feel like a big car, not so very much smaller than a regular-wheelbase 7 Series of a few years back.
Nonetheless, credit where credit is due, our 540i also rode like the proverbial magic carpet ride, all its handling prowess still allowing a compliance that would impress even Rolls-Royce. That it did so without resorting to air suspension or magnetorheological dampers proves that there are still engineers within BMW that know how to tune a chassis. Even more impressive is that BMW managed this magical combination with Michelin Primacy run-flat tires.
The 540i’s rejigged 3.0-litre inline six engine was perhaps even more impressive. The most iconic of BMW powerplants, it amazes me how BMW can somehow still manage to improve an engine that I consistently think has reached the pinnacle of refinement. The 540 now boasts 335 horsepower and 332 lb.-ft. of torque. More importantly, that peak torque now arrives — thanks to BMW’s improved TwinPower Turbo technology — at an incredibly low 1,380 rpm. That means the six ‘grunts’ like a big V8 but then revs to a silky-smooth 7,000 rpm.RELATEDCar Review: 2016 BMW 750Li xDriveBMW is making short films again with ‘The Escape’
Actually, silky smooth doesn’t begin to capture the inline six’s sophistication. It is simply uncanny how BMW can contain some 350 explosions per second — that’s the number of internal combustions happening at 7,000 rpm — with no more discord than a V12. Indeed, with V12s slowly retreating into extinction — even in the most expensive of luxury and sports cars — BMW’s inline six continues to shine as the smoothest, most civilized of internal combustion engines.
The fact that it sounds so sweet and also accelerates the big 540i to 100 kilometres an hour in just 4.8 seconds (one second faster than before) is pure bonus. Combine it with a slick-shifting eight-speed Steptronic automatic transmission and it obviates the need for a V8-powered 550i, which is still coming. This, folks, may be the best powertrain combination that money can buy.
So, all good, right?
Well, not quite. Or at least I can’t be sure. The reason for the dithering is that the car I was driving is not coming to Canada. For one thing, the 540i sDrive test car was a rear-driver and all Canadian 5 Series models will have BMW’s xDrive all-wheel-drive system that have not always delivered the handling prowess promised by their rear-wheel-drive cousins. Indeed, part of that handling balance I mentioned earlier was the result of being able to control the rear tires with the throttle. So the question remains, will our xDrive versions allow the same delicacy? One bit of good news: Integral Active Steering, which steers the rear, as well as the front, wheels, is now available with xDrive; it was previously only available on RWD Bimmers.2017 BMW 5 Series
A further caveat is that our test unit was equipped with an M Sport package. That means a lowered, firmer suspension as well as the badging. Exactly how a regular 540i handles in standard trim, again with AWD, is unknown. The good news, however, is that M Sport’s suspension can now be combined with xDrive.
So, yes, it’s a little confusing as to what conclusions we can derive by our brief time in the new 5. But, here’s what we did learn – the top-of-the-line 540i that Europeans will buy is, if not a complete resurgence of BMW, at least points strongly in that direction. What we don’t know is if the car I found so worthy of plaudits is reflective of the car Canadians will be able to buy in two months.
Before I sign off, a few more caveats. Notably absent from the test fleet was the 530i, the other variant we will get with the initial shipments of 5s in the spring. The engine’s performance specs — 248 horsepower and 258 lb.-ft. of torque — appear almost unchanged. So is the 530i’s 2.0-litre turbo just a carryover, or has it been refined as well? Unknown, but it is crucial information since the 528i’s entry-level engine is currently a little buzzier than the equivalent 2.0-litre TFSI in Audi’s lineup. Again, we will have to wait until we test actual Canadian models for a final determination. If the continued refinement of the 3.0-litre’s comportment is anything to judge by, the 2.0L should be more civilized. We’ll keep our fingers crossed.
No equivocation with BMW’s latest iDrive 6.0 infotainment system. Oh, the whole “Gesture Control” thing is kind of hokey — twiddling your fingers about six inches from the touch screen is in no way more convenient than just moving your right thumb – barely an inch, mind you – to the physical volume control knob on the steering wheel. But the touchscreen itself is quite useful; the icons for “navigation” and “phone” now huge and conveniently swipe-able so one doesn’t have to wade through quite as many submenus as other systems. It’s quite a feat is rendering iDrive so easily decipherable, especially since the original was the very definition of frustrating.
Another option worth noting is the top-of-the-line audio system, now made by Bowers & Wilkins. Boasting some 1,400 watts and no less than 16 speakers and 10-channels, it’s an incredible sound system. Mind you, cheapskates opting for a base 530i will have to make do with just 205 watts and 12 speakers. Other interesting electronic tidbits are a new adaptive cruise control system that can, in Europe at least, adjust speed according to local speed limits. There’s a new Lane Change Assistant (again, In Europe) that allows the 540i to change lanes simply by flicking the turn signal when you’re driving semi-autonomously.
Also, Remote Control Parking — this one available in Canada — allows you to park the 5 Series in tight spots (where you might have trouble opening the doors to get out) remotely. Position the car in front of the desired parking spot and then, using nothing more than the new Display Key, you can guide the big 5 rearwards. One thing we do know is the price. When they arrive — again, by February 2017 — the 530i xDrive will retail for $61,500 while a base 540i xDrive will start at $69,000.
So there you have it. As many questions asked as answered, though the direction, it must be said, seems resolutely forward. There is definitely the possibility that this new 5 Series will indeed mark a return to BMW’s traditional — and much lauded — values. When we know for sure, you’ll be the first to know.
One last thing: While the future definitely includes an M550i (462 horsepower and zero to 100 km/h in four seconds flat) at the top of the range, slotting into the future of the lineup between the 530i and 540i will be the 530e, a plug-in hybrid that BMW claims will be able to travel 50 kilometres on electricity alone. Mind you, that’s according to Europe’s exceptionally optimistic NEDC rating, so there’s another thing we will have to just wait and see.Trending VideosSee More Videos
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