There’s something to be said for a common design language but, wow, aren’t things going a little out of hand? When a new E-Class passes by next year, you will scratch your head wondering whether it was an S- or C-Class that just floated by. You can thank Audi for starting this trend many years ago but at least now the graphics of the daytime running lamp are significantly differentiated to give the fat-cat in the A8 a fighting chance over mere mortals in their A4s and A6s. And now there’s this, the new BMW 5 Series, or what really should be referred to as a compact 7 Series.
Why? That’s the question that hung heavily over dinner after driving the seventh generation of the 5 Series, the G30, on the outskirts of Lisbon. Why does it require a car expert to call out different models with authority? Why have the styling risks, the pizzazz, the shock value of the bangle era, been completely consigned to the museum? The general consensus on the styling front – and let’s not fool ourselves here, that’s what sells cars these days – was an underwhelming meh.
And now that I’ve done my job, been objective and deservingly critical about the unadventurous styling, let me tell you that I just love the way the new 5 Series looks. I love how the new 7 Series looks so that should be a given, but with the canvas having been shrunk the results are even better, at least to my eye. There’s more athleticism to the design, more strength; the lines are pinched tighter, the creases are sharper; the headlamps merge into the kidney grille and the horizontal lines visually stretch out the car (though it actually isn’t any wider) and she sits closer to the road. The devil is in the details on the new 5, the interplay of light and shadows, the pronounced coupe-like roofline, the heft that sits over the rear to emphasise the driven wheels, the aero vent aft of the front wheels that is actually functional, this is a car that looks special – even in white. I’m astonished that I’m even discussing a car colour but it bears pointing out how rare it is to find a car dressed in white for a media launch. However, mated to the M Performance body kit – carbon side skirts, deeper air dams, black chrome trim, black wheels, a diffuser-like effect on the rear bumper with trapezoidal exhaust tips – the new 5 Series looks ace. Though, to again be objective and unbiased, it was only my colleague Siddharth Patankar and myself that professed any love for the new 5’s styling on Twitter, so we seem to be in a minority.
Anyway, there’s more of the 7 Series on the inside. Heck, this is identical to the 7 Series! There’s the same beautifully-finished black-chrome knobs and buttons, the same iDrive controller, the perfume capsules that you can slip into the air-con and the touchscreen with gesture control. The machined aluminium grilles for the Bowers & Wilkins tweeters are properly cold to the touch as metal ought to be and the edges even feel a bit sharp and hand-finished, quite obviously a pain to engineer in these days of flush and smooth surfaces. Look closely and you’ll notice the centre console is angled ever more slightly towards the driver but that’s that for differences between the 5 and 7. Which, if you’re in the market for a car of this class (the Germans call this a ‘business sedan’, how awesomely drab), is just fantastic – all the tech and quality of the 7 at half the price. It’s only when you slip into the rear that the differences are obvious. Our airport shuttles were a fleet of black 7 Series’ so we could make an immediate comparison – the 7 Series has acres of space with reclining and massage seats while the 5 Series, well, feels like a 5 Series from the back. Of course with the dimensions marginally stretched out in every direction and the new seats, there’s almost an inch more space at the rear, so compared to class benchmarks the new 5 is on the money.
Back to the driver’s seat – which is now 20(!) way adjustable and can be optioned with the same massage and exercise functions that makes the 7’s rear thrones so lovely – and to the gimmick of limited practicality but unlimited entertainment. By now you’d have heard of the 7 Series’ Gesture Control and with a wider grid to recognise what your fingers are doing, it works even better on the new 5: twirl your finger to adjust volume, flash a V-sign to change radio stations, swipe right in a dismissive fashion to cancel calls. It’s a super-cool thing to have, and worth the (hefty) premium BMW will charge just to impress your passengers. On the practicality side the 10.25-inch infotainment screen is touch sensitive and the major functions are grouped into six ‘tiles’ that can be swiped, expanded and customised. There really is no need for the iDrive controller but fans of tradition will be happy to note that it has been retained and is even more intuitive in this sixth iteration, the rotary dial even incorporating a touch pad to scribble navigation destinations. And if you haven’t had your fill of touch-sensitive screens, the key fob – again borrowed from the 7 Series! – has a bunch of menus and functions via which you can turn on the air-con, find out the fuel tank range and even send off the car to its parking space.
A Thousand words and we have yet to start driving! But before we do justice to our ‘The Thrill Of Driving’ strapline there’s the big change from F10 to G30 that needs to be talked about. The CLAR ‘cluster architecture’ was first introduced on… what else!… the 7 Series and now filters down to the 5 but without the expensive carbon backbone. There’s a greater use of hot-formed steels and aluminium brings weight down by almost 100 kilos. The steering now uses electric assistance with a variable rate and effort, the characteristic double-wishbone front axle has been redesigned and there’s a new 5-link rear suspension. There are no air springs, BMW’s engineers deeming them to be too heavy, but if you spec the variable suspension you get newly developed Bilstein dampers. Also on the options menu is the faster acting Adaptive Drive anti-roll bars. And, as you’d expect, our test car had all the above options thrown at it, along with xDrive all-wheel drive and rear-wheel steer (IAS). If you think it’s all a bit much for a ‘business sedan’ you’ll find me nodding in agreement but the all-round improvement to the driving experience is hard to argue against. It’s unclear if all-wheel drive will be offered in India but significantly all six-cylinder UK-spec cars (the largest right-hand drive market, FYI) get xDrive as standard. And, rather uncharacteristically for Portugal, it’s raining today.
Our test starts with the 530d xDrive and the immediate benefit is that all 261bhp, and more significantly the 620Nm of torque, can be deployed in its entirety with none of the drama that would’ve been an obvious accompaniment to rear-drive and wet roads. The in-line-six motor is the latest modular unit and is even more satisfying, even more refined with the SYNTAK sound insulation, yet still delivers that characteristic sport-diesel growl when worked hard. Mated to the ZF 8-speed gearbox and all-wheel drive, the 530d accelerates with ridiculous turn of pace – 5.4 seconds is the claimed 0-100kmph time. The rear-drive 530d takes 5.7 seconds which is equally astonishing – that’s sports car quick to be honest.
Thankfully the new 5 Series does not ride like a sports car. Even more of a relief is that the new 5 does not ride like any of the old 5’s. Put the adaptive dampers in Comfort and you have E-Class levels of ride and luxury. When you want to take it easy, the new 5 is an effortless and hugely comfortable car, the additional wheel travel breathing (rather than hopping) over undulations, the body staying flat and level, and occupants being cosseted in a manner that really brings Mercedes to mind. And then the traffic thins out, the road gets twisty, you switch it into Sport +, press the DTC button once to loosen up the ESP (long press to deactivate completely) and the new 5 reminds you of the blue-and-white propeller badge on the nose. Turn-in is quick, cornering flat, the engine and tranny respond urgently and with so much torque there’s a cool little smidge of oversteer as you power out of bends. Despite all-wheel drive.
BMW’s xDrive is unashamedly rear-biased and you can feel the typical BMW wag-of-the-tail on aggressive corner exits. But then xDrive enters the picture, elevates lateral grip and shuffles torque to the front to significantly increase exit speed (and composure). These are grip levels hitherto experienced only on quattro-equipped Audis but with none of the understeer that blights cars with four rings at the limit. Adding to the dynamic repertoire is the more feelsome and accurate (electric) steering while Integral Active Steer turns the rear wheels a tad for sharper turn-in (and a tighter turning circle), the effect being that the front does not feel like it’s washing out and the bulk of the 5 is masked to the point where it feels almost like a 3. The latter is optional, as are the Adaptive Drive electrically-actuated anti-roll bars that respond quicker than conventional hydraulic bars.
It’s a thrilling car to drive but when you’re not in the mood it can almost drive itself. The latest suit of autonomy functions include lane-change assist which is the height of laziness if you ask me. With the system activated (via a button on the steering wheel) you hold down the indicator in the direction you want to turn and the system scans the road and automatically steers into the next lane when the coast is clear. Forget laziness, this requires placing an unprecedented level of trust in the car, allowing it to take so much control on a motorway, at motorway speeds, with traffic next to you. In the best traditions of road testing I put my fears aside and tested it out, and it did work as advertised. But damn, it’s scary.
Less scary and significantly more useful is active lane-keeping that keeps the car within the lane, only requiring you to keep one finger on the steering wheel so that the system knows you’re paying token attention. Then there’s active cruise control that maintains a pre-set distance to the car in front (actually two cars in front in this latest iteration), can come to a complete stop and accelerate back up to the set speed without your intervention, and even accounts for motorway exits and roundabouts. And using the remote key, the car can go park itself (parallel, perpendicular, no space to open the door, no problem) till you summon it back again. All extremely convenient but isn’t it ironic that while a bunch of engineers made the best-driving 5 Series ever, in the same office another set (almost) takes the driver out of the equation by making the very same car (almost) drive itself.
Back to the driving and I swap to the 540i with sDrive rear-wheel drive. In the days gone by, a 540i badge meant a V8 but in these days of downsizing it now denotes the twin-turbo straight six. And it’s a peach. It’s so silent while creeping along it brings to mind an electric motor but when stepped on, it gets satisfyingly urgent in tone and tenor without needing a trick exhaust or sound piped in through the speakers. It’s the 540i with the M Performance kit that’s pictured in this story, and also the one that I enjoyed the most in Portugal. Peak power is 335bhp, maximum torque of 450Nm peaks at a ridiculously low 1380rpm, and the claimed 0-100kmph time is 5.1 seconds (xDrive does it two-tenths quicker). There’s nothing in the way of turbo lag and when wrung out, there’s a delicious exhaust yowl. It’s a damn quick car, this new 5 Series, but more to the point it is more comfortable, more refined, more gadget-laden, more sophisticated and significantly more upmarket. The main take away is the tremendous breadth of ability that BMW has now endowed the 5 Series with, capable of Mercedes-levels of comfort while enhancing the traditional dynamic polish of BMW (with quattro-like grip on xDrive-equipped models). Few cars can cover the entire spectrum, tick all the right boxes, but the 5 really does come very close. And if they do bring a long-wheelbase 5 Series (to take on the long-wheelbase E-Class that Mercedes is rumoured to be bringing to India), I really can’t see much sense to splurging on a 7 Series.
A 7 Series customer might not be too impressed with the blurring of boundaries but, if I’m in the market for a 5, oh wow, this is a sweet deal.