The 2008 BMW 5-Series has some brilliant engine options and smart-shifting transmissions, but its optional active steering is a blemish on otherwise world-class dynamics.
Edmunds notes the 5-Series lineup has a “confusing” array of engine options—confusing because the numbers on the decklids no longer match the displacement of the engines, as has been BMW’s tradition. The 528i has a 3.0-liter inline-six with 230 horsepower, the new 535i has a twin-turbocharged version of the same engine with 300 horsepower, and the 550i sports a V-8 engine with 360 horsepower. In terms of power, Edmunds adds that “the new six-cylinder engines shared with the 3 Series offer more power than the outgoing units, especially the 300-hp 535i that exhibits virtually no turbo lag.” Car and Driver calls the six-cylinders “excellent” and the V-8 “superb,” but feels the twin-turbo six “renders the V-8 obsolete,” especially since the V-8 version is “very expensive.” The 528i “feels capable of matching BMW's claimed 6.5-second 0-to-60-mph huff,” they add. The New York Times agrees, reporting “like the bears’ proverbial porridge, it delivers just-right heat,” and adding that while the turbo six accelerates to 60 mph in 5.6 seconds, the V-8 is only slightly quicker at 5.5 seconds.
Each engine comes with a choice of six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmissions, and with the available Sport Package, 535i and 550i models come with paddle shifters. All-wheel drive is also offered on six-cylinder models in the 5-Series line, called the 528xi and 535xi, respectively. Kelley Blue Book test drivers were especially enamored of this vehicle's "faster shifting automatic" transmission. Car and Driver agrees that the “smooth auto transmissions shift even faster now,” though the New York Times says it adopts a “spacey looking (and somewhat spacey acting) console shifter” that is “clumsy to press the shifter’s side button to toggle forward for reverse, back for drive. But the lever works beautifully when you use it to shift gears manually.” Edmunds says it’s “an unnecessarily different and complex way of doing a fairly straightforward thing.”
Fuel economy across the lineup ranges from 15/22 mpg for the manual-equipped V-8 550i to 18/28 mpg for a manual-shifting 528i.
In terms of handling, “The 2008 BMW 5 Series is an extremely balanced machine that can handle aggressive driving maneuvers on winding back roads as well as it dispatches weekday commutes on crumbling expressways,” Edmunds reports. The New York Times agrees: “piloting the 5 Series feels so natural that you barely notice turning the grippy, well-designed steering wheel,” they report. “It’s more like flexing muscles in your palms and fingers, and the BMW anticipates where you’re headed.” Car and Driver feels that “The fine chassis is happiest with the six-cylinder engines,” since the V-8 “feels surprisingly ponderous and much larger than the smaller-engined cars—still a gratifyingly fast and powerful four-door, but no longer a sports sedan.” The available Active Steering trips up its driving demeanor, though; as Car and Driver adds, “the schizophrenic steering is curiously twitchy and numb just off-center.” Without the option, Automedia notes, “relatively heavy steering helps impart utterly confident feel.”