First Drive: 2011 BMW 5-Series

January 21, 2010
2011 BMW 535i (Euro spec)

2011 BMW 535i (Euro spec)

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The new 2011 BMW 535i is more of a driver’s car than the current 2010 5-Series—or most other mid-size luxury sedans—while still upping the technology ante and not forgetting about the comfort and luxury that matters.

That’s our take after spending a day driving the new 5-Series both on the tightly curved but well-surfaced roads around Lisbon, Portugal, and on the nearby Estoril race track. But it’s requires a little bit of background first. While we loved the focused performance feel of the 5-Series two generations ago (codenamed E39 within BMW), we always thought the outgoing generation that was introduced in 2002 and will be retired after 2010 fell a little flat for traditional BMW buyers—those who really enjoy to drive, that is—because of its more isolating driving experience.

BMW all but directly acknowledges this as a common complaint, and while the new 5-Series might be a conservative evolution in terms of styling and design it’s a quite radical one with regard to how BMW’s most important model drives.

Browsing the list of new onboard technologies, admittedly, is enough to make any die-hard gearhead a little wary. With the Sport Package that was on our test car, there’s Dynamic Damping Control, which adjusts shock firmness to suit the conditions and driving style, while Active Roll Stabilization helps reduce body lean, using hydraulic pressure to ‘stiffen’ the anti-roll effect. Wrapping it all together is Driving Dynamics Control, which brings four settings—Comfort, Normal, Sport, and Sport+—that can completely change the demeanor of the car. The 5-Series’ stability control system even simulates a mechanical limited-slip differential to help with high-performance driving. Keeping it all talking in the same language is BMW’s Integrated Chassis Management system, operating on a FlexRay high-speed communications interface.

Sound a little too by-wire? Another source of worry is the all-new Electric Power Steering (EPS) system that’s making its debut in the 2011 5-Series. BMW has long produced had some of the best steering systems in the business.

Fortunately, all of our worries—and most of the worries we can think of for BMW’s enthusiast base—are for naught. First off, the steering in the new BMW 5-Series is the best you’ll find in a sedan its size; it’s one of the best systems yet—with a great, natural feel on center and plenty of road feel in tight corners. There’s none of the disconnected, ‘digital’ feel that’s present in some other electric power steering systems. Like most modern electric systems, boost is provided by an electric motor only when needed, so it also helps save fuel. Making it even more confidence-inspiring—and making the 5-Series feel like a smaller, more tossable car—is BMW’s Integral Active Steering, which steers the rear wheels up to 2.5 degrees in the opposite direction below about 35 mph, or in the same direction at higher speeds, to either help enhance stability or aid parking.

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