First Drive: 2011 BMW 5-Series

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

2011 BMW 535i (Euro spec)

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.

2011 BMW 535i (Euro spec)

2011 BMW 535i (Euro spec)

Satisfying for the driver, comfortable for passengers

Regarding that Driving Dynamics Control, it affects throttle response, steering assist, and transmission shift points, as well as the performance of these active suspension systems, so there’s a dramatic difference in overall feel just from Comfort to Sport. Sport+ allows a separate mode that some might appreciate for track driving; it allows greater slip angles and less intervention from the stability control system. Simply put, in the Normal or Sport modes, you can enjoy the driving experience without flustering your passengers too much.

Powering the 535i is BMW’s new turbocharged 3.0-liter straight-six engine. The first to incorporate Valvetronic variable valve timing and turbocharging together, the new engine, codenamed N55 by BMW, has a single twin-scroll turbocharger and replaces the former N54 engine that has twin turbos. Just as we loved its predecessor, we love the accessible torque and almost instantaneous throttle response of the new engine; with no detectable lag and strong, torquey response even from 1500 rpm or so, it could be very easily mistaken for a V-8. However the sound is the only thing that’s lacking; the 535i’s engine neither sings like BMW’s naturally aspirated sixes nor sounds as authoritative as its V-8s.

Initially, the new 2011 BMW 5-Series will be offered in rear-wheel-drive 535i and 550i variants, with the 550i stepping up to a 400-horsepower, 4.4-liter twin-turbocharged V-8 engine (capable of 0 to 60 in about five seconds). Later this year a new 528i model will join the lineup, along with all-wheel-drive (xDrive) variants of each.

2011 BMW 535i (Euro spec)

2011 BMW 535i (Euro spec)

As before, all 5-Series models will be offered with manual or automatic transmissions; while the manual remains a six-speed, all models with automatic now get eight speeds—said to help improve fuel economy by bringing a taller top gear and more torque-converter lockup. BMW claims to have improved both smoothness and shift times, though we noticed some torque-converter hesitation when getting lightly back on the throttle.

2011 BMW 5-Series (Euro spec)

2011 BMW 5-Series (Euro spec)

Evolutionary in design, but major changes underfoot

The new 5 has a familiar profile, and the overall proportions haven’t changed appreciably. It’s only an inch and a half longer than the outgoing 5-Series, but the wheelbase is about three inches longer. The BMW kidney grille has been brought a little lower and is more up-front than before, flanked by beautiful new jeweled LED headlamps, much like those introduced on the new 2010 5-Series Gran Turismo. Perhaps most notable is the strong lower beltline crease that extends all the way to the back. There’s a good deal of additional expression in other details; the hood is a little curvier, a new taillight design (also like those of the 5-Series GT) swoops upward at the sides, and the hood itself includes outwardly flowing contour lines.

Inside, the 5-Series doesn’t exactly have a cockpit layout, but it’s driver-centered while also optimizing spaciousness in front. Major controls and displays are angled six degrees toward the driver, and there’s a rather wide center console that opens wide to store PDAs, iPods, and other precious electronics.

Although the 5-Series is definitely a sport sedan, it’s first and foremost a luxury sedan—one that places a tremendous emphasis on technology at that. The instrument panel has also been re-contoured, with some more expressive creases that flow through to the door trim. Front seats are as comfortable and supportive as we’ve come to expect from BMW, with extendable lower cushion supports for taller drivers like this one, and an excellent driving position overall.

In the new 5-Series, BMW has done away with the conventional front strut setup that all other 5-Series models before it have had and instead used a double-wishbone configuration that the automaker says helps improve steering, allows space for larger brakes, and helps enhance ride and handling. In back there’s a five-link setup replacing the former four-link one—helping to minimize lift and nosedive—and aluminum suspension components have been used wherever possible to save weight. Also helping tip the scales a little lighter are run-flat tires; the 2011 5-Series will come with Dunlop run-flat tires (18-inch in the 535i and 550i, 17-inch in the 528i)—Sport Maxx GT on our Euro-spec test cars.

The new 5-Series is 55-percent stiffer than the outgoing model and has a structural enhancements for improved safety—all without a substantial increase in weight, thanks to the increased use of aluminum. The doors, for instance, are aluminum, as are the front side panels and hood.

Weight savings is a theme on the new 5-Series not only to preserve the sport sedan’s light, responsive feel but also to keep its fuel economy respectable. We don’t have EPA figures for the 5-Series yet, but it does also take advantage of BMW’s Brake Energy Regeneration, which runs the alternator more during deceleration or braking, so as to improve fuel-efficiency during other times. The new transmission, as we hinted, should help as well.

2011 BMW 5-Series (Euro spec)

2011 BMW 5-Series (Euro spec)

Weaknesses? There are few, but backseat space remains one. There’s simply not as much useful legroom as in most rivals this size, and the back of the front seat has a hard-plastic pocket. Our one other complaint is that brake actuation in our test vehicles was a little too grabby when we just wanted to scrub off a little speed; don’t get us wrong though, they perform without fade or complaint even during hard track use. The brakes now have composite front rotors and electronic aids such as Brake Fade Compensation, Brake Standby, and Brake Drying help performance in certain situations.

2011 BMW 535i (Euro spec)

2011 BMW 535i (Euro spec)

iDrive intuitive at last, but plenty more to geek out over

You’ll still need iDrive to access many vehicle functions, but the 5-Series benefits from the fourth-generation system that was introduced for 2010 on the 5-Series—including a much-improved menu structure and hot-buttons for main-menu categories. Simply put, iDrive has finally reached its potential in being a relatively intuitive interface that you won’t need to read manuals to digest and use on the fly.

Also, BMW will offer a sonar-based Parking Assistant feature for the first time in the 2011 5-Series, and the back-up camera system includes new Top View and Side View functions aimed at spotting driveway or parking-lot obstacles. A new Active Cruise Control with Stop-and-Go—capable of adjusting speed to traffic and bringing the vehicle to a complete stop for up to three seconds before needing driver input—will be optional. Also on the options list will be Active Blind Spot Detection, a Lane Departure Warning system, Xenon Adaptive Headlights with automatic high beams, and a new second-generation night-vision system with pedestrian detection.

The 2011 5-Series will have an auto-park feature—sonar-based and for parallel-parking only. The driver can touch the brake and accelerator during the process, and the system will be offered with manual or automatic transmissions.

The bottom line is that the new 2011 5-Series feels a little sportier and more expressive than the 5-Series it’s replacing. Those who might have dismissed the 5-Series might owe it to themselves to take a new look at this one. When you take advantage of all of the technical achievements that are available with the Sport Package or as options—you don’t have to drive fast or aggressively to enjoy them—you’re getting a true sport sedan that will make the you, your passengers, and your inner tech geek very satisfied.

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