2012 BMW 528i: First Drive

March 9, 2012
As a casual luxury shopper considering the 2012 BMW 528i, you might not think that there's anything all that radical about this model.

It's a good-looking sport sedan, fitted with some noteworthy tech features, and rated an excellent 34 mpg on the highway. What's not to love?

But if that's you, you're probably not among the legions of loyal BMW fans who are biting their fingernails a little more often over whether BMW's new base engine in the 2012 Z4, 3-Series, and 5-Series has what it takes to replace the brand's much-loved in-line six.

Yes, a four-banger; but it's brawnier

To the enthusiasts: Don't get too bent out of shape over the reality of a gasoline four-banger in the U.S. 5-Series. It's worth going over some of the numbers: the new 2.0-liter four makes 240 horsepower, and even more importantly, it produces its peak torque of 260 pound-feet beginning at just 1,250 rpm. And the new turbo four in the 528 makes it this mid-size sport sedan quicker than last year's 528i, which had a 240-hp, 230 lb-ft six-cylinder engine.

It feels way stronger than the old base six, in fact, in just about any kind of driving, from mild puttering around in traffic to serious storming up mountain passes. Thanks to a quick-acting twin-scroll turbocharger, some clever intake and exhaust plumbing, and smart electronics wrapping it all together, this is not an engine that needs to be worked up to a power peak, or one where you're anticipating against lag. Roll into the throttle, and the engine seems happy to crank out the torque, no matter which gear.

Of course, the eight-speed automatic transmission handles is a willing companion; it shifts with well-damped precision, ratcheting up to the next gear quickly if you don't need the added revs. No matter how gradually you accelerate, the transmission always keeps revs a bit above 1,500 rpm, so you'll always be on the engine's good side (yet in the economical range whenever you can be). Running through the lower gears with the steering-wheel paddle-shifters, we noticed a significant build in power as we neared 4,000 rpm, and then it evenly builds up to nearly 6,000 rpm. It seems there's no big reward for sticking it out nearly to redline, just past 6,500 rpm, but the transmission does so if you simply nail it in 'Drive.'

iDrive is here, with a controller next to the shifter, and a large, wide screen up above, but there's nothing new here, since the latest iteration that we find easier to navigate. But what is worth pointing out is that on the left side of the center console, next to your knee, there's a toggle control that lets you switch between Comfort, Sport, Sport+, and Eco Pro modes. Eco Pro allows smarter engagement of ancillaries and climate-control functions and has an interactive display you can summon up, but we skipped all that and drove in Comfort or Sport the majority of the time. We would have appreciated a wider span between the two settings, but it served our needs well enough on the freeways and boulevards in Comfort, then the curvy two-laners in Sport.

Choose your own attitude

That system changes the weighting of the steering, the throttle calibration, and transmission shifts, among other things, and it works together with the available Dynamic Damper Control—included with our test car's Sport Package ($3,600)—to affect how the 5 rides and behaves over corners and on rough surfaces.

And with the system, the 5-Series rides as if it knows the road ahead—filtering out coarse surfaces and even rough rural-road patchwork. That's paired with great body control, and a sense that the 5-Series can just eat up the miles whether on an Interstate or on the backroads, while being inspiring to the driver and not wearing out your passengers.

Just as we've said in our full review of the 2012 5-Series, there's plenty of trunk space, and it's well-shaped, but back-seat space is surprisingly limited (in knee space, mainly) compared to other sedans this size—193 inches long, or a few inches longer than most U.S. mid-size cars.

Also as we've noted in our drives of other 5-Series models, we find the steering—which some outlets have criticized for feeling too detached in the current 5-Series—to quite perfectly suit the character of the car, especially here in 528i trim. This is a nicely balanced, everyday-driving sport sedan, not a top-performance machine, and while the steering mutes out most feeling of the road, some feedback is there, near the limit.

Engine is refined, but Auto Start Stop isn't

No complaints on refinement—the new four is also surprisingly refined. It settles to a low purr, and compared to the 328i, which we'd just driven a week or so before, the 528i didn't allow as much (or any, really) direct-injection noise at idle and tip-in.

The one feature in the 528i that did not feel refined is the Auto Start Stop, which felt noticeably rougher here than in the 328i models we'd driven days before, or in six-cylinder Euro-spec 5-Series models we'd driven in the past. The implementation of start-stop here is, simply, a little rough, and you do—always—notice with a shudder when the engine stops, and when it's restarted. And if you happen to momentarily step on the brake, then let up as traffic creeps ahead, you can sometimes hear the starter motor cranking for more than an instant. On the bright side, this feature could significantly boost your mileage in stop-and-go driving; and with a press of the button (next to the ignition switch), you can disable it (at each start, though).

And while the 528i is a little bit faster than the old car, mileage is much, much improved. Over about 540 miles of driving—including Los Angeles boulevards, long slogs up freeways, and mountainous Sierra Nevada two-laners—we managed an average of nearly 29 mpg according to the trip computer. That's surprisingly in line with this car's 23 mpg city, 34 mpg highway rating, and particularly impressive as it wasn't in Eco Pro mode, and we weren't driving in a very steady fashion.

Keep in mind, that otherwise this is a BMW 5-Series—ours with a bottom-line price within a few grand of $60,000—and it does well in living up to its task as a tech-savvy luxury car. It's very easy to add fifteen grand or more to the bottom-line price, and ours felt only moderately loaded up, at $57,275, which included the Premium Package (power tailgate, garage-door opener, park distance control); the Tech Package (rearview camera, nav); and the Sport Package (dynamic dampers, multi-contour seats, 18-inch V-spoke alloys, and upgraded trim); plus Comfort Access keyless entry and heated front seats. A number of other extras that are optional in some other luxury sedans—like rain-sensing wipers, dynamic cruise control, xenon headlamps; and an iPod adapter—are all standard here, though.

We think that BMW performed a nearly perfect efficiency-minded engine transplant here. There's no good reason to stay away from the base 5-Series because it's gone four-cylinder, and we wager that even more will consider it because of its excellent mileage.

Essentially, the new engine makes the 5-Series more willing to perform multiple roles, ranging from dollar-conscious commuter to weekend serious sport sedan. And the turbo four makes it a better car for either of those roles.

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