2004 BMW 5-Series Review

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Bengt Halvorson Bengt Halvorson Senior Editor
August 15, 2004




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The outgoing 5-Series is a tough act to follow. It was a critic’s darling and hard to fault. Near the end of its product cycle, even Consumer Reports got on the bandwagon. The car boasted high performance, top safety features, reasonable comfort, and increased luxury and convenience without ever seeming too complicated or isolating. In keeping with the models that preceded it, its styling was kept simple, conservative, and evolutionary, but it will age well over time, much as 5-Series models from the 70s and 80s still look sharp today. But like most of the recently redesigned cars in the BMW lineup, the all-new 5-Series, code-named E60, gets much more radical redesign—especially on the inside, and in the outside front and rear styling.

Three U.S. models bow in for 2004: the 525i and 530i six-cylinder models and the 545i V-8 model. All three versions have a standard six-speed manual or optional six-speed automatic transmission. Our test vehicle was a manual-shift 530i, whose 3.0-liter in-line six makes a respectable 225 hp and 214 lb-ft of torque at 3500 rpm.

The 530i’s in-line six has been steadily refined over the years, and it really does keep getting better. The six now carries Double VANOS stepless variable valve timing. Other features include an electronic throttle, and electronically mapped engine cooling that optimizes for hot spots and uniform temperature.

Some other automakers’ engines do away with engine braking and use sluggishly calibrated electronic throttles in order to up the power and still pass emissions, but BMW’s throttle brings quick response and good control. The torque figures for the engine, 214 lb-ft at 3500 rpm, aren’t anywhere near class-leading, but it feels deceivingly more torquey, probably due to a combination of responsive throttle, light weight, and well chosen gear ratios. We noticed that the six pulls strongly no matter what gear it’s in. You can shift to fifth or sixth gear very early and as long as the revs are above 1500 rpm or so it will pull slowly but confidently, without a stumble. On the high end of the rev band, the engine is ready and willing, free of vibration and excess noise.

The throws feel about right now for the ZF-supplied six-speed manual (they’ve been shortened), and the linkage is light, precise, and positive into each gear. Clutch engagement is just right — smooth enough to keep passengers from spilling their coffee, yet abrupt and aggressive enough when you need it. The clutch is now self-adjusting for a longer service life.

One of the reasons why the 5-Series feels so sprightly just with the 3.0-liter six is that it weighs less than 3500 pounds, and actually weighs slightly less than the outgoing car. In a time when nearly every “redesigned” car gets heavier and obesity is being seen (or felt) as a serious issue for new cars.

BMW has gone to aluminum for most of the front-end structural components, including the subframe and suspension. Components for the so-called double-pivot front and multi-link rear suspension are also made of aluminum. Weight distribution front-to-back is close to 50-50. The 5-Series is still primarily made of steel, but many of the underbody and chassis components are aluminum, including the subframe and suspension. The driveshaft is also aluminum.

Of the three cars in the 5’s lineup, the 530i carries better fuel economy figures than either the 525i or the 545i, with performance figures in between. The 530i can dash to 60 mph in 6.6 seconds and reach an electronically limited top speed of 150 mph.

Road impression

Over nearly 500 miles of driving, mostly on curvy rural roads, we never felt short on power with the 530i. It’s easy to imagine that the additional power of the 545i would be fun, but the V-8 model brings with it several hundred pounds more weight. With no sparing my right foot, the trip computer showed that we averaged an incredible 32.4 miles per gallon, and careful top-off over two tanks in the same period showed 28 mpg—making us wonder if it was measuring its gallons as Imperial, not U.S., gallons. Either way, its surprisingly frugal operation offsets its requirement for premium gas.

The 530i’s standard steering is mechanically variable and engine-speed assisted. The system functions as it should, light at low speeds and with little effort required in parking, but with more firmness and feedback at higher speed. Conventional anti-roll bars are standard. The 530’s brakes — big vented discs on all four wheels — are, of course, amazing—a little touchy at low speeds but very confidence-inspiring in spirited driving.

The ride of our standard-suspension test car was firm, turning almost punishing on a favorite stretch of paved highway through national forest, where tree roots have been paved over and pavement crumbles over water-heaved areas, leaving sudden changes in the surface that really test the suspension. Impact harshness was bad at times, but the suspension had absolutely no problem with mid-corner heaves.

With the optional Sport Package, you add Active Steering, Active Roll Stabilization, and larger 18-inch performance rubber. Without going into technical depth on how this system works, it adjusts the effort and steering ratio to greatly reduce the amount you have to move the steering wheel to make quick maneuvers, and it also interfaces with the stability control to help intervene and restabilize the car. Also, hydraulic actuators replace standard anti-roll bars to allow even flatter cornering.

Uninterrupted enjoyment

The interior boasts long, uninterrupted lines and nice upholstery and material finishes, with an oversimplified layout that takes after the concept cars of a decade or so ago, with a single controller and screen-based system called iDrive replacing many smaller buttons and functions. All 5-Series models now get a revised version of the oft-criticized system. In the 5-Series, iDrive gets a redesign to have four primary directions in the main menu rather than eight. There’s also now a Menu button as well that will always take you back to the main menu. Certain functions that are often used but somehow ruled by engineers as non-critical are found buried within submenus. iDrive remains a small disaster when it comes a few things—one of the most critical is operating the sound system. Accessing the scan feature takes three selections the first time and an additional two clicks of the selector each subsequent time you start and stop. That’s just a small example. You keep wishing for a button you can just push. For the sound system at least the up/down scan and volume are separate buttons outside of iDrive.

There’s officially room for five inside, though as with most mid-size sedans no one willingly chooses to sit in the middle. There is a substantial improvement in rear-seat space compared to the outgoing 5-Series, but there are still cars in its class that feel more spacious inside. Trunk room is up by 26 percent, according to the EPA figures, and measurements are up slightly for all occupants. The rear-wheel-drive hump in the middle is smaller than in many rear-wheel-drive cars, but still significant enough for rear middle passengers to have to splay their legs out to either side.

A ten-speaker sound system is now standard in all models, addressing a common complaint regarding lousy-sounding base audio in BMWs as recently as a few years ago. Our car had the optional Premium Sound Package, which upgrades further to a glovebox CD changer, thirteen speakers, and theater-like surround-sound capabilities.

There weren’t quite as many little storage spaces inside as we’ve come to expect in new cars. The center console area and the front door pockets were rather small. Otherwise there was only a small cubby in front of the shifter area and the map pockets behind the front seats. Cupholders are a rather odd affair, too. The one for the driver pops out of the dash just to the right of the center console area, while the passenger’s one is far to the right next to the door. The location seems thoughtful—keeping hands free and spills away from electronics—but they don’t seem all that sturdy.

The trunk is huge. An optional ($430) ski pass-through with split back seat allows long objects. The electric release tends to activate rather violently, though, as a friend unloading groceries almost smacked herself in the face. We also had an issue with the trunklid not staying open when the car was parked on a slight incline—unexpected after it had propped itself open with such force.

One of the crowd

The last-generation 5-Series was known for safety, and the new car brings in even more safety oriented features. Besides airbags all around, and also an available head protection system, models now feature BMW’s adaptive brakelight system. The system makes the area larger, raising the effective intensity under hard braking. Rain-sensing wipers are another safety feature now standard. But curiously, rear-seat side airbags are also optional. A new ISIS (Intelligent Safety and Information System) manages all of these safety devices.

The 530i starts at $44,995, and even though it’s the mid-range model adding a few options brings the bottom line well into the 50s. Many of the options aid in safety and comfort but they’re dangerous to the price. Examples include a head-up display, active cruise control, Comfort (active) front seats, and heated rear seats. Our lightly optioned car did have the optional ($700) parking distance control. The wheels are particularly vulnerable and we appreciated not only how the system helped us gauge other vehicles in parking but how it operates low enough to pick up curbs and help avoid curb rash.

There was a time, not too long ago, when BMW sold some of the few rear-wheel-drive sport sedans. Now nearly everyone has a rear-wheel-drive sport-luxury sedan either on offer or soon to be introduced —even Chrysler. So there’s a lot of competition for the 5-Series. For instance, the very competent Infiniti G35 is lighter, more powerful, and less expensive. Compared with the current Mercedes-Benz E320, the 5-Series feels more responsive and athletic and nearly as comfortable. Its interior materials are a step ahead of the Benz, which on paper offers comparable performance but doesn’t have a manual transmission option.

No question about it, BMW still delivers some of the most impressive engineering in the business. But their cars do everything a little different and may not be so friendly for a quick dealer test drive. As with the 7-Series, we recommend at least a full day to get over the idiosyncrasies, and accustomed to iDrive and the more direct, firm driving response. This is a car that feels better the more you drive it. The steering and brakes, overall, are telepathic.

So while beauty is still in the eye of the beholder and the brand is trying more than in the past to make a blatant design statement, BMW still holds world-class engineering and performance in high regard. The regard for simplicity in design and controls that the brand’s cars used to have has faded with time, but on the other hand interior materials are getting much better. With continued strong sales, they must be doing something right. Perhaps the secret is that while BMWs are different than they used to be, they still feel very different from other brands.

Simply put, the 5-Series is a reasonably comfortable sport sedan packed with the latest performance and safety technology, and it’s a joy to drive. You can quite easily find an alternative that’s cheaper, offers better performance, or gives more comfort at a lower price…but it won’t be a BMW.

2004 BMW 530i
Base price / as equipped:
Engine: 3.0-liter inline six, 225 hp/214 lb-ft
Drivetrain: Six-speed manual transmission, rear-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 190.6 x 72.7 x 58.0 in
Wheelbase: 113.7 in
Curb weight: 3472 lb
EPA (city/hwy): 20/30 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front two-stage airbags, front and rear head protection system, front side-impact airbags, anti-lock brakes, adaptive headlights, Dynamic Stability Control (DSC)
Major standard equipment: Dual-zone climate control, 10-way power seats with memory for driver position, power windows/locks/mirrors, power moonroof, 10-speaker AM/FM/CD sound system w/ dual subwoofers, cruise control, tilt/telescope steering wheel; rain-sensing wipers
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles

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