As BMW has branched out from a brand focused on serving enthusiasts to a brand that wants to serve everyone, it has expanded the bandwidth of its offerings. It has done so by means of electronics that can alter its cars’ driving characteristics, as well as via the options sheet, which can tailor individual models to disparate tastes. Thus, how one specs a BMW has become more important than ever, as we see with the latest 5-series.
Our 530i test car was larded with options that inflated its $52,195 base price to an absurd $74,160—this for a four-cylinder 5-series. Among the nearly $22,000 worth of extra-cost items, the most significant may have been the adaptive dampers. Called Dynamic Damper Control, they are a bargain at $700 with the M Sport package or $1000 without. BMWs haven’t been known as the most placid-riding cars, but even on the M Sport package’s 19-inch wheels with stiff-sidewall run-flat tires, this 5-series all but glided over road imperfections. And it didn’t much matter whether the driving-mode selector was in Comfort, Eco Pro, Sport, or—for the indecisive—Adaptive, which cycles between Comfort and Sport depending on how aggressively the car is being driven.
In the 540i, the adaptive dampers can be supplemented with active anti-roll bars, but not so in the 530i. Even without that trick feature, however, the handling in this latest 5-series has improved over that of the outgoing car. It’s more energetic than the ponderous 7-series but not as rewarding as the lithe 3-series still can be.
The most fateful option selection for this particular 530i was the Integral Active Steering, a stand-alone item at $1150. It provides us the opportunity again to bemoan the fall of BMW steering, which once was the industry standard for natural response and nuanced feel. Instead, Integral Active Steering—which combines a variable-ratio rack, varying electric power assistance, and rear-wheel steering—overthinks its reaction to every turn of the wheel, particularly at low speeds. This means that every corner and bend in the road takes a bit more concentration to place the car exactly where you want it. Some of us found it more linear than previous BMW Active Steering systems, but it’s still a far cry from what BMW steering once was. At least we can be grateful that effort levels are reasonable and that the steering is not wholly overboosted in the manner of some luxury sedans. Still, the best steering in this class is no longer found at BMW but at Cadillac.
It could be that buyers no longer care about great steering, though, because they expect the car to steer itself. In that case, the 5-series still has a bit of catching up to do with the latest Mercedes-Benz E-class and the Tesla Model S. It does have a lane-departure-warning system that can nudge the vehicle back into its lane; additionally, the 530i offers semi-automated steering that, when summoned, can take over the steering chores provided the driver keeps a hand—or even a finger—on the wheel, allowing hands-free driving for only a few seconds at a time. Interestingly, the BMW system can be activated (via a button on the steering wheel) independently of cruise control. Too bad it’s not great at staying centered in the lane, and the car sometimes drifts across even well-marked lines—so this system ends up performing about as well as the distracted driver for whom it’s supposed to be compensating.
Four Feels Like More
When it comes to the engine, the 530i retains one of BMW’s traditional strengths. BMW was among the first luxury brands to slip a turbocharged inline-four into its mid-size offering, and although this engine configuration is now found under the hood of nearly every competitor, the 5-series does it best. The four-cylinder is not the source of joy that is the Bavarians’ silken, turbocharged straight-six, but it offers a strong combination of performance and efficiency.
BMW extracts 248 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque from its 2.0 liters, respectable sums but merely in line with those of competitors. Yet it whisked the big sedan from zero to 60 mph in 6.1 seconds, besting four-cylinder versions of the E-class and the Lexus GS that we’ve tested while tying the Audi A6 and falling a few tenths short of the Cadillac CTS. (The E-class, the A6, and the CTS each had all-wheel drive.) It’s also quicker than the naturally aspirated six-cylinder last seen in the previous-generation 5-series. In our 5-to-60-mph rolling-start test, the 530i was 0.2 second behind the CTS but otherwise beat all comers. And it tied the A6 for second-quickest through the quarter-mile, again bested only by the CTS. What’s not reflected in these figures but is equally impressive is the precise, progressive throttle response that shows nary a trace of turbo lag and thoroughly masks the fact that this is a boosted, small-displacement four-banger.
That secret is betrayed at idle if you open the windows, with the BMW engine exhibiting the same downmarket rattle that characterizes so many direct-injected four-cylinders. But raise the windows and the engine is barely audible; this is a quiet car overall. Out on the road, the turbo four emits a pleasant growl when you send the tach into its upper reaches. It’s not the precision zing of a BMW straight-six (one has to pony up for the 540i to get that), but it doesn’t sound half bad.
BMW’s turbo 2.0-liter also is abstemious. Its EPA ratings of 24 mpg city and 34 highway sit alongside the A6’s at the top of the class, and it posted a highly impressive 35 mpg on our 75-mph, 200-mile steady-state highway fuel-economy test. Of course, drive the car hard and mileage will suffer, as evidenced by our 23-mpg overall average (for which the highway exercise was excluded).
In our tests, the 530i proved better at going than stopping, even with the optional M Sport brake package ($650), which consists of larger calipers, larger-diameter front and rear rotors, and thicker rear rotors. From 70 mph it required 174 feet to come to a halt; the Mercedes E300 took just 154.
This new-generation 530i was three pounds heavier than its four-cylinder, rear-drive, previous-generation doppelgänger. Count that as a win in a car that’s 1.2 inches longer and fractionally larger in width, height, and wheelbase. BMW talks a lot about how the new 5-series looks different from its predecessor—touting altered swage lines and headlight elements going from round to hexagonal—but we’d guess most observers would be hard-pressed to tell the new car from the old. Then again, given what we got the last time BMW attempted a major design break—the E60-generation car of 2004—a light touch may be best.
There was a time when the 5-series cabin was cramped; those days are long gone. The rear compartment is among the roomiest in this class, and this latest version boasts a bit more rear-seat legroom than before. Up front, our 530i was equipped with the excellent multicontour seats that offer 20-way power adjustability including under-thigh extensions, but skipping that $750 option only knocks you down to 16-way seats. Heating, cooling, and massaging functions are separate, additional items. The seat heaters and the heated steering wheel now can be set to automatically fire up when ambient temperatures fall below a certain threshold, saving one from the tedium of switching them on all winter. The interior of the new 5-series also is user-friendly with its various stowage cubbies, including door pockets that can accommodate a water bottle plus a smartphone tray at the front of the center console with available wireless recharging. The 10.2-inch central screen can be manipulated with the iDrive controller or simply by touch, and navigation is standard—but Apple CarPlay and satellite radio cost extra. BMW’s silly Gesture Control is only $190, which might be worth it for the couple of times you’ll use it to wow your passengers. We had a much greater appreciation for the rich nappa leather ($1000), which gave our test car a bucks-up feel.
Properly outfitted, the 5-series cabin can come close to that of the 7. Dynamically, it’s not quite as limo-like as its bigger sibling, but it’s far removed from the E39 5er that imprinted itself so strongly on the collective imagination of luxury-car buyers and enthusiasts alike. The 5-series has evolved—but into what, exactly, depends somewhat on you.