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Sport sedan’s appeal rests on room, comfort and convenient tech.
Mark Phelan, Detroit Free Press

My relationship with BMW’s cars is becoming increasingly like my high school crushes: I’m not sure if I like them because of what they are, or what I want them to be.

The BMW 540i xDrive sedan is a case in point. My default expectation of the 5-series remains that it’s “the ultimate driving machine,” the brilliant phrase that’s been BMW’s ad slogan since the 1970s. But while the latest 5-series is better in many significant ways, the improvements relate more to comfort and convenience than speed and maneuverability and the joy of driving a great machine.

Could it be that BMW has outgrown its focus on performance? Or that I’ve finally grown up?

Neither seems likely.

I tested a well-equipped 2017 540i xDrive with adaptive cruise control, a touch screen, navigation, wireless Apple CarPlay, M Sport trim, runflat tires, leather upholstery, power sunroof and more. It stickered at $81,635. The 5-series was new for 2017, and got minimal changes for 2018, so this review applies to both models.

The 540i xDrive uses a turbocharged 3-liter straight-six that produces 335 horsepower. The 540i xDrive accelerates to 60 miles per hour in 4.7 seconds, 0.7 second faster than the 2016 535i xDrive, and quicker than all the competitors that list zero-to-60 times.

Those competitors include the Acura TLX, Lexus GS 350 and Mercedes E400 4Matic.

The 540i xDrive’s EPA fuel economy is among the leaders in its class at 20 miles per hour in the city, 29 mpg highway and 23 mpg combined.

And it does it even though it has gotten slightly bigger. The 2017 and 2018 5-series is 1.1 inches longer than the previous generation, riding on a wheelbase that grew 0.2 inches. It’s slightly taller and wider, too.

That adds up to a roomy and comfortable passenger compartment with plenty of space in front and rear seats. BMW doesn’t provide its own interior measurements, but according to the EPA website, the 5-series passenger compartment is slightly smaller than the previous model, but still among the largest in the segment, trailing only the Genesis G80 and Infiniti Q70L. The trunk is also accommodating, with a wide and regular opening that makes it easy to load large objects.

After more than a decade when it seemed BMW’s iDrive rotary controller was the Devil’s Dial, created solely to infuriate drivers and amuse sadistic German engineers, the 5-series finally gets a quick and responsive touch screen and a few buttons. It’s now one of the most user-friendly controls in a luxury sedan.

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BMW’s 2016 7 series will feature gesture recognition to allow drivers to control its infotainment system with simple hand movements.

The 540i xDrive is about 137 pounds lighter than a comparable 2016 5-series, but still heavier than comparable versions of the larger CTS and Jaguar XF.

The 3-liter six-cylinder engine is smooth and powerful, but the car does not feel particularly nimble. It drives like a big car, in spite of strong acceleration.

While BMW has sanded down iDrive’s rough edges, its new gesture control remains a work in progress. Theoretically, it enables a driver to adjust volume and other functions simply by waving a hand, without ever actually touching a physical control.

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It sounds nifty, but at this point isn’t much more than a parlor trick. I found gesture control slower and less precise than simply reaching for the dials and touch screen a few inches away.

Gesture control is particularly galling for people who talk with their hands. I  inadvertently muted the volume of several phone calls. I expect the same thing would happen to audio system volume if I were talking to a passenger.

BMW, which historically prized performance over mundane characteristics, blurs the line between luxury car and sport sedan with the 2018 BMW 540i xDrive. It’s quick and powerful, but also one of the roomiest and most comfortable sedans in its class. It’s also quick, powerful and fuel efficient, despite somehow feeling less sporty than earlier 5-series.

It may simultaneously ask and answer the question: “What does the ultimate driving machine become when it grows up?”

What Stands Out

Size: Bigger

Infotainment dial: Better

Gesture controls: Not ready for prime time

2017 BMW 540i xDrive

What? An all-wheel-drive luxury midsize sedan

When? On sale now

Where? Made in Dingolfing, Germany

How big? 16.2 feet long

What makes it go? A 3-liter twin-turbocharged six-cylinder engine good for 435 horsepower, coupled with an eight-speed automatic transmission.

How thirsty? 20 miles per gallon in the city, 29 mpg highway and 23 mpg combined

How much? Prices for the 2018 530i start at $52,400. The all-wheel-drive 540i xDrive begins at $60,000.

Overall? Now that BMW has worked out some kinks, a solid luxury sedan.