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Car reviews - BMW - 5 Series - 520d Touring

Our Opinion

We like
5 Series is back on top – performance, dynamics, quality, comfort, design, refinement, green tech, flexibility
Room for improvement
Unintuitive gear lever, expensive options

29 Jul 2011

PARADOX, thy name is BMW 520d Touring.

Sharing many bits and pieces with the $200K-plus F01 7 Series, the F10 5 Series is no longer a medium-sized car, while the F11 wagon is easily large enough to fit most families’ needs.

Yet the Touring is no barge – and certainly not from behind the wheel. And despite its diesel engine (and a 2.0-litre four-cylinder one at that) we revelled in the 520d’s enigmatic performance and sublime chassis capabilities.

We cannot remember the last time we enjoyed driving a substantial wagon more. Even so, the fact we averaged under 8L/100km astounded us.

But the biggest paradox is reserved for the price: $94,800 plus on-roads as tested thanks to an extortionate $2K for metallic paint actually seems like value for money for a car as well built and decently specified.

That ask includes leather upholstery, GPS sat-nav, Bluetooth/audio streaming, head-up instrumentation display, semi-powered driver’s seat, electric cargo cover, a rear camera, parking radar and cruise control with a speed limiter function.

Free of the optional (and expensive) Servotronic steering/active chassis “driving aids” that somehow divorce driver from the experience, this refreshingly basic-spec BMW at last truly exceeded our expectations, put a smile on our faces, and had us going for longer journeys just because.

Or, in other words, the 520d is truer to the marque than many more expensive models are or have been.

When we picked up our evaluation vehicle we figured the GPS/Bluetooth, head-up display, glossy wood ash dash/door/console inserts, leather lined interior, 17-inch alloys and powered cargo shelf would all add thousands to the base price … but no.

So what the base-model Touring buyer gets is the trad brand experience – elegantly designed, horizontally themed dashboard with a slight driver orientation like in the old days, along with big analogue dials set within an equally harmoniously presented instrument pod, flanked by a centre console containing clearly defined switches and controls – in a value for money package.

BMW meet VFM VFM meet BMW.

That’s right. Value. Plus rock solid-as build quality, nicely crafted materials, and beautifully tactile surfaces, the Touring is a sharp suited temptress inside and out. Conservative sports luxury pretty much says it all.

The latter is reinforced by lots of space, so even four full-sized adults can relax and spread themselves out. With a three metre wheelbase and an overall length of just under five metres, think Commodore or Falcon and you’re right on the money.

A firm pair of ‘buckets’ provides a firm yet well formed seating experience up front, with the driver perched perfectly for the job at hand. More kudos goes to the excellent ventilation system.

BMW has refined its once-maligned iDrive interface system to the point where it is now intuitive enough for a novice to work out all the basic essentials yet broad enough to keep a gadget freak entertained for lots of minutes. Trust us, familiarity soon has it working exactly as the company would hope. A row of ‘favourites’ buttons is notably helpful too since it allows for shortcut keys for GPS and multi-media as well as audio functionality.

Double-stitched leather and wood cabin trim and three-spoke steering wheel are further cabin delights. And why can’t all car-makers provide a head-up digital display like BMW’s? Along with the speed, GPS data is featured, while an operations failure or impending problem is also flagged through the little screen projected on the windscreen like Princess Lea’s famous ‘Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi’ hologram scene.

There’s new hope for tall people out back as well, as three will fit across if necessary – the centre perch is typically short-term only accommodation – while the outboard occupants can each enjoy air vents, reading lights, cupholders (in centre armrest so time for the middle man to make like a tree and leave), and some (shallow) storage areas.

Plus, the backrests can be reclined through 11 degrees in seven separate increments, for added comfort.

As kids, the wagon part was the fun part. But as the Touring is no seven seater, these days you will just have to appreciate the carpeted floor that can be lifted via a set of struts to reveal more storage, aforementioned electrified cargo cover, rear seat backrest release handles, luggage straps, securing rails and 12V outlets from a stationary position. We predict plenty of happy Labradors will luxuriate in the plushness of it all.

And speaking of Retrievers the flip-up glass – a la Ford Territory – allows for easier access and retrieval of bits and pieces in lieu of lifting a weighty tailgate.

Actually, we were not ready for this level of practicality – the rear seats split and fold in three 40/20/40 sections to increase the cargo capacity from a reasonable 560 litres to 1670 litres.

If we are to be pernickety about the Touring’s interior then the front seat centre console is woefully small the beige trim is too easily marked and … and that’s about it really. BMW has done its homework here.

On the road the Germans have worked a minor miracle of performance, parsimony and pleasure.

Wow, what a gutsy diesel. Aided by an impossibly smooth, eager and intuitive ZF eight-speed automatic gearbox, the 520d Touring’s step-off urge is energetic to say the least, and it just keeps getting stronger and more stirring from there onwards.

It is impossible not to be gobsmacked at the fact that this 135kW engine has less than 2000ccs and just 380Nm of torque to play with. It never feels under-endowed, with effortless urge available across the spectrum.

Only the diesely din under heavy duress suggests there isn’t a lovely straight six or sonorous V8 beating under the bonnet, but then the frankly astounding fuel economy figure chalks up yet another Touring triumph – we averaged a remarkable 7.8L/100km over a wide variety of driving conditions.

Now, while 5.3L/100km is possible – theoretically – the lively chassis has other ideas.

As you might expect in a BMW, the steering feels tactile and response, with absolutely superb agility backed up by an incredible sense of roadholding security – much of that due to a peerless set of brakes.

On our demanding twisting test course all knowledge of this (unladen and with only one occupant) 520d being ‘just’ a wagon was forgotten, as the Touring tracked along the pitted and jagged curves at high speed with uncanny precision and stability. Unshakable springs to mind.

Combined with a firm yet supple ride, the compromise the Bavarian magicians have struck between comfort and control is nothing short of brilliant – no matter what rubbish road surfaces we subjected it to.

GoAuto also drove the F10 six-pot sedans through some very demanding mountain passes as well as on a variety of high-speed Portuguese freeways, on the international launch early last year, and there too the 5 Series shone spectacularly.

And remember: our test car is as pure as BMWs come – no Dynamic Drive assist packages or similar, just the balanced harmony of a rear-drive platform using an all-aluminium double wishbone front and Integral V-design rear suspension.

If the devil on your shoulder takes over and you decide to kill the ESC controls, the 520d’s tail will let go with a bit of warning.

A bit of road noise permeates the peace, however, and that should come as no surprise seeing this is a German car of commanding dynamic authority.

The 520d Touring is a remarkably rich and complete luxury wagon package that – in our eyes at least – makes for a better overall driver’s car as well as family hauler than an equivalently priced SUV.

Furthermore we’re amazed at how thoroughly equipped this BMW is. Only heated front seats, folding external mirrors and perhaps a sunroof would complete the package.

So the truest BMW you can buy today is a four-cylinder diesel wagon we say? As unlikely as this paradox sounds, you’d better believe it.

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