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Car reviews - BMW - 5 Series - 535i sedan

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, conservative styling, ride could be suppler in Comfort, not much else

27 Aug 2010

FAR, far away in the distant future, car-archaeologists will look back at the early 21st century BMW 5 Series and scratch their collective oversized heads in wonderment.

Why did the Bavarians seem to airbrush the 2003 to 2010 E60 5 Series from history?

It is as if BMW proceeded from everybody’s favourite – the 1996 to 2003 E39 – straight on to the 2010 F10 5 Series in almost every conceivable way – styling, refinement, cabin treatment, driveability … you name it – without barely a glance back at the midsized luxury sedan that filled the gap in between.

And that’s quite perplexing because, while the E39 comfortably eclipsed every other four-door sedan as the greatest on the globe, its immediate successor deserves recognition as a brave new frontier that combined the best of BMW’s post-millennial ‘Bangle’ era products with pride and prowess.

Sure, the Germans might like the odd spot of historical revisionism here and there, but the 2003 E60 was a far from a regrettable folly. Indeed, strongly received in most markets, it remained our favourite right up until Mercedes found some of its lost mojo with the 2009 W212 E-class.

Anyway, the bottom line is that if you didn’t like the last 5 Series for the way it looked (great only with an M-Sport body kit), rode (tetchy at best), or felt inside (sub Korean quality in places), and thought that the one before was a better BMW, then the F10 is the 5 Series back in fighting form.

Rolling back the years is evident in the F10’s muscular stance and classic long-bonnet/short boot proportions, revealing an unmistakable BMW silhouette. This car is conservatively handsome in a young Sean Connery sort of way.

Watching our car on the move from the rear-view mirror of another one, its sharky snout is perhaps the F10’s most modern feature, in contrast to the pretty but slightly anonymous rear that at a glance could be any BMW from the last decade or so.

Interestingly, the bi-level horizontal tail-light look first appeared in the 1988-1995 E34, and one BMW designer admitted that this 5 Series served as a thematic inspiration since it encapsulated both forward thinking and trad elegance together. Aha …

Tested in high-spec 535i guise, the F10 is almost Commodore large, no doubt due to the F01 7 Series “backbone” (as BMW calls it) lurking underneath. This includes the limo’s all-aluminium double wishbone front multi-link ‘V-axle’ rear suspension set-up that is new to the range.

Importantly, though, the 5 Series’ basic recipe – rear-wheel drive and 50/50 front/rear weight distribution – is retained.

Now, whatever pros and cons such symbiosis brings, a cosy living room of a cabin is the one you are most likely to notice first.

Comfortable, bank vault secure and totally isolating from the outside environment, the Five at last looks and feels more 7 Series than Hyundai Sonata in its interior style and execution, with exceptional amounts of space up front and a sufficiently roomy rear-seat area, with both areas ensconced in a cloak of quality. That was certainly missing from the old E60.

Instead of scratchy low-rent surfaces, the new dashboard feels solid and expensive. Gently angled towards the driver, it feels familiar in the traditional locations of the basics (instruments, audio, climate control and gear lever), yet utterly fresh in the detailing.

The latter includes BMW’s superb head-up display (why won’t everybody adopt this technology!), the redesigned iDrive vehicle controller that is the best the company has managed to date and the large-format LED screen set above the symmetrical centre console.

Touch the buttons (they move with a measured quality), scroll through the iDrive (at last it makes sense), marvel at the utter clarity of the instrument dials (and appreciate the detail of the trip computer info set out between them) and admire the lucidity of the digital icons for the air-con display.

Fitted with BMW’s every-which way-adjustable sports seats, the Five’s we-mean-business driving position earns a 10/10, as does the good looking steering wheel that does so much to enhance that feeling of well-being. There is nothing at all intimidating sitting inside a 535i.

We love the way our bottoms would just sink into one of the outboard rear seats (the centre middle should be sat upon on a need-to-go only basis), while the comprehensive centre console back there would not disgrace the dash of many other so-called prestige cars, with its lovely climate controls, effective face vents, and pleasing design. The silky soft surfaces, myriad storage areas, and lush pile carpet could all be straight out the Seven as well. Business Class travel, thy name is 535i.

Even the boot is big enough for the Five to double up as a family car. Now that there is rear-seat access to the luggage area, you could even call it versatile …

But the BMW cabin is far from 100 per cent perfect.

Rear vision out is almost useless. The new-generation BMW auto selector is unnecessarily complicated, with its infuriating button release that we forever forgot to press before shifting the lever, necessitating corrective action via the iDrive menu. And the accompanying ‘boing’ drove us bonkers! And while we liked the piano black trim, the light beige plastic scruffs easily and looks a tad coarse in the lower regions of the console. That’s it, really.

Our test car was fitted with more than $25,000 worth of options, making it feel like quite a different car from the ‘standard’ $128,900 535i. But as hardly anybody at this price level would not spec their BMW up to their desired level, we would recommend the wonderful ‘birds-eye’ sat-nav system/reverse camera and parking radar combo, massive sunroof and excellent audio system.

And then there is the piece de resistance, the DDC Dynamic Damper Control tech. BMW asks $2650 for the privilege, but the Adaptive Drive anti-roll suspension includes it as part of a $7000 package.

Activated via a set of switches beside the happy driver, DDC provides an extra-soft Comfort setting that improves the ride from firmish-soft to controlled plushness, while the Sport and Sport+ go the other way – progressively advancing the handling with adaptive front and rear anti-roll bars, while remodulating the driver security systems like the ESP to allow for extra tail-out nonsense.

Another exxy option is the $3500 Active Steering. Previously standard on every Oz-bound E60, it changes the ratio of the rack for easy low-speed manoeuvring and rock-solid steering feel at higher velocities. It is paired with BMW’s brilliant new four-wheel-steering system.

Together, these technologies help transform the 535i from looking, smelling, sounding, touching and even tasting like a 7 Series, to feeling like the Lotus 7 of luxo sedans.

You wouldn’t know it first though, because the now-electric rack-and-pinion rack can seem disappointingly remote and low-geared (if not especially light) to long-time 5 Series aficionados.

And, yes, that does make it seem more Lexus than Lotus, and perhaps a modicum of more feel would be welcome, but the BMW has a surprise in store.

Even in Comfort mode and regular Drive, the 535i’s muscular body and sports-mad mind, hitherto on hiatus, first stir – and then spring – into immediate action.

The steering goes from asleep to alert, for fluent, pinpoint accuracy and a planted-to-the-road feel. The driver is then free to up-the-ante as he/she likes using the DDC for a class-leading display of athleticism. We’re sure an E-class will keep the Five honest, but neither the BMW nor the driver would be breaking out in a sweat to keep ahead of the Merc.

At its highest Sport+ setting, with the gear lever in DS and the driver on red alert, the 535i is an exec-express missile, soaking up the bumps yet blitzing through turns with unbelievable poise. This is where it’s all at – the best all-round BMW ever made.

With a chassis this spectacular, the possession of anything less than a brilliant heart would be a waste, but the BMW does not let the side down.

Boasting an EU5-emissions compliant powerplant and segment-first eight-speed ZF automatic, the 225kW/400Nm 3.0-litre Valvetronic single-turbo in-line six sets the spirit soaring with its turbine smoothness and heavyweight champion knockout punches, sending the sizeable four-door sedan to 100km/h in a handy six seconds with a grace and ease rarely experienced.

Yet even with a pinged Ben Cousins attitude to driving this BMW about, we still managed impressive fuel consumption figures, rarely straying above 12L/100km.

This engine, this chassis, this car … it just works. Nothing else for the money is quite as complete, and the 535i does nothing badly.

Which leaves us with the question of value for money.

Yes, the head-up display, 18-inch wheels, through-load rear seat, Bi-xenon high intensity discharge headlights with washers, front and rear parking sensors, ‘Ambient’ lighting, ‘Air Vent Control’, Brake Energy Regeneration, an electro-mechanical automatic parking brake with a hill-hold function are all included in the price. But the wrong-side-of-$150K makes our fabulously optioned 535i a seriously expensive piece of kit.

However, so is every German sports sedan with this sort of performance, quality and manoeuvrability.

After an all-too-short week with the latest mid-sized BMW we realised it has a completeness that the previous-generation model lacked but the E39 had in spades.

So the 5 Series is back on form and the 535i is the headline act. We now understand why the company is so keen for us to move on from the old E60. And we’re sure the car-archaeologists would understand!

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