Car reviews - BMW - 5 Series - 540i
Expertly blends plush luxury with cutting-edge tech that really works, relaxing and cosseting to drive but can get a serious wiggle on when requested
Room for improvement
Rear legroom merely adequate for tall folk, glitchy Apple CarPlay is a $623 option, noisy climate control fan
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6 Sep 2017
FOR around the same price as the six-cylinder, five-seat 540i sedan tested here you could have a V8-powered, seven-seat, X5 SUV. In terms of cost-per-kilo, the 580kg-heavier X5 looks like great value.
This, against the seemingly unstoppable trend toward high-riding wagons, means it is unsurprising that BMW Group Australia has modest sales expectations for this seventh-generation G30 5 Series and predicts it will never match the previous F10 version’s popularity.
But despite the SUV craze, BMW has clearly not skimped on its 5 Series development budget, producing a technology-packed and seriously plush way to travel that maintains the nameplate’s reputation as a driver’s car.
Price and equipment
We tested the $138,610 (plus on-road costs) 540i sedan, which serves as range flagship until the bahn-storming M5 arrives around Easter 2018, and comes in $46,400 north of the entry-level 520i sedan.
The 520i and 520d include a 10.25-inch multimedia screen with internet connectivity and digital radio, dual-zone climate control, full leather upholstery, leather-look dashboard trim, electric adjustment for the front seats and steering column, a colour head-up display, LED headlights, LED foglights and 18-inch alloy wheels.
Between the pair of 520 variants and six-cylinder petrol 540i tested here are the four-cylinder petrol 530i, plug-in hybrid 530e and six-cylinder diesel 535d, both of which step up to a 12.3-inch digital instrument panel, 16-speaker Harman Kardon premium audio system, adaptive LED headlights with automatic high-beam, adaptive suspension, M Sport brakes, heated front seats, electric boot lid open/close and 19-inch alloy wheels.
The 520d and 530i are both also available in Touring-branded wagon guise costing $5000 more than the equivalent sedan.
And finally, the 540i includes all the above plus Nappa leather upholstery, ventilated front seats, a sunroof, an electric rear sun-blind and 20-inch alloys.
Our car was spruced up even further with options, including $623 for Apple CarPlay, which comes standard on the two Holden Sparks you could have bought instead of the $26,173 worth of extras added to this 5 Series.
These comprised the $8000 Indulgence package that includes front massage seats, rear seat entertainment, with TV tuner and soft-close doors, a $6400 Bowers & Wilkins Diamond hi-fi setup, night-vision forward camera ($3700), the $1600 Innovations package comprising touchscreen display key, remote-controlled parking and gesture control for the infotainment system, ceramic trim surround ($1000), security alarm ($950) four-zone climate control upgrade ($900) rear-seat reading lights ($750), rear seat heating ($700), the aforementioned CarPlay ($623), tyre pressure indicator ($550), headlight washers ($500) and a heated steering wheel ($500).
Before we go into detail about our 540i’s brilliantly executed and genuinely sumptuous interior, a little about why ticking the massage seat option will rank among the best investments you make.
We are aware that in order to be considering a six-digit luxury sedan, you are probably well versed in making good investments. But please bear with us.
The minimum you are likely to pay for a good massage in Australia is around $75 per hour. In the case of our test 540i, both front seats had the massage function, worth at least $150 per hour while driving two-up. And the BMW offers heaps of different settings depending on your preferences.
On average, Australians spend more than five hours every week commuting to and from work, so, assuming you commute solo, that’s at least $375 worth of massage time.
In less than six months, you have recovered the 540i’s $8000 Indulgence option pack that includes the massage seats and heaps of other goodies. And we aren’t even factoring in the time-is-money aspect of scheduling visits to a masseuse and unproductive hours spent on their table.
The best things in life are free, and if you apply the above man-maths, so are the BMW’s massage seats.
While we had the 540i, one start to our working week involved travelling from Queensland’s Sunshine Coast to the Gold Coast, plunging us into a Monday morning maelstrom of cross-Brisbane traffic.
But rather than sapping our patience and will to live, the congestion simply extended our massage session and we arrived at our destination with a sense of wellbeing that is simply not natural for a journey of this type. You can’t put a price on that.
Our destination-arrival freshness was also aided by the 540i’s hushed cabin and the many driver-assistance systems that enable short periods (around 30 seconds at a time) of hands-free motorway driving. We reckon this would be brilliant for safely dealing with those difficult-to-open snack packets or tight-lidded drinks bottles.
More seriously, the 540i’s adaptive cruise control system was the best we’ve yet encountered and coped brilliantly with other road users diving across lanes in front of us or trying to occupy the space created by, you know, following at a safe distance.
Whereas most systems over-react by slamming on the brakes, the 540i appeared to anticipate and respond rather than always being reactive. It felt much more like the way a human – and one who was paying attention – would drive lifting off the accelerator or gently brushing the brake pedal to decelerate slightly until a safe following distance was restored.
The cruise control can also bring the car to a complete stop in heavy traffic, turning off the engine until the vehicle in front moves off. At this point the engine fires up and the driver simply has to nudge the accelerator or a steering wheel button to resume progress.
Like the massage seats, these driver assistance systems took a lot of pain out of driving in congestion and eased motorway driving no end. Even better, unlike the massage seats, they are standard across the 5 Series range.
Also making life pleasant for the driver was the excellent head-up display that more than makes up for the missed opportunity that is the under-utilised digital instrument panel. Its only advantage over analogue dials appears to be the ability to change appearance depending on the selected driving mode, so knock us down with a feather.
BMW’s latest iDrive infotainment system is brilliant, too. It has more of what we liked about previous generations, less of what we didn’t, is quick in its responses, has beautifully crisp graphics and can be operated as a touchscreen as well as with the rotary controller. And, in the case of our optioned-up example, gesture control.
The latter is essentially a gimmick but one that represents a stepping-stone to this technology becoming genuinely useful as a method of reduced driver distraction when operating increasingly capable and complex on-board systems.
More impressive was the voice recognition, which rendered all other voice control systems obsolete in our view. Even though the pronunciation of addresses it read back to us as confirmation of what we’d said was less than confidence inspiring at times, it had got it spot-on nine times out of ten.
It was so good that we did a little experiment with the BMW’s voice control system versus Siri on an iPhone. The BMW was more consistently accurate than Apple could achieve.
Perhaps this is why BMW charges $623 for CarPlay. It believes its technology is superior to that of Apple and discourages the dumbing-down of its infotainment system with the basic replication of smartphone functionality.
It could also be the reason why CarPlay was so difficult to enable on our test vehicle. On our fifth and final attempt before we gave up completely, the BMW finally started talking to the iPhone.
Unlike all other vehicles to date, the 5 Series connects to CarPlay wirelessly either through Bluetooth or WiFi. To be honest, the plug-and-play approach of using a USB cable is far more intuitive and simultaneously counteracts the battery-sapping use of CarPlay on longer journeys.
At least navigating the CarPlay menus was more intuitive using the BMW iDrive controller than in an Audi MMI setup and well-integrated in terms of its response to iDrive’s shortcut buttons, plus it had the advantage of touchscreen operation.
We would like to see this integration extend even further, so that the iDrive’s touch-sensitive handwriting recognition input could be used to enter navigation destinations into the CarPlay mapping function or search through contacts and playlists.
Unfortunately the 540i refused to reconnect with CarPlay upon engine restart on a number of occasions and we encountered repeated and infuriating problems with the car forgetting it was paired with our device using Bluetooth. Setting off on a journey only for the phone to ring and not be accessible through the car’s hands-free setup gets really, really annoying.
So much so that we had to reach for the massage seat button.
It is understandable that when there is so much smart technology going on, glitches become more likely to occur and a simple dealership software patch is probably all that is required to iron things like this out.
More positively, the 360-degree reversing camera that somehow shifts the display view to suit what the driver is doing and the surrounding obstacles then is simply genius and a little spookily accurate.
Also, the rather accurate road sign recognition system works with the cruise control so that just one press of the speed adjustment button is all it takes to set it to the current speed limit (or a pre-configurable amount above or below).
BMW charges $6400 for the hours and Wilkins Diamond surround sound premium audio system fitted to our test vehicle, and while the sound quality is vibrant, trebles and the vocals can get a little harsh when approaching its highest volume setting. At night, the illuminated speaker cones peering through their beautiful machined metal grilles do look incredibly cool, though, and they’re less of a cheese-grater on one’s knuckles than the Burmester items of a Mercedes.
Also part of the $8000 Indulgence package that includes our beloved massage seats is a two-screen entertainment system for rear passengers that includes digital TV reception and a little remote control makes accessing various functions pretty simple. The hi-resolution quality and their ability to pick up TV in hilly country areas impressed.
The climate control panel is a mixture of traditional rotary and hard shortcut buttons, with fan speed and seat heating/ventilation controls adjusted using a touch-sensitive part of its display screen.
Happily, this was the first time we have experienced a touchscreen ventilation control system that actually works.
It is also possible to simultaneously activate both seat heating and ventilation in case you really wanted to experience a hairdryer blast over your posterior and lower back. After all, the definition of luxury is to have more than you could possibly need.
A specific menu button provides further customisation for occupant ventilation preferences, in which it is possible to fine-tune the difference in vent temperature between lower- and face-level vents. Overall ventilation is pleasantly soft, with the selected temperature having predictable results that are reached impressively quickly.
Our main disappointment with the air-conditioning system, and this is only because of the 5 Series is such a quiet car to drive, is it the blower fan is a little loud, especially when the dual-zone climate control for rear passengers is also in use.
The front seats have electric adjustments including for the extendable thigh supports and steering wheel, with two memory positions for each occupant.
Regardless of massage, we found the sets exceptionally comfortable for long journeys and a typically BMW-brilliant driving position.
With either of of the Sport modes selected, the seat bolsters pump up to grip occupants’ torsos more firmly, but we preferred the slacker setting as the upholstery’s piping dug uncomfortably into our ribs.
BMW provides customisations for each driving mode, including individual preferences for the driver and passenger seat bolsters when Sport modes are engaged.
The M Sport steering wheel is typically chubby and well padded, being incredibly comfortable to hold and just the right size. Conducting our test in Queensland, we never pressed the optional steering heater button conveniently located beneath the horn.
Over and above our high expectations at this price point, the 540i’s cabin provides a sense of true luxury. It refines, rather than redefines, the classic BMW layout that is driver-centric but does not leave other occupants feeling short-changed.
The choice of materials and textures reflect restraint and an attention to quality, with tasteful highlights and colour combinations with well-integrated technology rather than the grandiose chintz and slabby digital displays as adopted by Mercedes.
We found interior storage to be only average, with much of the small glovebox taken up by the ambient air fragrance system in our test vehicle. A fairly deep but narrow secondary glovebox is provided by the driver’s right knee.
Door bins front and rear are also pretty compact, but do benefit from bottle-holding inserts. In the centre console is a smartphone tray with one USB socket, a pair of well-designed cupholders and a small chilled compartment beneath the central armrest that also contains a 12V power outlet.
Rear passengers get another pair of 12V power outlets, map pockets and a pair of cupholders in the fold-down central armrest. There is no sunglasses holder.
For rear occupants wanting to avoid sun glare or just enjoy privacy, roller blinds built into the rear door windows including small ones for the quarterlights are an excellent addition. There is also an electrically operated full-width blind for the rear windscreen.
Those carrying infants will also appreciate the 5 Series’ in-built ability to shield their young from bright light.
On that subject, Isofix points with plastic guides ease the fitment of compatible child seats, as do the easily accessible top tether points on the parcel shelf.
Also, because the rear bench is set quite low, there is plenty of room above a rear facing infant capsule to strap in and remove its occupant. This does however require quite a stooped position shows why SUVs are so popular with families.
Perforated Ivory leather as installed in our test car is probably not the most practical solution for families, either, but of course BMW offers a cornucopia of interior trim options.
Those proposing to carry adults and tall teens around may well be disappointed by the modest rear legroom of this 5 Series. It’s merely adequate for six-footers to sit in tandem but we expected at least a few centimetres of knee clearance.
Headroom is plentiful, though, due to that low-slung rear bench, and even the central position is liveable for three-abreast travel back there.
The well-shaped and generous 530L boot is all about depth, to the point where we surprised ourselves by fitting an awkwardly shaped item of furniture in there without trouble. The rear seats do not fold, although the central position provides a ski hatch to load through longer items.
Overall, the plushness and level of tech make this latest 5 series feel every bit the junior 7 Series. It exudes a sense of luxury and class and each journey in its well-insulated cabin guarantees both supreme comfort and a sense of occasion.
This is an expensive car, and it feels it.
Engine and transmission
First some figures.
The 3.0-litre straight-six turbo-petrol engine of the 540i produces 250kW of power at 6500rpm 450Nm of torque all the way from 1380rpm to 5200rpm. Output is delivered to the rear wheels through an eight-speed automatic transmission.
As a result, hauling this 4963mm long, 1595kg sedan from 0-100km/h takes just 5.1 seconds. So far so good.
But it is the official combined-cycle fuel consumption of 6.7 litres per 100 kilometres that seems out of place, yet we easily achieved 7.5L/100km during our week with the car.
On the motorway we saw 6.1L/100km (the official highway figure is 5.4L/100km) and an urban trip culminating in our dynamic road thrash saw the figure creep up to 8.9L/100km.
These figures, from a high-performance six-cylinder petrol car, are most definitely having your cake and eating it. They make diesel look increasingly irrelevant to anything outside large SUVs and commercial vehicles.
BMW really knows how to put the unfamiliar driver immediately at ease with its products, then reveal layer upon layer of nuance with every subsequent kilometre that inevitably builds a bond between human and machine.
This latest 5 Series is no exception.
And this engine is an absolute peach. Like numerous vehicles with plentiful low-down torque and a ZF eight-speed auto, the 540i does not exactly leap off the line but once it’s up and rolling the acceleration builds relentlessly.
From inside the hushed cabin the exertions of this engine are reduced to a distant drone, but with the windows down during our dynamic test we could enjoy its metallic top-end howl and the odd pop and crackle coming from hot exhausts on the overrun.
Our only minor gripe was the lack of evocative exhaust snarl in Sport or Sport+ mode. BMW has obviously reserved that for the upcoming M5 that will launch Down Under in the autumn of 2018.
The transmission does its job seamlessly and almost imperceptibly, while the two Sport modes provide almost telepathic shifts so perfect for challenging driving conditions that it feels as though the car is reading the road as much as it is by the driver.
Deploying the beautifully tactile paddle shifters uncovers another layer of interaction, with aggressive up shifts and fast downshifts.
High in the rev-range it absolutely flies, throttle response is magnificent and roll-on acceleration from all legal speeds pins occupants into their seats.
Yet at all other times, this is a super smooth and refined drivetrain, but one that responds exactly as expected to the driver’s inputs with effortless muscularity.
Of course, a four-cylinder 530i or even 520i would provide more than sufficient propulsion for real-world usage but for those to whom it matters, the 540i goes a long way to justifying its substantial price premium with this experiential yet efficient engine.
Ride and handling
On the move, the 540i feels even more like a shrunken 7 Series than any of its predecessors, continuing the luxurious interior theme with the seamless way it covers ground.
For day-to-day driving it wafts along, effortlessly soaking up road imperfections with ease, cosseting its occupants and insulating them from the outside world in a cocoon of almost silence.
That this is achieved on 20-inch run-flat tyres is testimony to how far tyre and suspension technology has progressed in the past decade.
Even with a Sport mode activated, the 540i’s more hunkered down dynamic driving experience retains plenty of compliance, making it ideally suited to poorly surfaced Australian roads that tends to be worst on the remote twisty stretches of bitumen that provide the most fun for an enthusiastic driver.
On that note, the 540i is way, way more capable than anything Australian roads could throw at it while staying legal, socially responsible and safe. But that is not to say it is not an engaging and satisfying car to drive fast.
Regardless of the many driving modes – which are all brilliantly calibrated for their respective purpose – the BMW’s steering weight and feel is excellently judged, all the controls weights are perfectly in tune and the driver quickly feels at one with the vehicle.
Then there is the amount of feedback that makes its way to the driver without losing any of the car’s excellent refinement qualities.
Capable German cars all too often feel aloof and remote until their extremely high limits of grip are approached, but not this latest 540i, which is a significant step up from its predecessor in this regard.
Even dull commutes are enlivened by the road surface information being fed to the driver’s fingertips, yet this is achieved subtly and without making the 540i exhaustingly effusive when all you want to do is sit back and relax.
And to ice the cake with a cherry on top, M Sport brakes, which are standard on the 540i and peek from behind the 20-inch wheels painted in a purposeful looking shade of blue, haul the car up with absolute confidence time and time again.
Safety and servicing
ANCAP handed down a maximum five-star crash-test safety rating for the 520d, while all other 5 Series variants remain officially unrated.
It got 91 per cent for adult occupant protection, 85 per cent for child occupant protection, 81 per cent for pedestrian protection and 59 per cent for safety assist technologies.
Dual frontal, side chest and side curtain and driver’s knee airbags are standard, along with autonomous emergency braking, lake-keeping assistance, adaptive cruise control and intelligent speed assistance.
The 540i sets its own service schedule depending on how it is driven, and BMW Australia offers a pre-paid five-year service plan covering annual vehicle checks, oil changes, filters, spark plugs and labour for $1640 on any 5 Series variant.
The standard warranty is three years and unlimited kilometres including paintwork, plus 12 years’ bodywork cover.
As we mentioned earlier in this review, BMW is not expecting the latest 5 Series to be as popular as its predecessors in Australia due to the ongoing SUV boom that is diverting customers toward the X5.
And on paper, the X5 does look like better value, as do most luxury SUVs compared with their sedan equivalents.
But the 5er is clearly still regarded by Munich as a cornerstone of its range, which is why it has thrown the technological and engineering kitchen sink in its direction, to the benefit of everyone who swerves an SUV and settles for this excellent sedan.
As good as the X5 is, it cannot come close to the 5 Series in terms of technology, ride or dynamics, not to mention fuel-efficiency.
So if you really can live without seven seats and all-wheel-drive, take a look at the 5 Series.
And if you were thinking of investing in the excellent Mercedes-Benz E-Class, BMW has come up with one hell of a convincing competitor to that as well.
And regardless of your final decision, make sure you go for the massage seats.
BMW X5 xDrive50i from $138,610 plus on-road costs
The biggest 5 Series competitor sits on the same showroom floor and makes a strong case for itself to people who buy their cars by the kilo. It’s also pretty good but the slick new 5er makes it look outdated, thirsty and slow.
Mercedes-Benz E400 from $139,511 plus on-road costs
More comfort-focused than the 5 Series, with similar levels of tech, luxury and cabin serenity. It’s a close race between this and the BMW, but Munich scores over Stuttgart with its stunning straight-six and staggering real-world fuel-efficiency.
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