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First drive: All-new 5 Series is BMW's best sedan - ever

Automatic choice: New eight-speed auto gearbox in the latest 5 Series works a treat with both diesel and petrol engines.

Now on the larger side of medium-sized, BMW’s 5 Series remains a class benchmark

10 Feb 2010


“THE agility of a 3 Series with the comfort of a 7 Series” – hmm, doesn’t BMW say that every time?There is no denying exactly where BMW would like us to place the all-new, sixth-generation 5 Series in that little car space up in the back of our collective minds.

That the once mid-sized sedan from Bavaria has grown to almost VE Commodore proportions, wearing a pricetag that is at the very least 2.5 times the size of the Holden’s, makes the F10 series Five a contender for just a select few in Australia.

But, for the first time in what seems like forever, the most evergreen of BMWs can actually put forward a case for itself like none of its predecessors ever managed to do since the range landed in Australia sometime in the mid-1970s.

For starters, it looks like a v-e-r-y expensive luxury car – like a beautifully proportioned and smartly attired 7 Series, in fact, thanks to the Five’s move back to the horizontal lines, classic three-box sedan silhouette, and sober overall appearance of its popular predecessor-before-last, the E39.

E39? You know, the 5 Series that, on release in 1996, nearly bored us to death visually but titillated our driving senses the moment we slid behind its salubrious steering wheel?Well, that particular vehicular phenomenon is now regarded as a true ‘Classic’ with a capital ‘C’, so it’s no surprise that the Germans have referenced the late-1990s 5 Series to take the range into the 2010s – rather than the bold and brash E60 that, depending on whether you decided to tick the options box marked ‘M Sport’ bumper and wheels, looked either a bit like Courtney Love or Courtney Cox.

But we digress, for beneath the smooth and slick surface of the F10-gen Five is a thoroughly modern Millie of massive proportions.

14 center image Sometime ago BMW thought it prudent to develop a range of mid-size to large cars on the one platform (or backbone, as the company likes to call it), so up from the 5 Series the current-generation F01 7 Series was born.

As a result, the old MacPherson strut front suspension gave way to a gorgeous double wishbone set-up that, in unison with the ‘Integral V’ axle out back, has given the F10 Five a sense of high-speed stability and control hitherto alien to the species.

Throw in a new electric power steering system that feels neither fake, gloopy or lifeless, as well as a near 50/50 weight distribution (in part due to a big lift in the number of lightweight materials like aluminium peppered liberally throughout the vehicle), and the 5 Series rushes up and down the wet and windy coastal paths of the Portuguese hinterland like a professional Olympic skier, zipping in and out of situations with laughable ease.

Our only concern is that the amount of feel at the steering’s straight-ahead position is bereft of feedback, but once you’re turning the wheel even a little bit, there’s response and weightiness to the helm that should be more than enough to telegraph precisely what’s going on just below.

We have yet to experience a stability and traction control system as non-intrusive in everyday driving as the ones the F10 Five is blessed with, since they iron out the kinks like God’s housekeeper would.

Composure and control have always been the 5 Series’ calling cards, but now – after sampling the sweetly weighted yet toweringly effective brakes – we can add the word ‘commanding’ to its resume.

And what of the latest BMW sedan’s ride quality?What of it! We occasionally heard and sometimes even felt a bump or road irregularity here and there, yet the firm pliancy that prevailed during our all-too-brief time behind the 5 Series’ wheel has led us to believe that BMW has finally sorted its ride issues out once and for all.

Now, we can honestly say that it no longer really matters whether you decide to choose between the six-cylinder diesel (530d – as yet unconfirmed for Australia and in all likelihood perhaps not even destined to reach these shores) and the six-pot turbo petrol (535i – a definite starter come mid-year), since they seem to behave pretty much evenly as far as the driver is concerned.

The diesel has torque to spare and yet does an amazing job of pretending to rev and sound like a regular big petrol ‘6’ while the turbo 535i has an enveloping melody and motion that really sets the BMW brand apart.

But these brilliant new engines (the only ones we could sample since there was no 520d or 528i to test) really do owe their newfound places in the sun to the fantastic and fresh eight-speed torque converter automatic transmission that – as the ZF 8HP – comes to us courtesy of Germany’s ZF people.

In the 530d the latter is like it’s telepathically linked to the engine, so natural and effortless the changes are. Progress is stupendously straightforward and easy. We love this combo.

Likewise the turbo petrol 535i obviously has an intimate and fulfilling relationship with the ZF 8HP gearbox, seamlessly up and down shifting while the engine sings and wails its wily mechanical tune according to where it is roaming in the rev ranges.

Not that the 5 Series’ occupants will be disturbed by such fun mechanical shenanigans, so cocooned are they by the sheer veneer of luxury and design inside.

At last, BMWs are once again boasting dashboards that are angled towards the driver just like they used to up until the early part of the last decade.

Brilliantly realised is the driving position, instrument panel, ventilation and layout of the completely overhauled iDrive system, while the details as far as fit, finish and material utilisation is concerned lift the 5 Series up to a new level.

We can’t say for sure whether the 7 Series-esque interior treatment has been translated onto the 5 Series, for there are a couple of just-OK finishes lurking almost out of sight, but it is certain that this model has rediscovered the cabin mojo that the E60 had lost.

Anyway, there’s heaps of space up front if you’re tall and reasonably roomy in the rear as well. That all Oz-spec 5 Series will come equipped with a load-through feature to extend the agreeably hungry boot’s versatility can only be a great thing.

So does the latest BMW mid-sizer carry on its predecessors’ prevalence for segment-best performance and dynamic aptitude? Yes, with utter ease.

Has the F10 model pulled the 5 Series right up from its bootstraps in order to make it look, feel, touch and even taste special inside? Indeed, BMW has.

And, finally, would we put our hard-earned in the coffer named ‘BMW’?The answer, here as well, has to be a big fat yes, even though we really do need to assess this overgrown medium-sized sedan on our peculiarly presented roads.

A new-generation BMW 5 Series does not happen very often, but when it does, we’re always expecting to be dazzled by what is regarded as the best car in the world.

Well, we’re not at all disappointed with what the brand has done with the F10 generation vehicle.

There can be little doubt that it is the most complete BMW sedan ever.

As it stands, it deserves to be known as the 10-series, because somehow placing the Five between the Three and the Seven seems to marginalise the depth and breadth of this car’s capabilities.

Well done, BMW. We can’t wait to drive it on Oz roads come June.

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