2011 BMW 5 Series (535i & 550i) Review - First Drive

BMW’s new 5 Series once again forms the perfect balance between luxury and sport

2011 BMW 5 Series (535i & 550i) Review - First Drive
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The BMW 5 Series is not the company’s best selling model – that honor goes to the 3 Series. But the 5 Series is definitely BMW’s most profitable line of cars. And with the newly designed Fiver, those profit margins are sure to increase over the previous model. Not only is the base price higher, but there are many more optional technological offerings to tantalize buyers with. And it seems that 5 Series buyers tend to want all the goodies that are crammed into the 7 Series flagship model, but in a trimmer and sportier package. So you will see the bottom line price of the 5 Series cars spool up about a fast as the tachometer.

FAST FACTS

1. At launch the 2011 5 Series is offered as either a 300-hp 535i model, or a 400-hp 550i model, with a 240-hp 528i to hit dealers later this year.

2. The 535i model is rated at 5.7 seconds to 60 mph, while the 550i hits the mark in 5 seconds flat.

3. Not only is the 2011 5 Series more luxuriously appointed, but there’s more room inside too, thanks to a 3.2-inch longer wheelbase.

4. The traditional front strut setup has been replaced with a new double wishbone suspension designed to optimize ride quality and improve handling.

5. Pricing starts at $44,550 for the 528i, $49,600 for the 525i and $59,700 for the 550i.

ONE TURBO AND 6-CYLINDERS, OR TWO TURBOS AND 8-CYLINDERS?

Currently the 5 Series is offered in two models, the 535i and 550i, with a base 528i on the way. The different models are basically the same except for the motors. The 528i will have a 240-hp 3.0-liter, 6-cylinder motor. The 535i has a new N55 engine replacing the previous N54. The new 3.0-liter 6-cylinder engine produces the same 300-hp and 300 ft-lbs of torque as the old one, but with a new single turbocharger instead of the twin turbos. The improvement comes in the form of better throttle response and cleaner emissions. And all that torque comes in at around 1200 rpm and stays there until about 5000 rpm.

For those with oversized power appetites, the 550i comes with a 4.4-liter V8 with 400-hp and 450 ft-lbs of torque. I had the opportunity to drive the 535i and 550i back to back. My conclusion is that the 535i has all the power you’ll need, and the 550i has all the power you’d want. Let your appetite and checkbook be your guide.

For 2011, both cars are equipped with a new ZF automatic transmission with eight forward gears. Eight gears seems like overkill, and at speeds below 20 mph I did detect some hunting from the transmission, as if those gears were fighting each other to see who could be in charge. The new transmission is, however, smother than the old six-speed unit and will, claims BMW, increase fuel economy, although no official numbers have yet been released. Shift response from the steering wheel mounted paddle shifters is also more immediate.

NEW FRONT SUSPENSION IS CAPABLE AND COMPLIANT

The 2011 Fiver is 55% stiffer than last year’s model, and this year the conventional front strut set-up has been replaced by a double wishbone configuration that improves steering and allows for larger brakes, while enhances ride quality and handling. Out back, a five link set-up replaces the four link one on last year’s car, and coupled with BMW's Dynamic Damping Control (adaptive suspension) and Active Roll Stabilization (dynamic anti-roll bars), everything works to make for a satisfying driving experience. Plus, more aluminum components are used to help save weight.

This year, the 535i runs on 18-inch Dunlop run-flat tires, which also saves some weight under the trunk. On the road, I had no complaints with the ride, which is compliant when necessary over stretches of bad pavement, and taught in tight curves with little body lean. And the brakes are excellent, taking advantage of composite front rotors and some electronic systems such as Brake Fade Compensation, Brake Standby, and Brake Drying, in addition to ABS. This 5 Series has an alphabet soup of acronyms for all kinds of electronic systems.

The new Electric Power Steering system offers excellent road feel when working the twisties, and a natural on-center feel the rest of the time. It works in conjunction with the optional ($1,750) Integral Adaptive Steering that counter-steers the rear wheels up to 2.5 degrees at speeds below 35 miles per hour, and then steers with turns at higher speeds.

5 SERIES TAKES BIG LEAP IN LUXURY

Inside the cabin, luxury prevails, as BMW seems to be moving the 5 Series up the food chain in terms of both size and price. The wheelbase has been lengthened by 3.2-inches, while the overall length is about the same. So the cabin is a bit roomier than the older models, yet the dimensions allow the car to maintain its tight sporting feel.

The dash has been reshaped and upgraded to incorporate more high tech gizmos. The main controls are canted towards the driver. A theme on many of the 2011 BMW’s seems to be thicker padded steering wheels, and they’re quite comfortable to use. The Nav screen is now a huge 10-inch monitor that is also used to display the back-up camera, which now offers top view and side view.

Also available as options are Active Cruise Control, Active Blind Spot Detection, and Lane Departure Warning system, and an auto park system for parallel parking. And the newest version of the BMW iDrive system is the best one yet, making it easier to get through the menu screens and it seems more intuitive to use . . . finally. The wood trim is handsome and the leather seats are comfortable with pull-outs for lower thigh support. Rear seat legroom is good, not great, and despite the sloping roofline, headroom is adequate. Other notable options include heated rear seats (part of the $1,050 Cold Weather Package) and a power rear sunshades with manual side sunshades (a $575 stand-alone option).

Instead of one large center console, it’s split into two separate ones, to store iPods and cell phones in different compartments. But if you’d like to use it for holding larger objects, you’re out of luck because there just isn’t much room.

The exterior styling borrows from the 7 Series with a bolder offering of the forward thrusting twin kidney shaped grilles with the headlights integrated into the front end and side fenders. At the door handle level, you see the family resemblance to the 3 Series, with a long character line running the full length of the car. The rear end is more conservative but blends nicely into the overall look. The profile of the 5 Series is low and sleek, and very coupe-like. Most folks are sure to find the overall styling to be fresh and handsome.

The base price for the 528i is $44,550, while the 535i starts at $49,600, and the 550i begins at $59,700. But don’t expect to see any cars at your dealer for anywhere near those prices. Expect to add at least $10,000 to those prices with popular option packages, and don’t get chest pains if you see some cars with $15,000 worth of optional equipment.

THE VERDICT

The new 5 Series once again finds the perfect middle-ground between the smaller 3 Series and larger 7 Series. You get plenty of power from the 535i’s engine and excellent handling similar to the smaller 3 Series, yet you can dial up the luxury, technology, and status of the flagship model.

If you live near and drive on serpentine roads, the 5 Series will surely impress you. If you live where all the roads were laid out with a T-square, you may find yourself asking why you spent all that money.

LOVE IT
  • Excellent power and nimble handling
  • Luxurious interior appointments
  • High-tech electronic drivetrain systems help, rather than hinder the driving experience
LEAVE IT
  • Rear seat can stand to be a bit roomier
  • Option list long and pricey
  • Electronic gearshift lever can be finicky to use

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