2011 BMW 535i Review

Looks like a 7 Series and drives like one too

2011 BMW 535i Review
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The first comment we received, and the first comment you’re likely to hear, while driving the new BMW 5 Series isn’t “sweet car!” or “nice ride,” but “Is that the new 7 Series?”

FAST FACTS

1. The 535i model comes with BMW’s single-turbo inline-six cylinder engine with 300-hp, delivering a 0-60 mph time of 5.7 seconds.

2. For $4,900 the optional Sport and Dynamic Handling Packages add 19-inch wheels, a sport steering wheel and seats, Dynamic Damping Control, Active Roll Stabilization and the variable Driving Dynamics Control settings.

3. Pricing for the 535i starts at $49,600 with BMW’s xDrive AWD system optional.

Of course you’ll have to answer in the negative, but you can drive away with the smug satisfaction that people think your $50,000 car is a $70,000 car. Then again, maybe you’re a car nut and a deep aficionado of the BMW brand and think that perhaps it’s not just that one guys opinion. And it’s not.

7 SERIES LOOK NOT ALWAYS A GOOD THING

No, the 5 Series does look a lot like the 7 – which has every bit as much to do with the flat-fronted massive kidney-grilled prow as it does with the increased size of the latest 5er. At 192.9-inches it’s only about 2-inches longer than the previous generation model, but it looks so much longer with a crisp line that flows the length of the car

A handsome sedan, it’s hardly an eye catcher and displays the timidity of the designers at BMW as they attempt to rectify the errors of the past Bangle generation model without taking the risk of coming out with a provocative new design. And the result is this: a 7 Series imitator.

This is in stark contrast to the rivals at Mercedes who have produced a new E-Class that is unique and distinctive. We’re sure that like with the old E39 5 Series (1995 to 2003) its simplicity will grow on us, but for now it’s a little underwhelming with a focus more on luxury than sport. We particularly notice this while photographing the car, with the standard front three-quarter angle shot never doing the 5er justice, but rather exposing the fact that the front bumper feels like it's missing a few inches at the bottom. The car’s profile is easily its best angle.

NO 7 SERIES INSIDE

Open the door and you’d never fool anyone into thinking it’s a 7 Series. We praised the new 7 and even the 5 Series GT for their upgraded interiors. The same cannot be said for the 5 Series sedan – at least the 535i model we tested.

Maybe it’s high-grade leather? Maybe it’s not. It doesn’t matter because it looks and feels like it belongs on a Kia – or a basketball. Fine from afar, up close it’s gritty and textured in that traditional way that BMW has done for years. Moving to a new style of leather would be the single best way to improve the cabin on their vehicles.

Apart from that, the cockpit is elegant and typically simple with easy to use features – yes even the iDrive. After BMW sustained such a severe blow for its initially botched iDrive system, we’re compelled to point out just how easy the current setup is to use.

As the 5er is more of a family luxury car, back seat room is sufficient – although somewhat odd. The rear seats are particularly low and slanted, likely to ensure an adequate amount of headroom with the sloping rear roof.

Hunting around the cabin you’re likely to find something out of the ordinary. There it is, at the bottom of the tachometer, the little Efficient Dynamic gauge. What this little gauge will tell you is when (and how much) the Brake Energy Regeneration system is working. Now, the 5 Series isn’t a hybrid, rather it has an alternator that can be detached from the engine using a clutch. Part of BMW’s Efficient Dynamics range of energy conserving technologies, we found it to be much less jerky than in the 5 Series GT we tested (the first model that received the system). It takes a little getting used to in stop-and-go traffic, but once you’ve got the hang of it, it’s actually quite an advantage as the car drives more like a stick-shift, meaning that as soon as you take your foot off the gas it wants to slow down. As a result, you can lurch along in bumper-to-bumper traffic without needing the brakes very much at all.

MORE HIGHWAY CRUISER THAN CORNER-CARVER

Out on the open highway, the new 5 Series again starts to feel like a 7 – which isn’t surprising as they share the same platform. With an incredible smoothness it’s easy to drive well above the limit in luxurious serenity. There’s little doubt this car was crafted for serious triple digit speeds on the autobahn. It’s quiet too, with so little of its own noise that you can actually hear the tires on the car next to you.

Part of the effortless highway drive is BMW’s new 8-speed automatic transmission that helps keep the car at low rpm. Full torque of 300 ft-lbs is still available at just 1200 rpm, so there’s no lack of passing power, however, the downshifts could be a little faster. (In the manual shifting Sport mode they seem to be).

The result of the new gearbox and the new engine (last year’s turbo I6 was a twin-turbo unit, while for 2011 there’s just one snail) is improved fuel economy of 20/29-mpg (city/highway).

Don’t let those numbers fool you, however, as the 535i makes more power than you need, with 300-hp on tap at 5800 rpm. It has smooth thrust out on the highway and at low speeds delivers a surprising level of grunt when you drop the hammer. BMW officially rates the car a 5.7 seconds to 60 mph, which is just a few tenths of last year’s V8.

Hit a corner and the 7 Series shows though again – unfortunately. Due to its larger dimensions and a softer overall feel it’s hardly confidence inspiring. It will, however, get the job done, delivering surprisingly high levels of grip.

Still, confidence is important and we were left wanting for the optional Sport and Dynamic Handling Packages ($4,900) in the hopes that it would help to psychologically shrink the 5 Series in our minds. Included in the two option packs are Dynamic Damping Control, Active Roll Stabilization and Driving Dynamics Control, not to mention 19-inch wheels, sports seats and a sport steering wheel.

Dynamic Damping Control adds continuously variable shock absorbers that come paired with 10mm lower springs, while Active Roll Stabilization reduces body lean in corners through hydraulic anti-roll bars – both of which would make a tremendous difference in how the 5 Series behaves. As for the Driving Dynamics Control, we thoroughly enjoyed it on past BMW models, with its ability to switch between four drive modes (Comfort, Normal, Sport and Sport+) to adjust the throttle response, transmission shift points, steering feel and even the dynamic traction control setting (in Sport+).

We’d handily do away with optional goodies on our tester like the Top View and Side View cameras, as well as Lane Departure Warning for these added performance features. We wouldn’t however, toss out the Blind Spot Detection – particularly as the car’s B-pillar is large enough and seems placed in such a way to necessitate one.

Along with the blind spot detection and lane departure, the 5 Series can come with an optional Collision Warning system that will warn the driver of a possible collision before priming the brakes and even applying them (partially) if action isn’t taken by the driver.
Other safety highlights include BMW’s optional Night Vision with Pedestrian Detection and six airbags. The new 5 Series is also only one of two vehicles to achieve a 5 Star crash rating under the new, more vigorous testing method.

THE VERDICT

As with the previous 5 Series, despite its drawbacks, in many ways it still presents a compelling alternative to the competition. It’s significantly more powerful than the new E-Class while the older Audi A6 and Lexus GS don’t really stand a chance.

We’d caution BMW not to rest on its laurels too long, however, as Infiniti’s new M represents a serious rival, finding a middle ground between the 5 Series and E-Class.

Without the Sport Package, the 5 Series betrays its 7 Series connections. For many automakers that would be a good thing, but for BMW we’re left wanting, as it’s a brand we rely on to inject driving fun – even into mid-size luxury sedans.

Then again, perhaps we’d be waxing elegant if a few different boxes on our tester’s order form had been ticked. Without the Sport Package the new 5er is a silent and smooth 7 Series imitator, without the interior luxury.

LOVE IT
  • Plenty of power
  • Excellent fuel economy
  • Incredibly quiet and smooth highway ride
LEAVE IT
  • Leather just looks cheap
  • Hardly a confidence-inspiring ride
  • Subtle design too closely in line with the rest of the BMW lineup

RELATED READING

2011 BMW 5 Series (535i & 550i) Review - First Drive
2010 Audi A6 3.0T Review
2011 BMW 550i GT (Gran Turismo) Review
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2010 Cadillac CTS Review

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