2011 BMW 550i GT (Gran Turismo) Review

Don’t think of the 550i GT as a 5 Series wagon replacement, but an alternative to the X5

2011 BMW 550i GT (Gran Turismo) Review
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After decades of selling a 5 Series wagon in the U.S., BMW has decided to drop the venerable choice of performance-minded wealthy folks with dogs. In its place comes a new model, combining added luxury, a higher ride height and a unique (if not a little strange) trunk that opens both like a more traditional boot and like a hatchback.

FAST FACTS

1. BMW offers the new 5 Series Gran Turismo in 535i, 550i and 550i xDrive models.

2. With 400-hp and 450 ft-lbs of torque from a twin-turbo V8, the 550i hits 60-mph in 5.4 seconds.

3. Despite BMW’s focus on Efficient Dynamics, the 550i GT is rated at just 15/21-mpg.

4. Total cargo room of 60 cu.-ft. (seats down) is more than the old 5 Series wagon, but the rear seats don’t fold flat.

5. Almost a crossover, the seating position is 2-inches higher than in the 7 Series and just 4-inches shy of the X3.

Called the 5 Series Gran Turismo, or GT for short, the name conjures up images of driving some Italian coupe along the French Riviera, not transporting your groceries back from Costco. And yet, this GT does offer tremendous luxury, excessive amounts of power and the sort of handling you’d expect from a BMW.

LOTS OF SPACE, BUT IS IT FUNCTIONAL?

The most notable feature that separates the 5 Series GT from its sedan sibling is the unique trunk layout. Trunk space can be accessed by either flipping up the smaller reverse liftgate portion, or by lifting the entire back hatch (glass included) like a traditional hatchback. Doing so is effortless thanks to two separate trunk latches.

Cargo room is a somewhat average 15.5 cubic feet of space, that expands to a more substantial 60 cu.-ft. with the rear seats folded flat. That’s slightly less trunk room than the old 5 Series wagon, but is actually a few cubic feet more than the wagon’s total cargo space. But don’t let that fool you, as the total area isn’t as useable as on the wagon because the rear seats don’t fold flat. Interestingly, the strict cargo space is short of the 5 Series sedan’s 18.3 cu.-ft.

REAR SEATS RECLINE – BUT POWER OPTION A MUST

Designed as more of a luxury 2+2, the Gran Turismo does come as a five-seater in standard trim but an optional Luxury Rear Seating Package divides up the rear into two power seats with a wide center consol. Our tester didn’t come with this option and the result was disappointing.

While we still love the option to adjust the seats forward and back, as well as the angle of the seatbacks, the manual operation seemed out of place in a luxury car that costs $63,900. The power option even includes power fold-down seats. On manual-seat models, like our test car, you simply pull one of the two paddles in the trunk and the corresponding seatback slaps forward and hits the seat cushion with a spring-loaded smack.

Regardless, there’s still plenty of luxury to be had in the rear, with seats that move as much as 3.9-inches forward or back and seatbacks that tilt from 15 to 33 degrees. According to BMW, legroom is almost the same as that found in the 7 Series (not surprising as it rides on the same platform), while headroom is close to that of the X5.

Generally, it’s a luxurious oasis and a perfect spot to enjoy the optional DVD system.

RAISED SEATING POSITION GIVES CROSSOVER-FEEL BEHIND THE WHEEL

The front seat area is no less pampering with soft but well-bolstered chairs that sit at just the perfect height for getting into and out of. You might not guess it, but the 5 Series GT actually has a higher ride height than its sedan sibling. The seats sit 22.6-inches from the ground, compared to 20.8-inches for the 7 Series and 26.6-inches for the X3. As a result you never feel like you’re climbing up into the vehicle, nor do you feel perched on a top-heavy chassis, and yet the GT actually provides an incredibly commanding view of the road.

Aimed at the 5 Series wagon crowd in need of a new ride, we have to suggest more folks in the market for an X5 or other luxury crossover/SUV give the 5 Series GT a shot as we’re certain it will deliver most of what they’re looking for. It doesn’t have the same ground clearance, but BMW does offer an xDrive AWD version of the 550i model.

We have to say we’re seriously impressed with the rest of the cockpit, from the ivory white leather, to the dark Ash Grain wood to the simple yet elegant buttons and controls. Then there are the high-tech touches like the blackscreen dash gauges and the massive 10.2-inch screen perched atop the center stack, an upgrade from the standard 7.0-inch unit when you opt for Navigation. It makes searching through directories easy and allows for plenty of info to be shown at the same time.

We’re also compelled to mention how easy to use the iDrive system is. This latest system, which first debuted on the current 7-series, is a huge leap forward and didn’t provide us with any problems. Also helping are redundant controls for everything else in the cabin, from the radio to the climate control.

Our complaints about the interior are minimal, but worth pointing out. The ventilated seat option seemed to be somewhat of a waste as it wasn’t overly powerful and didn’t do a great job of cooling us down. We also noted the absence of paddle shifters, which stood out on such a fast-shifting car (BMW’s automatics being some of the best in the business). As it stands, BMWs console-mounted gear shifter isn’t very ergonomic.

POWERFUL, BUT NOT VERY EFFICIENT, PLUS BRAKE ENERGY REGENERATION MAKES FOR JERKY RIDE

In true BMW fashion, technology isn’t reserved for just TV screens, digital menus and climate control systems. No, the 5 Series GT also features the automaker’s Driving Dynamics Control system that allows you to choose three driving modes: Normal, Sport and Sport Plus; each of which comes with corresponding settings for the throttle response, transmission shift characteristics, the level of power-steering assist and shock absorber firmness.

For wide open driving the Sport mode is perfect, giving complete access to the excessive (yet intoxicating) 400-hp and 450 ft-lbs of torque – enough to propel this sizeable sedan to 60 mph in just 5.4 seconds.

For daily commuting purposes, it’s best left in just Normal mode, although we have to report that despite the smooth 8-speed automatic transmission and incredibly linear 4.4-liter twin-turbo V8, the 5 Series GT does not deliver a civilized driving experience. And the blame lays squarely on the new Brake Energy Regeneration system.

The 5 Series GT is the first U.S. BMW model to feature this system, which uses an electronically operated clutch to detach the alternator from the engine when it’s not needed to charge the battery, thereby reducing the drag on the engine. The problem, is that when crawling along in rush hour traffic you can really feel the clutch working, often delivering a herky-jerky driving experience.

And the result of this fuel-efficient technology? A paltry rating of 15-mpg city and 21-mpg highway. During our week with the car, AutoGuide staffers recorded an average of 18-mpg. Sure that’s pretty good for a 400-hp car, but with an 8-speed transmission we expect more. After all, the old-tech 5.5-liter V8 in the Mercedes E550 gets 16/24-mpg.

THE VERDICT

While a more possible success in Europe, BMW has artificially created a market for the 5 Series GT here in North America by eliminating it’s in-house competition, the 5 Series wagon.  It’s larger and more luxurious and with a raised right height is more like a crossover, which should help attract customers.

It’s also a nice alternative to the 7 Series, thanks in part to its luxurious interior and long list of high-tech and luxury options. Plus, it’s slightly smaller and, therefore, not as cumbersome around town.

There are, however, a few problems, like the jerky drive and atrocious fuel economy. And despite added cargo room, it isn’t as functional as the old wagon.

The bigger problem, however, is the lack of an xDrive 535i model. Currently BMW offers a six-cylinder, V8 and V8 AWD model, but no AWD six. This seems particularly strange as decades of selling a 5 Series wagon resulted in BMW narrowing its product offering to one single model: an AWD six-cylinder wagon.

If and when BMW does decide to deliver such a model, it should see a significant up-take in sales. If, however, BMW decides to stick to the higher-end segment and neglect its 5 Series wagon customers, building a customer base for the GT is certain to be a long road.

LOVE IT

  • Powerful and smooth twin-turbo V8
  • Plenty of cargo room
  • Great alternative to luxury SUV

LEAVE IT

  • Poor fuel economy
  • Rear seats don’t fold flat
  • Herky-jerky drive thanks to Brake Energy Regeneration system

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