2011 BMW 550i xDrive AWD Review

BMW’s new 5 Series deserves its spot in the running for World Car of the Year

2011 BMW 550i xDrive AWD Review

Historically, the 3 series has outsold any other BMW. Be that as it may, the 5 series is actually the bread and butter for the Munich-based automaker. Now in its sixth generation, the 2011 BMW 550i xDrive takes on the super-competitive mid-size luxury sedan market sporting a new platform, powerful and efficient powertrain, improved technologies (I’m looking at you iDrive), updated suspension, as well as the availability of four-wheel drive.


1. Available in RWD and AWD variants with a range of turbo and non-turbo powerplants the range-topping 4.4L bi-turbo V8 makes 400 hp and 450 lb.-ft. of torque.

2. BMW’s xDrive intelligent all-wheel drive system includes electronic limited-slip differential and several different driving modes.

3. BMW uses turbochargers, regenerative braking and an 8-speed automatic transmission to achieve a claimed 16/24-mpg rating on the 550i xDrive.

4. The AWD 335i starts at $52,775 and the 550i xDrive at 62,875; a $2,300 premium over the rear-drive models.

It’s even in the running for 2011 World Car of the Year, despite the fact that North America doesn’t get the wagon (or Touring) model, or any of the four- and six-cylinder diesel powerplants other markets get.


Here, in North America, we do get the new crossover body-style (aka 5 series Gran Turismo or 5GT) in addition to the keystone four-door sedan models. Available engines include BMW’s naturally-aspirated and turbocharged 3.0-liter straight-six gas powerplants rated at 240 hp/230 lb-ft and 300 hp/300 lb-ft of torque, respectively.

The range-topping 550i models get a more potent 4.4-liter bi-turbo V8 with direct injection that makes 400 horses and 450 lb-ft of torque available from 1,750 to 4,500 rpm via an eight-speed sport automatic transmission with paddle shifters.

Replacing the outgoing E60-generation (2003-2010), the new platform (F10) is a shortened version of that used for the bigger, more posh 7 series (F01). It benefits from a longer wheelbase (116.9 inches) and wider track (63 front and 64.1 inches in the rear) that holds the road beautifully thanks to a new front dual ball joint short-long arm and rear multilink suspension.

Our test car for this drive is actually a 550i xDrive, so it has the smooth V8, an intelligent all-wheel drive system with variable torque split capabilities and it also comes with BMW’s Dynamic Driving Control feature as standard (optional on the 535i xDrive) to supply normal, sport and sport plus modes with manual shifting.


Though it may look a bit big around the waist, the 550i doesn’t drive like a boat despite its generous proportions and 4,519-pound curb weight. Some turbo lag is noticeable when accelerating from a standstill and less so on the roll, but the 550i doesn’t pull any punches when moving out to pass. It gets the job done quickly while remaining utterly smooth and composed in the process. There’s hardly any noise pollution (wind or road) coming into the cabin, just enough exhaust sound to satisfy the driving soul.

On this particular test the weather is poor and doesn’t really permit much opportunity for soul searching. We were more than content to just sit back, relax and enjoy the drive. Even driving quite casually though, we could only muster about 15.37 during our week-long test, far short of the car’s claimed 16/24-mpg rating.


What is stellar, however, is how well this car handles all the snow, ice and rain Mother Nature can throw at it thanks to the optional xDrive AWD system. On normal dry roads, xDrive splits the torque 40/60 from front to rear; and uses a variety of sensors and inputs to instantaneously respond to changing driving conditions and re-direct torque up to 100 percent to either axle.

With cold, slippery roads covered in salt, dirt and end-of-winter grime it’s obvious xDrive is working overtime alongside BMW’s dynamic stability control with extended functionality, but you wouldn’t know it from the driver’s seat where everything’s on an even keel. The optional Dunlop SP Winter Performance tires are pulling their weight too. The steering is direct and responsive when going slow or fast, and the chassis stays flat and predictable in turns. With so many other active and passive safety features on this vehicle, it’s as reassuring as it is fun.

Heated electrically-adjustable exterior mirrors and windshield washer jets with rain-sensing wipers are standard, adding more peace of mind. The test mule also boasts more optional safety features – things like a heads-up display (for speed and system messages), lane departure warning, a blind spot detection system, and rear view camera with top and side views (surround view) on the massive 10.2-inch high-resolution display. Even K.I.T.T. would be jealous of its night vision and pedestrian detection abilities.


It’s all hunky dory from the driver’s seat, though both of the front seats have heating, ventilation and lower adjustable thigh support built in. The instrumentation cluster and secondary displays are easy to see in any lighting condition and the center stack isn’t filled with a ton of confusing buttons and switches, just simple controls for audio and climate.

Black Dakota leather, dark Anthracite wood trim and brushed aluminum accents give the interior a sporty and classy feel. All controls are within the driver’s reach, and the aforementioned hi-res full-color display makes accessing and changing things around pretty easy.

There’s enough space for three average sized adults to sit comfortably in the heated back seat with copious amounts of legroom. The extras back here include a large moonroof, electric rear sunshade, manual rear passenger window shades and climate controls that are separate from the front (car has four separate zones). The center armrest has two folding cup holders and a book-sized storage bin, but it’s pretty flimsy and looks oddly out of place.

The front seat backs are hard plastic, but do feature seat back pockets. A split fold-down rear seat is available, but our tester gets a tiny pass-through slot in the middle for long skinny things. Fortunately, the 5 series sedan’s overall length of 193.1 inches affords it a generous trunk boasting 18.4 cu-ft of luggage space, fully finished of course.


Technology-wise, the 550i doesn’t disappoint. The iDrive system is no longer a major hindrance as the control knob is more intuitive thanks to the mode and navigation buttons that surround it. It’s placed well, so you don’t need to reach back or lean forward (it’s one of the more intuitive user input devices out there now).

We’re not fans of the electronic gearshift thingy, however, and always seemed to forget to press the park button momentarily. This journo could also do without the shift buttons on the back of the leather steering wheel (different story if this were a BMW M5), but the designers deserve credit for great ergonomics and user-friendliness.

That steering wheel also has controls for audio, cruise and Bluetooth phones while a hard-drive based navigation system can be controlled by voice command. The 10-speaker 180-watt premium audio plays AM/FM/XM and HD radio stations, and includes a small subwoofer beneath each front seat for more bass up front.

It has push-button start plus Keyless-go that let’s you drive away with the key fob in your pocket, plus you can unlock and lock the vehicle with just a finger swipe.

Power outlets in the front passenger foot well, front center console storage compartment, rear center console and in the trunk ensures you can plug in just about anywhere. This vehicle even has regenerative braking to keep the battery topped and reduce parasitic loss when you’re using multiple accessories. You know, like on those long road trips with the kids.


Overall, we’re pretty impressed by this car. While the rear seats may lack an overtly executive feel (there’s a 7 series for that) the forward cabin has everything one might need for running the daily rat race. It has excellent driving dynamics and no shortage of comfort, convenience and/or safety features to go on and on about around the water cooler. An executive pay grade would certainly help feed its thirst for premium, however.

The 550i xDrive’s MSRP is $62,500. As equipped, the driver assistance, convenience, premium #2, sports and ventilated seat packages add $9,400 to our tester with stand-alone options (sport automatic transmission with paddles, four-zone automatic climate control head-up display, night vision with pedestrian detection) contributing $5,400 more. The final tally is $77,650 (plus taxes and other fees) but you could go higher still with M sport upgrades, different interior features and materials and any number of other BMW accessories.

The Audi A8 flagship and Nissan Leaf electric vehicle are the other two finalists for the 2011 World Car of the Year. The decision should be easy. Last year, the 5 series’ main competition, the Mercedes-Benz E-class, as well as the Toyota Prius, both lost out to the Volkswagen Polo for the title. By this journo’s reckoning, the Leaf doesn’t stand chance and, as amazing and luxurious as the new A8 is, it certainly doesn’t have price or accessibility on it side. By virtue of elimination then, the BMW 5 series is the obvious choice. Perhaps not this particular version, but at least you can get into one for under $50 grand (the 528i). Now, if only you could get one with that straight-six diesel.


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