Thursday, December 18, 2008

BMW 5-Series

BMW 5 Series

The 5-Series just gets better and better. The 2003 model has, in mid-2007, been given the slightest of facelifts and some smart under-the-skin modifications that make it lighter and less thirsty without any loss of the poise and performance that's always made the 5-Series more desirable than other executive saloons and estates from a driver's point of view.

There are now two specification levels: the relatively basic (but not cheap) SE and M Sport, which includes sports suspension and slightly more macho detailing. (The M5 saloon and Touring are covered in a separate road test.) The current engine range - much of it new or substantially modified - now consists of five petrol engines and four diesels. The 523i is a 2.5-litre straight six; the 525i and 530i are 3.0-litre straight sixes; the 540i is a 4.0-litre V8; and the 550i is a 5.0-litre V8. Bar the 540i, all the engines are available in both bodies. The diesel range consists of the 520d, a 2.0-litre inline four; and three 3.0-litre straight sixes: the 525d, the 530d and the twin-turbo 535d.

Even though most British buyers opt for the six-speed automatic, a six-speed manual gearbox is standard on everything apart from the 535d. From mid-2007 the 550i, 535d, 530d and 530i will all be available with the new Sports Automatic Transmission, which has paddles.

Reliability and Quality

A robust body structure keeps rattles and squeaks at bay, the doors shut with the right kind of thunk, while tasteful, high-quality trim materials provide the sumptuous cabin ambience you'd expect in a car priced from just under 30 grand. This 'E60' generation of 5-Series seems largely free of quality glitches, though there have been problems with the runflat tyres.

On the road

The chassis of the 5-Series has always been close to a perfect compromise. It's a big, comfortable car built for executives and their families, but it's also better to drive than rivals such as the Mercedes E-Class, Lexus GS and Audi A6. For all the excellence of the thrillingly quick and impressively clever M5, the most basic, least adorned of 5-Series is supremely well balanced. It's a car that's easy to drive well.

The 2007 changes include a new electric power steering system, which recently made its debut on the second-generation X5. It's an on-demand system, so there's no pump working away for no good reason when you're driving in a straight line. It works just fine: never too light, but providing unobtrusive assistance when you need it.

Some versions are fitted with new low rolling resistance tyres, and more models will get them soon. They're intended to reduce fuel consumption without any increase in noise or loss of grip, and - judging by the 523i Touring we drove shod with this miracle compound - it works.

The once-controversial iDrive multi-function system, which uses a big knob and a screen to control most of the audio, navigation and climate control functions, has been given yet another slight tweak. It now comes with eight 'favourites' buttons, so that you can go straight to your preferred radio stations, temperature settings or destinations at the touch of a single button, rather than having to scroll through layers of menus.

All the six-cylinder petrol engines used in the 5-Series have BMW's latest high-precision direct fuel injection system to improve consumption and emissions. It's all about efficient burning of fuel in the combustion chamber, so they're not just cleaner and leaner, they also have more power and/or torque, and their 0-62mph times are all improved.

The slowest 5-Series, the 520d, is also the most economical and cleanest, while the fastest, the 362bhp 550i, is also the dirtiest: its 0-62mph time of 5.2 seconds (or 5.3 for the estate) is 3.4 seconds quicker than the little diesel's, but its CO2 output of 260g/km (267 for the estate) is 102g/km worse than the 520d's.

The eight-cylinder petrol engines seem like a bit of an indulgence, and the 523i and 520d feel a little overwhelmed by the car's size and weight. But the 268bhp 530i, and the six-cylinder diesels, all strike a fantastic compromise between outstanding performance and decent economy.

We're spoilt for choice, but our pick of the range is the scorching 535d - 155mph, 6.4 seconds to 62mph - but if we wanted to save around £4,400 we'd be very happy with the 530d... or indeed any of the others.

Safety and Security

The 5-Series has a top-rated alarm and immobiliser fitted as standard, and comes with an impressive array of passive safety features, but it falls one short of top marks for occupant protection in the Euro NCAP crash tests. It gets four out of five for child protection and a slightly worrying one for pedestrian protection.

Superb roadholding, agile handling and powerful brakes make it easier to avoid an accident in the first place, helped by the highly sophisticated DSC+ stability control system. Lane Departure Warning System is also standard on the 550i and 535d and an option on everything else: if you start to change lanes without indicating, a gentle vibration through the steering wheel will prompt you into action. An option on cars fitted with sat nav and automatic gearbox (but not the 520d), Active cruise control with Stop & Go can slow you down (to zero if need be) and speed you up in order to keep you at a steady distance from the car in front.

Head-Up Display, another option, means you can keep your eyes on the road ahead and look at crucial information (such as speed and directions) at the same time. You can also get High-Beam Assistant, which spots an oncoming vehicle and dips your headlights for you, and then returns you to main beam when it's passed, while Night Vision uses a thermal imaging camera to detect pedestrians or animals ahead and display their image on the iDrive screen, sometimes crucial seconds before you'd spot them with the naked eye.

Running costs

Most of the 2007 changes to the 5-Series focus on improving engine efficiency, with a view to reducing fuel use, CO2 emissions and, in some cases, tax. Brake Energy Regeneration, which is standard on all Fives apart from the 520d, is a system that uses energy that would otherwise be lost to recharge the battery during over-run. The alternator is only engaged when it's needed, thus reducing drag on the engine. Similarly, the new electric power steering set-up is an on-demand system, and the air con is disconnected from the drivetrain when not in use, again removing a potential drain on the engine.

With every 5-Series, the on-board computer tells you when servicing is needed, depending on how you've been driving, so you won't be making unnecessarily frequent trips to the dealer. Like all BMWs, it's covered by a scheme - generally regarded as very good value - that allows you to make a single payment to cover all servicing for five years.

Standard-fit front and rear parking sensors should reduce the number of low-speed shunts, thus keeping repair bills and insurance premiums reined in. And unless you go overboard when you visit the options list, you should find that your 5-Series keeps a healthy chunk of its value when you get to resale time.

Comfort and equipment

The ride is impressively pillowy, the lack of body roll making for comfortable progress on twisty roads. However, sharp bumps and potholes seem to catch the suspension out. The jarring worsens if you opt for the sports suspension, which appears to offer little benefit. Cars with Dynamic Drive active suspension fitted do keep flatter under cornering, but for most drivers most of the time the standard set-up is more than adequate in containing body roll.

Noise levels are low in saloon and Touring alike, and the cabin features supportive, comfy seats for long-distance drives. Space front and rear is fairly generous, and if there isn't quite as much as in a Mercedes E-Class, there's usefully more rear legroom than found in the previous 5-Series. The luggage areas are a decent size too, and the Touring has a handy split tailgate.

Oddments space is limited, the door bins and the centre console box being small. The basic audio system delivers excellent sound quality, but you'll pay extra for the really swanky kit.

Used value

The 5-Series is one of the most desirable large saloons of its type, and the Touring estate is more desirable still. It returns excellent residual (resale) values, and makes for a sound investment new or used. Entry-level 520d models aren't quite as popular as the more powerful six-cylinders and the diesels, but all are easy to sell on as long as they have the basics: a good metallic paint colour, a nice set of alloys and, these days, sat nav and a decent sound system.

Price Range: £27,430 to £65,325

Handling, refinement, comfort, quality.

Too much of the clever kit is confined to the options list.

Brilliant all-round package, impressively updated.

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