First Drive: 2011 BMW 535i sedan, Returning to its Design Roots
It's no small matter when the time comes for an automaker to replace one of its top selling models and BMW is no exception. For the Munich based automaker the mid-size 5 series is second only to the compact 3 series in sales volume so they can't afford to mess it up. The 5 series competes in one of the most sought after segments for premium cars, going up against the likes of the Audi A6, Mercedes-Benz E-class, Jaguar XF and Cadillac CTS.
In the coming months an all-new 5 series sedan will go on sale around the world. Before that happens, BMW invited automotive media from around the world to Portugal to spend a couple of days sampling the new sedan. We drove the 5 on the roads south and west of Lisbon as well as on the Estoril race track that formerly hosted the Portugese Grand Prix. Follow the jump for our driving impressions.
Gallery: First Drive: 2011 BMW 535i
Photos Copyright ©2010 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.
BMW follows a familiar pattern for the launch of each of its model lines. Rather than introduce every variant at the same time, it staggers body styles and powertrains over a period of months and years. For the 3 and 5 series this typically means the four door sedans come first, followed by wagons, coupes/convertibles and high performance M models. This allows BMW to focus on one vehicle at a time, getting it right and also results in a steady stream of new products. In the case of the new 5 series, the process actually began last fall with the all-new Gran Turismo 5 door hatchback body style. The new sedan goes on sale in the US in June of this year with the station wagon to follow some time later. The new wagon probably won't come to the U.S. market this time since it has never been a big seller here and the Gran Turismo largely fills the gap it leaves in the lineup.
The new 5 is the sixth generation since the original debuted in 1972 and it will be badged as a 2011 model when it goes on sale in the U.S. in June. This time around, the 5 shares much of its chassis with the flagship 7 series sedan but adds a few twists of its own. The 5 is immediately recognizable as a BMW, but this one is a major departure from its immediate predecessor. The constants that have applied to all BMWs for decades including the twin-kidney grille, the four round headlamps and of course the "Hoffmeister kink," (that curve at the base of the C-pillar) are all present and accounted for.
In many other respects, this car actually looks like more of an evolution of the fourth generation E39 model that was retired in 2003 rather than the outgoing fifth generation E60 edition. The last variant followed the path blazed by the previous 7 and Z4 with a more avante-garde look that was extremely controversial when it first appeared although it has become accepted over time and design elements were emulated by many other automakers.
This time around the 5 continues the theme of surface development with curves and creases that capture the light and shadow to provide visual interest. The previous generation of BMW designs didn't always have a coherent look and theme but that has been addressed this time around. Like the new 7 and Z4 that debuted a year ago, the surfaces of the new 5 give it a more muscular, organic look. This is particularly true for the new 5 which has a more swept roof-line that is at once more elegant and sporty.
Strong creases below the belt-line and along the rocker panel give the sides a feeling of depth that was lacking in the last model. The hood features four sweeping creases that emanate from the central roundel logo and the outer edges of the grille. From the driver's seat, the profile of those creases have the appearance of waves converging toward the center of the car.
While fashion experts warn against wearing horizontal stripes to avoid looking fatter than you really are, a broader stance is generally considered a good thing in a car, especially one with performance aspirations. To that end the grilles of the new 5 are shorter and wider, giving the car a more athletic stance. BMW has also moved away from grilles that sweep back and returned to a more forward looking approach that actually returns the brand to a look out of its past. While all new BMWs will have grilles that are vertical or lean forward, the amount of lean will be based on the sportiness of the car.
Inside, the new 5 gets a look that is again very much reminiscent of its big brother and that is in no way a bad thing. Another return to form for BMW in recent designs includes tilting the vertical part of the center console toward the driver allowing a shorter reach to accessory controls. In recent years German automakers have finally given in to American demands for proper cup holders. Front seat passengers in the 5 will find two beverage cavities under a wood trimmed panel just ahead of the transmission shifter.
Like most of its contemporaries the 5 features an engine start button on the dash that eliminates the need to insert a key. If you choose to remove the fob from your pocket or purse (not necessary for any functional reason), BMW has provided a slot between the cup holders to stash it while driving. As you would expect of a car costing upwards of $50,000 the entire cabin is finished in high quality leathers with a selection of glossy woods to finish it off.
BMW pioneered multifunctional controllers when it introduced iDrive in the 2001 7 Series. Since then the interface engineers have come to the realization that owners were right and some extra dedicated buttons would be helpful to speed up interaction. Buttons for phone, navigation and audio now allow quick access to those functions. Unfortunately the voice command system doesn't drill down deep enough into menus to be especially useful. Front and center in the dashboard is a massive and gorgeous high resolution 10.2 inch LCD display. The back seat provides plenty of space for three adults with ample head and leg room for six footers.
For 2011, BMW has added a number of additional driver assist features to the 5, most notably an automatic parallel park system. Several luxury cars have been featuring automatic parking features for several years now, with mostly mixed success. BMW doesn't attempt to have the car back into a space in a parking lot the way Lexus does with the LS. Instead the 5 has side looking sensors that measure the distance between cars to determine if there is adequate space to park. If the 5 will fit, you simply press a button on the console and put the car in reverse. The car will automatically steer itself as you gently apply the gas. We didn't have an opportunity to test the system on this trip but we'll definitely try it out when the cars come into the press fleet this summer.
Other assistance features that are new to the 5 series lineup are adaptive cruise control that automatically maintains a safe distance to the car ahead, even bring the car to a complete stop in traffic. The same hardware can also provide an emergency brake apply if the car ahead suddenly slows down. The new 5 also has lane departure warning that monitors the road and signals the driver if the car is drifting off course.
Another feature new to BMW on the 5 is the surround view camera system. Like the similar system offered by Infiniti, cameras on the underside of the mirrors along with the rear view camera, provide a complete bird's view of the car's surroundings.
We had the opportunity to drive two different variants of the 5 in Portugal. The 530d is equipped with a single turbocharger version of the same 3.0-liter inline-six diesel engine used in the 335d in North America along with a new eight-speed automatic transmission. The automatic is equipped with steering wheel mounted paddle shifters for manual control. Unfortunately, BMW USA has no current plans to offer a diesel 5 Series in the U.S.
We also got to spend some quality time with the 535i which is powered by BMW's new single turbocharger 3.0-liter gasoline inline-six. Like the previous twin-turbo unit this one produces 300 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque. BMW claims that the single twin-scroll turbo provides even better response and reduced turbo lag than the older unit. BMW has also added its Valvetronic variable valve timing system which combine with reduced internal friction and brake energy regeneration to yield up to 10 percent better fuel efficiency without sacrificing performance.
The 535i will also be joined at its U.S. launch by a 550i powered by the same 400 hp twin-turbo 4.4-liter V8 found in the 7, X6 and Gran Turismo. Both the V8 and the six cylinder will also be available with a six-speed manual transmission although few are likely to be sold in the U.S. Later in the year a normally aspirated 3.0-liter six will appear in the 528i.
In either gas or diesel form, the 5 is a very responsive car. BMW rates the 535i at 5.7 seconds for the 0-60 sprint and our seat of the pants evaluation indicates that this is utterly plausible. The 530d takes about one second longer to do the same thing. The V8 powered 550i will launch to 60 mph in just 5.0 seconds flat.
Since the new 5 series is based on the platform of the 7 series, it gets the same suspension upgrades including a new double wishbone front suspension. The new layout replaces the long running Macpherson strut front layout. The new suspension system did an excellent job of absorbing rough texture of the stretches of cobblestone road that dot the coastal city of Cascais.
Once we got outside of town into the mountains to the north, the 5 easily lived up to BMW's tag line of "the ultimate driving machine." The 5 series is not a small car nor is it light. At 73.2 inches wide, it spans one inch more than the last generation model. On the narrow, rural roads we had to take particular care to avoid scrapes with stone walls that come right up to the edge of the roadway. All the new features and functionality means the 535i tips the scales at 4,096 pounds with the 550i at 4,376, some 400 pounds more than before.
When changing direction, the 535 doesn't feel as heavy as it is thanks to healthy sized 245/45R18 standard tires and weight that is distributed almost evenly between the axles. On the track, the 5 offers driver selectable modes that adjust the steering, transmission response and stability control thresholds. In the sport+ mode the stability control allows significantly more slip before intervening.
Below the limits, the car stay neutral, tracking where you point it with the thick rimmed steering wheel. Push harder and the back end gently slides out and stays there with the electronic intervention remaining seamless and unobtrusive. When you find yourself coming into a corner a bit too fast, the 5 series dissipates kinetic energy quickly and progressively. There is no mushiness to the brake pedal feel.
Cruising on the highway, the 535i was very quiet with minimal wind and tire noise permeating the cabin. Another notable positive characteristic of the 5 is visibility. While many modern cars have increasingly thick roof pillars and high belt-lines, BMW has managed to keep both elements of the 5 to a minimum. The blind spots in the front corners as well as over the shoulder are not nearly as obtrusive as they are on other cars.
Overall the new 5 series feels like an excellent, luxury sport sedan. The 535i and 550i go on sale in North America in June 2010. Over the next year or two we'll see the 528i and a new M5. The high performance M5 will probably use the 555 hp V8 launched last year in the X5 M and X6 M. At some point we'll likely see a hybrid using the mild hybrid system found in the Activehybrid 7. BMW has not announced final prices but promised to hold the line. The new generation should sticker equal or slightly lower than comparable 2010 models.
Gallery: First Drive: 2011 BMW 535i
Photos Copyright ©2010 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.
Our travel and lodging for this media event were provided by the manufacturer.