Few nameplates say 'executive express' quite as succinctly as the BMW 550i. For years the double-five-zero designation has successfully filled the void between the kinda-quick six-cylinder 5 Series models and the hardcore M5.
Priced from $180,000, the BMW 550i costs $50K more than a 535i, and the same amount less than the new M5. There are some core numbers to help the non-M flagship state its worth – 300kW of power, 600Nm of torque, and 0-100km/h in 5.0 seconds flat.
The 550i is around a second faster than the turbo-six 535i, but only 0.7 seconds slower than an M5, with which it shares its 4.4-litre twin-turbocharged V8 engine in a de-tuned form. That engine, mated to an eight-speed automatic, makes for an absolutely superb drivetrain.
The BMW 550i never needs more than 2500rpm showing to deliver effortless shove around town, the octo-cog auto fluttering through gears, helping to cement its character as a stately, debonair cruiser.
It’s always quiet, and seems to ride even better on the M Sport suspension than we remember of regular-suspended 5 Series models, which are too floaty, yet occasionally harsh. The 550i’s 19-inch wheels sometimes snag over really sharp potholes, and if speed humps are taken at speed the suspension can land the 5 Series with an inelegant ‘thud’. But generally, it rides very well considering the thin sidewalls of the tyres.
After 300km of urban running over the double demerit points holiday period, the trip computer settled at 12L/100km – outstanding given the size of the engine.
Yet the terrific drivetrain in the BMW 550i also steps up to deliver properly cranking performance when pedalled. Selecting Sport mode – there’s also Eco Pro or Comfort – brings touchier response to the throttle, enlivening the 5 Series’ inherent dynamic character.
A decent-sized criticism is that the warbly exhaust bark heard from the outside of the car is almost completely sound-proofed out of the cabin. The V8 doesn’t sound particularly special in this state of tune, and other than the slightly quicker performance, the equally-brilliant turbo-six engine in the cheaper 535i is the more sensible choice.
Throttle the twin-turbo V8, and the litres per 100 kilometre figure will also quickly start with a ‘2’.
Adding two cylinders over the BMW straight six-cylinder may add weight on the nose of the 5 Series, but it certainly isn’t felt. With lots of lightweight aluminium bits in its body, and links in its front and rear suspension, the BMW 5 Series feels amazingly agile for its size. The 550i also never feels its 1870kg girth.
It turns into smooth corners with so much more verve than an Audi A6, Jaguar XF or Mercedes-Benz E-Class, and although the stability control can get panicked by the reality of 600Nm feeding to the rear wheels only, the less restrictive ‘dynamic traction’ setting is a fine one to choose.
The extra-wide rear tyres (245mm front/275mm rear, both Pirelli P Zero) also permit plenty of grip, complementing the 5 Series’ superb balance and very limited body roll.
Standard 5 Series (and 3 Series) models have been criticised for their overly soft suspension set-ups, and the $4900 M Sport suspension on our test car tightens things by enough to notice the difference, while lowering ride height by 10mm. There’s still a slight lack of composure on rough roads at speed, like there is around town, but it is much, much better than the standard suspension. The slight floatiness is also fair compensation for delivering a generally good urban ride and brilliantly sharp smooth-road handling.
Still, for another $1750, an adaptive suspension kit is available, which softens the ride in Comfort mode and firms up the dampers in Sport. It adds to the many options filling the BMW spec sheets these days.
A most worthy option is the $3600 Integral Active Steering package. The standard steering – as fitted to our test car – is generally nice when driving hard, revealing a nice middle weighting, and tactile consistency when winding on lock. But it’s around town that the steering proves far too slow between lock stops, meaning lots of arm twirling in shopping centre carparks. The optional steering, while expensive, changes the steering gear ratio constantly to allow for faster turning of the front wheels at low speeds – perfect for making the big 5 Series feel small and nimble around town.
Beautifully finished inside, every BMW 5 Series is an ergonomics master. It’s the simple things, like the scroll wheel on the steering tiller; common to most cars, but in the BMW it allows the driver to flick through upcoming CD or iPod tracks, showing what they are on the colour screen below the speedometer, then press the scroll wheel to select one. Almost every car auto-changes to the next track instantly.
Yet it’s also the big things that impress – in particular the superbly comfortable seats, with full electric adjustment, and front heating and cooling vents. Plenty of space for five, and four-zone climate control with central and B-pillar-mounted rear vents, further make the cabin a 7 Series-rivalling place to sit.
The quality plastics, soft ambient lighting, proper door grabs, classy piano black trim, and 10.2-inch navigation/audio screen also mean the BMW 550i feels its near-$200K as-tested price.
In fact, the only options to our test car beyond the M Sport pack were a brilliant sounding $1600 high-def audio system and $900 digital radio tuner – the latter of which provides a near-endless amount of channels including, er, Bird Radio, with non-stop squawks and squeaks.
A 535i may be the more ‘sensible’, and still brilliant, 5 Series pick, and a Jaguar XFR is tantalisingly close in price, starting at $200K. The BMW 550i also lacks the noise expected of a V8, misses some of the expected suspension control at times, and unless optioned with active steering, is a bit ponderous around town.
It is, however, a fairly alluring package overall – very quick, very special inside, very dynamic, and very capable of transitioning from cruiser to bruiser depending on the throttle position.