Driving the entry-level BMW 520d GT, it feels like the Germans have produced a quirky French car. While Mercedes-Benz delivered the swoopy CLS-Class, and Audi followed with its wedgy A7 Sportback, in 2010 BMW created a taller, hatchback version of the 7 Series – same overall length, width and wheelbase – but badged and priced it like a 5 Series.
The 5 Series GT was designed for North Americans who weren’t buying the 5 Series wagon, but then that market dislikes hatchbacks, too. But despite being unpopular here and overseas – just like a Citroen C6 – that doesn’t necessarily mean the peculiar, individualist BMW isn’t credible.
Priced at $90,500, the 520d spec was added to the BMW 5 Series GT range mid last year, and its arrival gives buyers access to the sort of legroom found in a Holden Caprice, blended with economy and practicality, for less than six figures.
The five-metre-long BMW 5 Series GT stretches a full 157mm beyond a 5 Series sedan, is 55mm wider and 91mm taller. The rear seat base is split 60:40 and each portion slides 100mm to increase legroom or add more boot space. Yet the rear seat backrest is split three ways, to increase luggage room from 420 litres (or 570L with the seat base forward) to a 5 Series wagon-matching 1700L. The backrest also has a seven-step reclining mechanism and auto window blinds – plus, on our test car, $1300-optional four-zone climate control – to indulge rear passengers a little further.
Legroom is far more generous than that offered by the 5 Series sedan, or any five-figure German competitor, however boot space is actually fractionally less than the sedan with the seat right back.
The hatch lid gets a standard auto up/down function, accessed via the key fob, interior button or bootlid button, and allows large-object versatility rivalled only by wagons and SUVs. Yet, as with a Skoda Superb, the 5 Series GT gets a split tailgate so only a sedan-like portion of the bootlid can be opened, apparently to ensure the cabin climate is retained.
Out back is where the $10K surcharge the 520d GT commands over its 520d sedan stablemate is clearest.
Outside, and up front, the changes aren’t as convincing. There’s plenty of subjective debate about the styling of the 5 Series GT – ranging from a polite ‘unique’ to a less kind ‘bloody ugly’ – but the dashboard is typical high-grade 5 Series. The driver sits higher, which isn’t too bad, but the extra weight the 5 Series has to lug around is often felt.
The 1695kg 520d GT adds 70kg over the sedan, slightly reducing the performance and economy delivered by the 135kW/380Nm 2.0-litre direct-injection turbo-diesel four-cylinder engine. The 0-100km/h claim is 8.9 seconds, 0.8sec slower, while combined economy is raised by 0.4 litres per 100 kilometres to a still-impressive 5.3L/100km.
Forget the stereotypes about diesels and luxury cars being mutually exclusive, however. The oiler in the 520d is superbly insulated and always punchy, with the tell-tale clatter at idle fading off to a distant growl as the tacho sweeps around its arc.
The character of the 520d is defined by its progressive surge on light throttle, and the graceful shifts of the eight-speed automatic, rather than outright acceleration numbers. The BMW diesel is a bit laggy off the line, the delay in traffic sometimes annoying. Overtaking trucks on a single-lane straight road will have you longing for the high-output grunt found in the costlier petrol-turbo six 535i GT.
Dynamically, the 5 Series GT treads the exactly expected middle ground between the 5 Series and 7 Series sedans. The superb agility of the smaller 5 Series sedan mostly remains, but the noticeable weight shifting from side to side in corners is a vice from the flagship 7 Series limo.
Our test car was fitted with an $8900 M Sport package, which adds 20-inch alloy wheels and a bodykit, and firms up the suspension over the regular set-up. The 275mm-wide rear tyres will never be troubled by the outputs the diesel is sending back there, but the 245mm-fronts (and excellent Pirelli P Zero Nero tyres) allow the sort of corner entry speeds to shame a petrol sports car. Unfortunately, the small diesel can’t deliver the out-of-corner ‘kick’ of one…
Thankfully, the firmer suspension also mostly erases the memories of the harsh and floaty standard suspension previously driven. The M Sport tune is tighter, but also much righter. The 520d GT M Sport still skims over small imperfections, occasionally bobs its nose over larger ones, and can jar its big wheels on mid corner divots. But generally, and especially for a car with 20-inch rims, it rides with a decent blend of comfort and control.
Like the BMW 550i sedan also tested this week, the 520d GT is available with Active Integral Steering for $3600, which essentially makes the steering quicker for the driver to turn from one way to the other. It wasn’t fitted to either test car, but previous experience with the system shone harsh light over the slow standard steering tested here. On the move, the 520d responds keenly and accurately to steering movements.
It’s a fine complement to the still-fantastic chassis of the BMW 5 Series GT, one that ultimately is crying out for more grunt in the bends.
That said, our test car never moved beyond 10L/100km in any condition – on the freeway the trip computer read 5.1L/100km, raising to 8.8L/100km with a bit of hard driving thrown in, before settling at 7.5L/100km across 400km of driving.
The BMW 5 Series GT isn’t just individual for the sake of it. It blends 7 Series legroom with hatchback practicality and – unlike a CLS or A7 – actually backs its size with the ability to seat five. At least in M Sport guise, it has some suspension control in addition to fine dynamics on smooth roads. Styling and unique positioning – read: it isn’t an SUV – may hold it back on the sales charts, but the BMW 520d GT is a credible sub-$100K contender.