James Ward battles head and heart over a week with BMW 535i Touring.
I have a confession to make. I fall into an ever shrinking demographic in our modern Australian society: I love a wagon. I am a ‘wagonista’.
I grew up in a time and place where driveways were home to numbers like 504, 245, 740, and 230, and aside from ESP, the coolest badge your dad’s car could have was ‘Vacationer’. Sure, there was the odd Mitsubishi Pajero or L300 on the school run, but almost without exception if you had one family car, it was a sedan-based station wagon, and it worked just fine. Fast forward to today and I am in my element behind the wheel of the 2014 BMW 535i Touring M-Sport.
Can this modern interpretation of the family estate car stack up in our SUV-centric world?
A first impression of a new BMW has to start on the outside.
The current BMW 5 Series range in both sedan and wagon is a beautiful car (let's not mention the Gran Turismo…). The evolved flame surfacing design theme has moved the mid-size car from the slightly awkward Bangle-era E60 to what is, particularly in M-Sport guise, a very muscular and stylish machine and, in my mind, one of the best looking cars on the road.
The sloping roofline of the Touring promotes a strong sporting appeal and suits the shape and size of the car well.
Our Space Grey test car is a 2014 LCI update – which stands for Life Cycle Impulse and is BMW-speak for 'facelift' – and starts at $122,900. Metallic paint adding $2000.
Inside, the car is typical BMW. Excellent. Ergonomics and usability are core to the brand and the 535i is no exception. Although the boot release button under the dash does require some yoga talent to access.
Everything you touch feels solid and high quality, and the new LCD instruments are clear and adjust to suit the selected driving mode. If you are reading this and haven’t driven a modern BMW, then you really should.
The driver-centric controls through both the iDrive interface (which in the LCI 5-Series features a trackpad integrated within the turn/click rotary wheel) and the steering wheel buttons (which now update the heads-up readout on the fly) take little time to get used to, and leave you wondering how you ever lived without them.
On the drive back to the CarAdvice office, the 5-series shows why it has frequently been a development benchmark for executive transport the world over. Smooth, powerful and functional, vision is great and you don’t realise you are driving a relatively big (4907mm) car .
Along with gloss black window surrounds and roof rails and associated M badging, the $4700 M-Sport pack adds 19-inch alloy wheels, sports suspension, more aggressive front and rear bumpers, supportive sport seats and a thick-rimmed steering wheel – the latter an absolute delight to hold. Missing from the car's standard equipment list, and a $3700 option, however, is a panoramic glass sunroof.
Fitting a child seat was pretty easy. The Touring allows you to half-fold the rear seats forward so you can quickly thread the seat harness to the anchor point on the boot floor. There are three anchor points (two on the floor, one on the back of the middle seat) but fitting three child seats across the back row would be a tight fit.
The 560-litre boot is big – 40 litres bigger than the 5 Series sedan – and the split tailgate is handy, allowing you to load through the glass window without having to open the whole hatch.
The car offers four driving modes: Comfort (standard); EcoPro; Sport; and Sport+. Tootling around in traffic, the standard mode is fine … until you need to quickly be somewhere you aren’t. The car feels laggy and unresponsive, as if to teach you that you should better plan your driving and stop making rash lane change decisions.
Those rash decisions are far better handled in Sport where the car really comes alive. The instruments glow red, the engine stop-start function deactivates and the throttle and steering input sharpen immediately. You can hear the familiar straight-six roar as you accelerate too, with a subtle whoosh from the turbo.
There's really no point using Sport+ for the daily commute, as it just increases the stability control system's threshold to allow for more spin and slip.
At the other end of the scale, EcoPro keeps your engine output limited and even shuts down the air conditioner and other functions to keep the car as ‘green’ as possible. It’s fun to use occasionally, particularly in heavy traffic, but you’ll find yourself back in Comfort or Sport as soon as you start moving again.
Parking is a joy with the high-definition around-view and lane-peek cameras making judging small spaces very easy.
The ride from the controversial run-flat tyres is firm but not overly harsh, even in sport mode, and fuel economy regularly sits around 15 litres per 100km. Although this is almost double the car's 8.0L/100km combined cycle claim, it's no surprise given the kays of solid city driving and the fact that Alborz borrowed the car for a day…
It's safe to say at this point the 535i Touring has won me, an admitted BMW fan, over. But will it work for the family?
My daughter Miss Five finds the low ride height easy to get in and out of at school, but for the most part I spend most of the week alone in the car and with the weekend looming, the pressure on the 535i to impress is now much more pronounced as my own car – I drive an X5 – is the very reason the 5 Series Touring is a rare sight on the roads.
No joke, only two have been sold so far this year and in 2013 the 5 Series Touring was out-sold by the $230k BMW M5 sports sedan by more than three-to-one.
With the BMW 5 Series Touring range starting at just over $90,000 for the 520d, though, and the new BMW X5 now available from $82,900 in rear-wheel-drive sDrive25d guise, is it really any wonder.
Or, if you want to compare Bavarian apples, the same 225kW/400Nm turbocharged 3.0-litre petrol engine that helps the 535i Touring hustle to 100km/h in 5.8 seconds, can be had in the X5 xDrive35i from $106,900.
That’s $16,000 less than the Touring and you get 90 litres more boot space, about 80mm more rear legroom and all-wheel drive. Not to mention the model cache attached to the X5.
Regardless, we head off for a birthday party that requires a run down the freeway and some country B-roads, and it's here the arguments against the Touring start to come out.
At speed there is noticeable road noise and on undulating surfaces, the stiffer suspension doesn't quite soak up the bumps as much as the family is used to. The lower ride height and roof line is also not to everyone’s taste.
And once at the party, the question is not, “Who's driving that awesome wagon?” but more, "What happened to the X5?”. Talking to a friend about the price difference between the 535i Touring and the X5, as well as the practical differences, he had a simple argument for the latter, "Two words: snow chains."
So if you are wondering why all the 245s have become XCs, and the 230s MLs, it’s because the family staple has changed and something a bit bigger, with AWD and a bit more 'street cred', represents much better value by comparison.
The truth is, the BMW 535i Touring is an exceptional niche car for an exclusive market. It's not a supremely practical family car, but more of a style-statement partner to the executive transport that is the 5-Series sedan.
An executive wagon is not for everyone, but, if like me, you are not obsessed by the idea that every family hauler needs to be an SUV then embrace your inner ‘wagonista’. You’ll love it.
Click here to read our full technical review of the BMW 5 Series Touring.