Sixth gen’s a charm
Location: Lisbon, Portugal
When attempting to replace a successful and popular car, there can be a myriad of challenges. When that car has been in existence for five model generations and close to 40 years, those challenges can be all but insurmountable.
So when it came time to create the all-new 2011 BMW 5 Series, the designers and engineers had their work cut out for them. Fortunately, they also had close to 40 years’ worth of experience in building one of the pre-eminent mid-size sedans in the world.
When the new 5 Series arrives later this year, there will be no fewer than seven different versions available, depending on the market: four petrol-powered models and three diesels.
The petrol range is topped by the 550i with its 4.4-litre twin-turbocharged V8, which produces a healthy 407 horsepower (300 kW) and 442 lb-ft (600 Nm) of torque. Next in line are three inline 6-cylinder models: the 535i, 528i and 523i. The latter two models employ carryover petrol engines, while the 535i boasts an all-new, 3.0-litre turbocharged inline-6 with a twin-scroll turbocharger that develops 306 horsepower (225 kW) and 295 lb-ft (400 Nm) of torque.
On the diesel front, the three 5 Series models will initially be available in three forms: the 530d (using a turbocharged 3.0-litre inline-6), the 525d (with a normally aspirated version of the same engine) and the 520d (featuring a 2.0-litre 4-cylinder). There will eventually be xDrive all-wheel drive versions of some of these models, as well as station wagon variants for certain markets.
For the launch event, held in Lisbon, the only model made available for our group to test was the 535i fitted with BMW’s new 8-speed automatic transmission (a 6-speed manual is offered with both the 535i and 550i).
The drive experience comprised two distinct parts: a meandering tour of the lush Portuguese countryside and a series of banzai laps around the Estoril circuit, an undulating ribbon of tarmac that demands a lot from both driver and car. What these diverse testing conditions proved is that the new 5 Series is equally at home on the track and the road.
The new inline-6 in the 535i features a twin-scroll turbocharger and direct injection; it’s rated at 300 horsepower and 300 lb-ft of torque, the same numbers produced by the twin-turbo 6-cylinder currently used in other BMW models. While those figures aren’t exactly class-leading these days, they’re sufficient to get the 535i hustling down the road in good order. The estimated 0-100 km/h acceleration time for the car is in the area of six seconds flat—not too shabby.
Throttle response is very good and there’s plenty of driving enjoyment on tap courtesy of the 8-speed automatic. The transmission can be operated manually via paddle shifters on the steering wheel or using the company’s trademark stubby shifter in the centre console; both are good fun, although the shifter will leave novices scratching their heads in confusion for awhile. (A sure sign that your technology isn’t all that intuitive: Lessons on how to use the shift lever appear on the navigation screen automatically on start-up.)
For all the joy the engine and transmission produce, it pales in comparison to the car’s handling and braking, which are remarkable. The new 5 Series features an all-new suspension system, electric power steering (for the first time in this segment) and integral active steering. All combined, these advances put the 5 Series even further into the class lead in terms of handling prowess. Around the track and around town, the 535i carved turns like a sedan half its size.
The front suspension system veers from BMW tradition; since 1965, and up until the introduction of the second-generation X5 in 2007, all of their vehicles came equipped with strut-type front suspension. With said X5, a multi-link system was introduced; it’s since gone on to feature on the latest 7 Series and, now, the new 5 Series.
The system, also called a double track control arm front axle, is matched in the back with another multi-link set-up, called an integral-V rear axle because it represents an essentially vertical link between the upper and lower control planes. Technical jargon aside, one thing is absolutely clear: the new 5 Series is absolutely brilliant at soaking up imperfections in the road.
One feature worth mentioning here is the optional Driving Dynamics Control system. This system allows the driver to choose among four different settings, ranging from the more leisurely to the mort sporting. A switch in the centre console activates the system and alters throttle response, shifting characteristics, steering response and traction control parameters.
The system, in conjunction with the suspension, produces a truly great ride. While I preferred the firmer “sport plus” setting over the bouncier “comfort” setting on the track and on the road, all four proved their worth. With the sport plus setting, the traction control is switched to a more aggressive setting. Pressing and holding the traction control button then turns this electronic aid off completely, but stability control is still maintained.
Through one corner in particular, a very challenging uphill S-turn with many possible angles of attack, the true nature of the 535i revealed itself. With the traction control switched off, the rear-wheel drive sedan showed incredible poise, tail gliding out happily through the first part of the corner, then swinging back easily for the final part. With a bit more practice, a genuine Scandinavian flick would’ve been simple to produce.
The electric power steering is another significant step forward for BMW; unlike some systems used by certain cars, the steering on the 535i is incredibly solid and direct. Thus, a company tradition for superb steering feel is maintained, while greater efficiency is added to the picture.
Meanwhile, the integral active steering helps make the 5 Series feel like a much smaller sedan. For the first time, the system adds small degrees of rear-wheel steering to help with low-speed manoeuvres and high-speed transitions. At speeds up to 60 km/h, the rear wheels steer in the opposite direct to the front wheels, up to 2.5 degrees; this feature dramatically reduces the turning circle of the car and makes U-turns a snap. Above 60 km/h, the rear wheels angle in the same direction as the front wheels, giving the 5 even better capabilities in the corners.
In terms of brake-testing, the Estoril circuit has three turns at the end of very fast straight sections that require heavy stopping, lap after lap; the 535i readily answered the call, showing no signs of wearing out its brakes at all. The braking system comes standard with features that: keep the discs dry in the rain, the pads ready to clamp down on said discs and the entire system from fading under heavy use. The system also recaptures braking energy, which is then used to charge the alternator. All told, then, the brakes are just this side of magical.
The BMW 535i ticks all the right boxes when it comes to what the average sports/luxury sedan owner would expect. The interior is more business-like than luxurious, but it goes about its business with a sense of style. The car tested featured a cream-coloured interior with leather seats. This wouldn’t be my personal choice—particularly when matched with the grey ash and metallic dashboard and centre console—but there you have it. Placing the seat memory buttons high up on the door sill was a particularly inelegant choice, but I’m being picky at this point.
One feature that is well appreciated on higher-end BMW models: the eminently adjustable power seats (10 different ways, in this case), including the ability to lengthen the seat cushion. The steering wheel features power tilt and telescoping adjustment, so the perfect driving position is easily secured. The paddle shifters, gear lever and other required controls are well-placed.
In that the new 5 Series has grown in size—it now boasts the longest wheelbase in its class— interior space has also improved. Most notably, legroom for rear-seat passengers has grown by 13 mm. The 60/40-split folding rear seat features a pass-through to accommodate skis or other lengthy cargo and there’s ample room in the passenger cabin for five adults.
The 2011 BMW 535i is a return to that which established the Munich firm as a maker of true enthusiast cars: a rear-wheel drive sedan with impeccable handling characteristics powered by an inline 6-cylinder engine.The exterior design also harkens back to earlier versions of the 5 Series—it’s muscular again with business-like front headlights, highly sculpted hood and a solid-looking rear fascia. The car bears more than a passing resemblance to the latest 7 Series, particularly the elongated hood and short rear overhang, but it performs like a slightly oversized 3 Series.
Given that the 535i is such a solid package, it really makes one dream about how good the eventual M5 will be…