Traditional large luxury wagons are thin on the ground these days, but BMW’s extra-practical 5 Series variant is a persuasive alternative to a posh SUV.
Manufacturers surely have dreams about their closest competitors pulling out of a vehicle segment, leaving them to take all the riches. Yet that’s exactly what happened for the BMW 5 Series Touring in Australia. Audi abandoned the A6 Avant in 2015, and Mercedes-Benz chose to ignore its latest-generation E-Class Estate released globally in 2017.
Everyone wants a luxury SUV these days, of course, and BMW’s German rivals both made their decisions based on lacklustre sales (though, along with Volvo and its V90 Cross Country, Audi and Benz did opt for a high-riding crossover variant). Only Jaguar has spoiled the 5 Touring’s complete exclusivity with the XF Sportbrake that is now available for order.
BMW Australia says a passionate group of Touring fans among its customer base means they wouldn’t dare consider dropping it, even if it accounts for less than 10 per cent of 5 Series sales.
Will that ratio improve now BMW has made an MY18 pricing change? The company has removed the Touring’s previous premium of several thousand dollars so that the two 520d and 530i variants cost exactly the same as their sedan equivalents: $95,200 and $110,500. (The 520d Touring is still about $5K dearer than its predecessor, however, albeit now laden with more features.)
There’s no 540i variant to follow the 535i Touring offered in the last generation, while the niching of the model again means there’s no xDrive all-wheel-drive alternative to the standard rear-drive.
As expected, the 520d is the more frugal choice (4.9L/100km v 6.5L/100km), while the 530i is the quicker option (0–100km/h in 6.5sec v 7.8sec).
The 530i receives extra equipment, including an M Sport Package (optional on 520d) pooling M Aerodynamics body kit, M leather steering wheel, M Sport brakes, chrome tailpipes, “Aluminium Satinated” exterior trim, and anthracite roof-lining.
Comparing a 530i sedan and wagon, the differences are both a case of 6.2 v 6.5 whether you’re looking at litres per 100km used or seconds taken to reach 100km/h from standstill.
Of course, the reason a buyer chooses a 530i Touring over a 530i sedan is cargo space. And here the wagon’s 570L boot (up 10 litres on its predecessor) again offers a 40L advantage before extending the gap further with an enormous 1700L when the 40-20-40 rear seats are folded. As a note of comparison, they’re virtually identical figures to the XF Sportbrake: 565L/1700L.
The well-sized boot is complemented by thick elasticated side straps, flip-out hooks, load rails, underfloor compartments, and ski port. For added convenience, there are mini seat-release levers and an electrically operated tailgate with hands-free opening function.
The Touring continues its clever tailgate window that opens separately so you can toss items into the boot (or grab them quicker).
Otherwise, the fifth-generation wagon’s interior is familiar from the gorgeous, superbly crafted cabin we’ve come to appreciate in the latest (seventh-generation) 5 Series that debuted locally in March 2017. A truly rich interior experience is created by the supple, diamond-patterned upholstery, large chunks of genuine wood, soft kick panels, smooth black leather on the upper dash and doors, and the gloss black applied to areas such as the centre stack and centre console.
Not all is standard, mind. Our Touring test car included options such as Nappa upholstery ($1300), four-zone climate control ($900), BMW Individual leather instrument panel ($1000), and panoramic sunroof ($3100). Soft-close doors were also added for $1150.
The ‘black panel’ physical/digital hybrid instrument display and digital heating/ventilation panel add further classy touches, while at the upper end of the centre stack sits a wide display featuring the latest-generation iDrive. The benchmark luxury-segment infotainment system extends its simple operation with touchscreen functionality for the sharp display, as well as multi-tile home page presentation.
We might otherwise have moaned about Apple CarPlay costing $623, but it seems a redundant option when the default system is so excellent.
There’s a high-quality feel to the iDrive’s console-based rotary touchpad controller, and shortcut buttons – which were the first key step in addressing criticisms of earlier iDrive versions – continue. A 16-speaker Harman Kardon unit with 600W digital amplifier provides the audio thrills.
Standard driver-aid tech includes adaptive cruise control, surround view, lane keep assist, signpost-reading Speed Limit Info, and temporary autonomous steering.
Comfort and support up front are provided by sports seats with a multitude of adjustment, heating and lumbar support. The steering wheel also adjusts electrically.
The 5 Series is another sign BMW is improving the storage options in its passenger cars. The console bin, for example, no longer features a ‘snap-it’ mobile phone adaptor, although there’s not much depth to it.
The rear cabin’s outer seats are sumptuously comfortable like the fronts, though knee space is merely good rather than great despite the Touring’s sizeable dimensions. Toe room is also a bit squished if the front seats are set low. There’s plenty of head room, however.
If the interior quality is much closer to the 7 Series limo than the 3 Series, you could almost say the same for the driving experience. The softness of the 5 Touring’s ride in the Comfort setting of its adaptive dampers initially came as a shock, as we had jumped into it straight after driving a 440i with M Sport suspension.
Yet, the large BMW proves how softness doesn’t have to equal sloppiness – combining excellent control with its pillowy progress. Big bumps can generate a noise from the suspension, but they never intrude. The only imperfections we could detect during about 800km of testing were occasional low-speed vibrations that could be felt through the steering wheel across bumpier urban surfaces.
There’s a lightness to the steering in Comfort that suits the 5’s character and lends the wagon a sense of easy manoeuvrability – especially when combined with the $2250 Integral Active Steering option that moves the rear wheels in a counter direction to the fronts below 60km/h. And, crucially, there’s none of the vague feeling around the straight-ahead that afflicts the X5’s steering.
Leave the Touring in Comfort on country roads and there’s some mild bobbing with the more relaxed damping without venturing into floatiness. Sport mode is still the pick for multi-curved routes. It tightens body control and adds weight to the steering (but not feel) for greater handling confidence without increasing the busy nature of the ride, with turn-in particularly more effective.
For such a big car, the 5 Touring feels nicely balanced, easy to slow via progressive brakes, and capable of strong traction out of corners in damp conditions. Just don’t expect the dynamics to be quite as effervescent as the sedan that weighs a significant 100kg less (1540kg v 1640kg).
That’s still a very respectable mass for a large luxury wagon, and it’s helpful when there’s no six-cylinder (or V8) under the bonnet, but instead a turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine with 185kW and 350Nm.
Yet it’s only when your right foot makes stronger demands of the accelerator pedal that turbo lag becomes more conspicuous, and using the paddle levers is a simple solution to prevent lapses in momentum – keeping the engine in its sharpest-response zone above 3000rpm. Otherwise, the 530i’s performance, ably assisted by a super-smooth eight-speed auto, feels like it’s all you ever need.
Which is a good job, as it isn’t easy to rationalise paying more than $100,000 for a BMW that doesn’t have a straight-six as a minimum. For similar money ($109,900) you could have a (diesel-powered) Mercedes-Benz E-Class All Terrain with greater boot capacity (640L/1820L) and all-wheel drive. Or Jaguar’s XF Sportbrake 25t offers similar practicality and engine outputs – though not equipment – for $91,400.
Comparing the 530i Touring with its SUV cousin, the X5, also doesn’t look good for the wagon. The higher-riding wagon also offers superior luggage space (650L/1870L), while for the same money as the Touring you could have an X5 40d powered by a far more powerful (albeit diesel) engine.
The 5 Series Touring is a more dynamic and enjoyable drive than the X5, though, benefiting from better steering quality and a mass that’s several hundred kilos lighter.
Even the wagon’s lowered price tag is highly unlikely to shift X5 buyers back towards it, but the practical 5 Series model’s broad range of talents ensures it’s not such a big deal that the choice of large luxury wagons in Australia continues to be severely limited.