The past year hasn't been an easy one for car makers, but BMW has weathered the storm nicely - in fact, Abu Dhabi Motors just released record-breaking sales figures last month. But if the German manufacturer ever decided to get out of the car making business, it might want to consider getting into the communications industry, because with the launch of its latest 5 Series saloon, it has proven it is a master in communicating - at least, to drivers of its revised mid-sized saloon. For a company renowned for its dynamic cars, the new 5 Series is one of the manufacturer's best-handling four-doors yet.
BMW launched the new 5 in Lisbon, Portugal, last week, a beautiful setting with seaside vistas and tight, winding roads; perfect for spirited driving. And while trying to keep my eyes off the sights and on the roads, I was inundated with the constant chatter - through the steering wheel and the seat - of the car telling me what was going on underneath. I could feel the road without it being jarring or uncomfortable - exactly the kind of communication you want in a sporting car. If this were a person, it would be a fast-talking teenager who just got a new mobile phone, except it's saying things you want to hear.
The 535i I was tooling around in was equipped with BMW's Dynamic Damper Control with Dynamic Drive, electric Active Steering and other bells and whistles to help the double-wishbone front and revised rear suspension, and I have to say it all combined to make one of the best-handling cars I have ever driven; certainly the best saloon, anyway. The chassis stayed calm and level with nary a bounce, soaking up any road imperfections without becoming unsettled in the slightest.
The Dynamic Drive has four settings - comfort, normal, sport and sport+. The normal setting felt so close to the comfort - both giving a good, cushy ride - that I felt the latter a bit superfluous. But the sport mode was a noticeable change; the steering and suspension both got tighter and the engine note and performance sprung to a higher notch. Taking on the tight, twisting mountain roads around Estoril was a thrill in this setting, especially using the paddle shifters with the gearbox in manual mode. As the sport+ mode keeps this performance but turns off the traction control, it's best left for the track.
Which is exactly where I tried the sport+ mode, at the famed Autodromo Fernanda Pires Da Silva in Estoril, which used to host Formula One grands prix. Unfortunately for me, the clouds that had been threatening all day finally opened up on my third lap and were releasing their wrath on the countryside, making the tarmac as slick as footballer Ronaldo's hair - not the best time to turn off the traction aids.
Yet, it was actually the best time, if you took things carefully, because I really got to see how communicative the suspension was. At the slower speeds necessitated by the wet track, the chassis showed extreme balance and poise, and the car gave plenty of notice when it was about to lose its composure - I could pinpoint exactly when the car was about to oversteer, and the chatter from the steering wheel expressed its intent to understeer. Again, the communication of the suspension to the driver was amazing.
There are five new engines available, including two diesels that we'll never see here and three petrol versions. The flagship 550i has a 4.4L, twin-turbo V8 with 407hp, while the 528i and 523i both get naturally aspirated 3.0L sixes under the bonnet, with 258hp and 204hp respectively. The 535i I was testing has a 3.0L, twin-turbo inline six cylinder sporting 306hp and 400Nm of torque, and it proved more than enough power to propel the big saloon. BMW says it gets to 100kph from a stop in six seconds, and the only scare I got in passing cars was from its acceleration, not from being caught out.
The engine is hooked up to an optional eight-speed manual automatic gearbox that the 5 shares with the 760i. This box has an amazing five clutches that help it shift quickly and smoothly, and it works flawlessly in operation. In automatic mode, you barely notice a shift, and it always seems to be in the right gear. With manual mode, paddle shifters behind the wheel give the driver control - and in a welcome change, the right paddle now only upshifts and the left paddle downshifts, instead of the confusing method of dual-purpose paddles the previous system used.
Aesthetically, the 5 Series is more aggressive looking than its predecessor, though I'm not sold completely on its looks. There are a few too many stray lines and bonnet bulges for my taste, and I yearn for a more cohesive look. But overall, there's no mistaking it's an elegant yet sporty car. I did like the rear, neon-look lights reminiscent of the 7 Series that add a splash of sophistication, and the lengthened wheelbase - at 2,968mm - makes it look smaller, even though it's larger than the last 5.
Inside, BMW designers have done an excellent job of revising the dashboard and console. The fit and finish of the buttons and controls rivals the best of the industry - Audi - while the layout is very clean, with a wide swathe of wood encircling the cabin and soft plastics throughout. There are very thoughtful touches, too - with a light finger on the radio buttons, their information comes up on the display before you select them. And, on the inside of the door-pulls, where you can't see it but you feel it, BMW uses a different grade of plastic that is soft and satiny to the touch. Very nice. Overall, the cabin is very well laid out and modern-looking - perhaps not as warm as, say, a Jaguar interior, but more inviting and stylish than other high-end saloons. The two-tone effect with the wood is certainly appealing.
Plenty of technology pioneered on the 7 Series has now trickled down to the smaller 5 (and by smaller, I mean not by much). You can have night vision, parking assist, collision warning and brake initiation with the Active Cruise Control, surround view cameras - you get the idea that tech geeks will be pleased by this model. And, as has been the focus of BMW in the past five years, Efficient- Dynamics plays a big part in the 5. That's where BMW engineers look at everything to eke out more efficiency from its systems to get better fuel economy. For example, electric steering only needs power when you turn the wheel at lower speeds; brake energy regeneration makes power when you let off the accelerator; active air flaps in the grille help the aerodynamics; and aluminium body panels save weight. According to BMW edict, all of this must work without hampering the dynamics of the car; job done there.
There are those who can lament the cold, Germanic efficiency of this car, and yearn for something with a bit more warmth and character - maybe, in a way, I'm one of them. But there's no denying that this is one of the best cars BMW has produced and a reward for anyone who drives it. I would prefer a cleaner design, perhaps, but maybe the look will grow on me. At least they dropped the big-boot look and "flame surfacing" of past generations.
BMW has sold more than 5.5 million of the mid-sized saloon since the car's inception in 1972, and this sixth generation will undoubtedly ensure the 5 Series' success well into the decade. The new 5 Series will be available in the UAE at the end of March. No prices have been announced. firstname.lastname@example.org