BMW 5-Series: Smart enough to return to style?

It’s a high-status symbol that, as a victim of the SUV swing, has become a sales slowpoke … so can a tonne of leading edge technology help lift the Five Series’ local market presence?
Tuesday February 28, 2017

 

By Richard Bosselman

WITH crossovers now utterly established as BMW’s strongest sellers, has the time come when it could quietly retire orthodox passenger fare, with no impact on the bottom line or customer expectation?

Theoretically, in some places where the road-pure cars increasingly play second fiddle, our own market included, it might be possible. In reality .. no way.

Even though BMW’s sale push is increasingly led for now by X fare, in particular, the X5 - a local market hero – and regardless that electric fare could well spark up future trends, the old-school cars and designations that did so much, for so many years, to build this brand will continue.

This isn’t about not wanting to move on. More about not needing to. Even though the core sedans have lost the lead role in some places, globally they are still big hitters.

Throughout Asia, and in China in particular, Munich’s elevated X-Drives have lower social standing than its traditional saloons. And in Europe, too, particularly on home ground, the Five – in dating back to 1972, the oldest number - achieves as BMW’s most profitable model.

Driving the latest and seventh-generation of the medium sedan in South Australia yesterday and today also provides another reminder why this particular ‘oldie’ is still a goodie. It’s all to do with technology.

BMW policy is canny. Bascially, the cars are the first go-to choices for the latest, best and most brilliant safety and comfort assists. That’s especially true of the G30 Five Series line, out to outshine the Mercedes E-Class that wowed so impressively on arrival last year.

Tried on roads inland on Adelaide were the three variants that represent the first wave coming now into the showroom.

These span from a 520d 140kW/400Nm four-cylinder diesel that stickers for $99,990 but effectively becomes the first (once on-roads are included) base model Five to carry a six-figure pricetag, a bigger diesel, the $133,900 530d (3.0-litre six, 195kW/620Nm), and the petrol 540i, the most expensive offer at $142,900 but also the gruntiest, its 3.0-litre six-cylinder making 250kW and 450Nm, and best-provisioned.

They will be joined in time by a plug-in hybrid version as well as the iconic M5 and, from mid-year, station wagon models with the four-wheel-drive option being considered, with no decision made yet, for the sedan.

As a new generation, the saloon is very much a fresh start. It has engines that, while not new to BMW-dom, are mainly Five fresh. It adds new inflection to a design language drawn from last year’s Seven and is based on the so-called Cluster Architecture (CLAR) body structure, also to be adopted by the next Three and debuted by the Seven.

The Seven’s carbon core structure was deemed too rich for the medium model, yet everything else transfers, so there’s plenty of high-tensile steel, aluminium and magnesium, enough to make it lighter (by 80-100kg), stronger, safer, tauter, quieter.

Along with CLAR, a new wiring loom, not only lighter than the old but able to conduct a much higher data flow, requisite because this car has a lot more electronic smarts. And that’s a key element.

The cheapest version of the new car is basically smarter than the cleverest of the old and spanning all variants are functions yet to come to any other BMW, not even the exotic and truly whizzbang i8.

We’re fully into an age of on-the-go Wifi, so a broad gambit of BMW ConnectedDrive services and applications available through the 10.3-inch Touch Control screen, along with Professional navigation, are a natural fit.

It’s the first car in which Apple CarPlay functionality doesn’t require your device to be hard-tethered. Unfortunately, this facility is a cost-extra, tethered into a technology pack but you’ll want it, plus the Qi device that allows your iPhone to recharge wirelessly off the centre console pad.

That every version achieves a head-up display – much larger than previously and featuring more information – speed sign recognition, a speed limiter, active cruise control that operates down to stop-start traffic, front and rear cross-traffic warning, 360-degree camera, lane keeping assistant, parking assistant with radar and full-length curtain airbags enforces contention that the basic specification comes with more equipment than any rival’s entry-point.

Flashy extras include the Display Key with built-in screen, Bowers and Wilkins hifi (with jazzily illuminated speakers included) and ability to electronically communicate with other Fives, swapping handy info (like, if it becomes necessary to turn the foglights on, the car might alert others in the area that there is bad weather in its vicinity).

It is another car that, like the E-Class, is on the verge of achieving fully autonomous driving, if it were allowed to. The smarts for this arrive with a Driving Assistant Plus package, which utilises a suite of radar and camera sensor systems, standard to NZ models.

With its assists all operating, it can self-follow the car in front in traffic, stay within its lane on the motorway and even change lanes to overtake a slower-moving vehicle if prompted to do so by the driver (having tapped the indicator).

Just like than last year’s New Zealand Car of the Year? Exactly, and also with the same strengths and weaknesses. Basically, its feats are best-suited to well-marked multi-lane routes. It will still operate on country byways, but as soon as you lose a roadside painted line, its mind begins to wander. Don’t fear, the car sounds an alarm as soon as it loses control. BMW is more generous for how much time it allows for a driver to keep his/her mitts and feet off the controls. You get a full 30 seconds, which mightn’t seem like much but, assuredly, when you heading through curves at open road pace, it’s more than enough time to question your hands’ off bravery.

It’s a lot to pack into any car. Yet, despite knowing that this sedan still has a life in some key markets, you might wonder how long before this stuff transfers into the Five that does sell: The bigger, taller one with the X prefix? That thought has particular relevance in NZ, where – ahem – with more than 300 registrations, the X5 outsold the regular Five sedan by more than 10 to one last year (slightly less if the 17 M5s are brought into count).

Well, the X5 will be upgraded. But to become as smart as a Five sedan, it must undergo transfer, if not exactly to the G30 platform, then at least the same electronic architecture. That's the next generation, then.

So, if you want the really clever stuff, then the road car is the only show in town. And, agreed, it’s a very nice place to be, everything you’d expect of a modern premium executive car, though obviously the more you spend, the better that ‘Wolf of Wall St’ feel.

Four-wheel-drive will be interesting to experience – those xDrive Threes definitely feel good, but driving the Five as it traditionally comes, as a rear-driven sports sedan, is no disappointment.

The 520d is pretty acceptable; still a smart looker and, though it goes a little lighter in respect to the dynamic assists, there’s no sense of it having lost any shine in respect to achieving a cost saving.

Though up to two seconds slower off the mark than the sixes, it still knocks out a reasonable 0-100kmh time of 7.5 seconds and fuel consumption rated at 4.3 litres per 100km on the combined cycle is quite friendly for a car of this size.

Having the lightest engine of the lot enlivens the balance and steering feel. The base seats are also extremely good. There’s obviously a sense, from time to time, that this engine has to work harder than the others, though the mechanical noise is well-suppressed. There does seem to be more road noise out of this car than the more expensive choices.

Those chasing stonk will nonetheless find it easier to gravitate to the 530d, which clocks 0-100kmh in 5.7s while returning an optimum 4.7L/100km, or the 540i, which is king of the kick-off, with 5.1s measured by BMW’s clock. It is, of course, less parsimonious with fuel burn. The 6.7L/100km cited by BMW’s test lab seemed a very distant target on our, admittedly enthusiastic, drive.

Even so, for maximum impact, as a driver’s car as well as for enhancing social status, then it’s hard to beat the 540i.

It has access to the fullest gambit of Adaptive Drive, including bodyroll-cancelling active anti-roll bars and four-wheel-steering, sets the standard for largest rim size (20-inches) and lowest-profile tyres (245/35 front and 275/30 rear with the M-Sport package).

Naturally, the flagship also has the swankiest interior, with Nappa leather and Comfort seats that have ventilation in the front row. A sunroof, rear window blinds and Ambient Air – a choice of fragrances for the air-conditioning – are all included as standard.

Two general aspects struck on the drive. The first leg of our trip was a charge up a challenging gorge road. In hindsight, not the best introduction. On this route the car seemed so much like a Seven, not so much in substance but certainly in lane-filling size.

That section, and more open roads heading through toward the vineyard-rich territory around Tanunda, in the Barossa’s heart, also left impression that it is lighter on its feet and more communicative than the big brother. That extensive use of aluminum—including in the boot, doors, and suspension parts—combined with other mass-reduction efforts, really pays off.

There are Luxury and M-Sport packages and it’s easy to understand why most Kiwis tick off on the latter. The Luxury set-up is certainly plush – and, it has to be said, quite akin to how Mercedes prefers its own E-Class - but the performance enhancements certainly sharpen things up.

Not only does it steer more precisely, but you also gain access to a better set of dynamic dampers and brakes whose strength and pedal feel are excellent. It feels a whole lot more organic and driver-involved. Which, of course, is what this car is all about.

It’s also a good-looking car; one that doesn’t feel need to shout ‘corporate success’ but leaving obvious impression of this nonetheless. History flavours with the black ‘ribbon’ across the front said to remind of the full-width grilles of the earliest models and the Hofmeister kink; the modern influences are in the complex and quite beguiling surfacing and the low roofline.

Yeah, about that. Does it feel too enclosed? Actually, not too bad, because you sit low, too, and so it feels spacious front and rear, not just in terms of head room but also foot space, due to an increased wheelbase. As the person who drew the short straw and had the centre rear seat for short ride to our dinner location, I can assure that while a five-seater in theory, it is far more comfortable as a four-seater.

The interior benefits from higher levels of luxury than before; the cars we drove were trimmed with exquisite applications of wood, but the metal highlights traditionally favoured by Kiwis are still there. The leathers are artfully stitched and the quality and detailing are outstanding. Parts of the trim are laser-scanned so that abutting areas can be specifically cut to match their exact profile.

Above all else, it has a lot of tech to thrill your inner geek. Chief among the latter is iDrive 6.0, which gives touchscreen functionality to the 10.3-inch centre display.

Combined with the existing rotary controller—with its touchpad surface—steering-wheel controls, voice recognition, and centre-stack buttons and knobs, there are more ways than ever for drivers to adjust the car and its infotainment systems.

Gesture Control, which allows commanding infotainment and telephone functions by pointing with one or two fingers or by swiping with an appropriate hand motion, is more reactive than the Seven’s version, but seems an unnecessary extravagance, all the same.

So, anyway, it’s a car that has a lot to give, one that takes a bit of getting used to – even on day two, I was still discovering some functions yet one that, unlike earlier iDrive BMWs, does not seem to demand a science degree to operate.

So, on first taste, a quality, refined, tech-packed medium executive car from a high-status brand: Considered on those grounds alone, it’s hard to see how it doesn’t shape up for a return to style.