Thursday November 23, 2017
By Richard Bosselman
ONCE upon a time, there were station wagons and there were sports utilities – clearly separate species that co-existed happily.
All different now, of course. SUVs – well, most of them - have morphed from being big, ponderous mobile road blocks and are instead elevated cars, with all the same comforts and safety considerations.
That transformation is a positive. The negative is that stations wagons, in the meantime, have basically … well, disappeared.
Victims of the changing trend, the car-based load-alls have by and large been bumped into touch. Not quite fully extinct, but certainly on the endangered list.
That’s why BMW New Zealand’s introduction of a Touring – that’s Munich-speak for station wagon – edition of its recently released 5-Series is of interest. Will it buck sales trends and break the fixation the market has for higher-riding, all-terrain fare?
Actually, there’s some chance it might. BMW’s enduring biggest seller for some years now has been the X5, primarily in its 3.0-litre turbodiesel format.
But the current one is getting a bit long in the tooth and it’s probable that clientele thinking about freshening their ride will know that a whole new one will be out by this time next year – internationally, if not in NZ.
So they might well be thinking it is either better to keep the money in the bank or, alternately, trade in now and buy into something that will prove almost as useful, even if it isn’t quite the same.
Surely that’s the car here? As the designation signals, this $139,900 530d xDrive also has that turbodiesel so well-received by the X5 fanbase and it also has four-wheel-drive – admittedly, it’s the system tailored for on, rather than off, seal use, but even so.
Regardless, it has even more cargo space as the X5 and will likely be as decent for towing and is also stacked with a whole host of driver assists that will never be available in the current gen of the biggest SUV but will certainly go into the new one, which shares the latest Five car’s electronic substructure and, indeed, will also be on a common platform.
Really, then, the Touring provides an early heads up to what’s coming in a bulkier-bodied, higher-riding format. And, apart from that, it’s really decent to drive and quite a nice thing rock up in.
The Five sedan is already a handsome car, but the more practical version is arguably even more of a looker: A longer roofline that reaches back to a nicely detailed D-pillar enhances impression of this being a sharp, lean and hungry car.
Perhaps the raked rear robs it of a few litres’ load capacity, but you’ll surely fine about it because the silhouette is so swish and, anyway, the boot capacity – 570 litres’ with the rear seats up, expanding to 1700 litres with them all folded – is not to be sniffed at.
It'll carry 120kg more weight than before, to a maximum of 730kg. Standard fitment of self-levelling rear suspension helps.
This edition also maintains a Touring trademark of providing access by opening the tailgate conventionally, or via the glass section alone. If that tailgate feels light, there’s good reason – it’s largely wrought out of aluminium. Not that you have to heft it: Power opening and closing is part of the deal.
Disregard the bit behind the back seats and you’re looking at a cabin that is pretty much the same as that delivered to the sedan, including in dimension. I make mention of the latter because it feels far more spacious.
The 40/20/40 split back seat might be a touch tight for three adults, but will certainly accommodate three children alongside each other; perhaps three child seats, too, though there's no Isofix point for the one in the middle.
This seventh-generation 5 Series has been chosen by BMW to introduce the full gambit of technology that will spread throughout the rest of the model line (indeed, the latest X3 has already picked up on it). It’s all been covered in our test of the 540i sedan (http://www.motoringnetwork.com/road-tests/bmw/540i-great-but-wait-until-x-hits-the-spot/) so look there for a refresh of all the capabilities. Basically, it’s the second large German luxury car (after the Mercedes E-Class) to deliver a degree of semi-autonomous driving function and also offers an incredible array of driver and accident-avoidance assists.
What goes for the 540i – which also avails in wagon format to answer any petrol preference - mainly goes for the 530d, too.
The view looking forward for the driver is absolutely no different to the sedan’s and quite a lot more modern than the X5’s. Those conventional looking instruments are actually digitally represented and can be altered to suit the mood; angry red for faster drivers, more tranquil colours and representations for laidback running.
The centre console operates via the trad and now well-sorted iDrive controller, voice operation and even gesture control (which I'd forget - it’s just a gimmick).
The 540i offers a more comprehensive luxury suite – it gets Comfort seats and a higher quality leather, plus M Sport trimmings – but the 530d is hardly a pauper pack car, offering a sport line pack, head up display, Dakota leather, and matching the flagship with an eight-speed transmission, brake energy regeneration, that auto tailgate, ambient lighting, high beam assist, auto lights and wipers, active cruise with lane keep assist, parking sensors and rear view camera, run-flat tyres, stability control, ABS, brake assist, cornering brake control, dynamic traction control, front, side and head airbags plus driver’s knee airbag, Harman Kardon surround sound system, BMW Gesture Control, Telephony with wireless charging, a 10.25 inch screen with satnav, keyless entry and start plus concierge services, ConnectedDrive, Intelligent Emergency Call.
The test car had three options: the $5900 M Sport Package, adding M Aerodynamics package, M Sport suspension lowered 10mm, M Sport brakes, Dynamic Damper Control, sun protection glazing, gloss trims, LED fog lights, sport front seats, M leather steering wheel, M door sill finishers and it swapped off the standard 19 inch rims for 20 inchers (which the 540i already has). It also had the $1450 Technology Package, delivering the Display Key with a Remote Control Parking feature and Apple CarPlay. The final ingredient was the $3500 panoramic glass roof.
All this and yet … you could buy more. The highest priced additional option is a Bowers and Wilkins Diamond surround sound system with fully active 10-channel 1400W amplifier and 16 speakers. That alone will set you back $10,000.
It’s sobering to think that it’s possible to spend what’s basically Seven Series money – and well above the X5 limit – on this wagon, but I can’t imagine why anyone would go any further than the distributor did with its own car.
In fact, if it were me, I’d probably not bother with the sunroof and prevaricate over the technology pack; it seems mean to pack CarPlay – which is useful – with the system that allows you to park the car into tight spots by remote control. The latter is a neat party stunt, but truly useful?
Ask yourself how often will you really find yourself in the position where you want to park a car in a place so confined you couldn’t get out of it by orthodox means. The key fob also allows you to remote start not just the engine but also the air con, to pre-heat or cool down the cabin, depending on the season and has lots of other Brainiac functions. What goes against it is that it’s about three times the size of a regular remote access key and – gulp – probably costs 10 times as much to replace if it were to be damaged or lost.
So you could buy into that … or you could focus on elements that enhance the driving pedigree.
Diesel road cars are doing it tough these days: VW-gate, the awkwardness around Road User Charges, the fact that it’s an ikky fuel and also, that petrol has, for the past year, been relatively inexpensive … all this is taking a toll.
Even so, of all the upper-end diesels around at the moment, this is one that I’d be particularly loath to abdicate allegiance to. In packing 195kW, this twin-scroll six has good power for its capacity, but as always the punchline is provided by the torque; an awesome 620Nm is going to make you laugh with delight.
What's most immediately impressive is its refinement. Sure, you can hear the engine if you push on, but it's usually a quiet rumble in the distance. Even when wrung out to maximum revs it's only a muted sound. It's not just noise that has been so wonderfully isolated but vibration, too. There's just no tell-tale quivering through the controls.
Throttle response is immediate and it launches hard: 0-100kmh in under six seconds is impressive. If you believe diesels cannot rev, then it’s also time to meet this one. The maximum power generates at just 4000rpm, but it still pulled well and without any drop-off in oomph right to the 5500rpm redline. At the same token, it’s just as desirable to keep within the zone for peak torque, which means running in the 2000-2500rpm zone and idling through the gear cogs. Assuredly, there’s still ample energy to get it moving briskly, without strain or fuss.
Sport drive mode heightens the mood, adds some chubby growl, enhances the steering and shift patterns – in particular it holds gears for longer on acceleration and changes down a gear when you need it – and you can configure the instrument panel to show gauges giving power and torque percentages. Yet even this mode doesn’t spoil powertrain refinement; it does, however, hurt the economy. BMW’s claimed 5.5 litres per 100km was never threatened.
Even though the extensive kilo-kerbing effort has taken 100kg from this generation of Five, it is still a substantial car, but more in dimension than anything else. While it does tend to fill its side of a country road, it drives with great dexterity and no small amount of nimbleness.
Back on the Five’s launch, we got to drive the car with and without M-Sport addenda, so I can attest the chassis gives good account of itself without those influences, but is also sharper when upgraded.
The test car’s suspension was quite rigid in Sport; dialling back to the standard setting was the way over very poor road surfaces – it does a better job of of isolating all those bumps and ripples from the cabin. On the other hand, it’s all about feel and little else. Whatever ride control placement you choose, there's very little in the way of road or wind noise. Or, even when you smack a bump or hole, much noise from the suspension.
The car in its most aggressive modes was very adept at cutting through challenging corners with ice-cold determination, exhibiting a very neutral and controllable stance. If you’re on your own, you’re going to love driving it in the all-out settings. It feels balanced, keen, agile and not at all like a big executive station wagon. The other side of the coin is that it is also set up to be a great long distance runner; you’d just eat up the kays with minimal effort. Because of the huge range, the first stops would be for human comfort, not the car’s.
But having fun is surprising fun. The xDrive four-wheel drive system works well, allowing it to retain those vaunted rear-drive characteristics until the rear tyres begin to lose grip. The usefulness shows in extreme conditions – wet roads, of course, but also gravel – when you can get on the power when exiting a tight corner much earlier than you can in a rear-drive car.
As I say, you’d want to take some care venturing off the seal: The drivetrain might cope, but the low ride height is going to be an enemy. And none of the bits most likely to scrape are going to be cheap to replace.
But is that even likely to happen? Check out the owner histories of any NZ-new X5 and I’d wager that many of those would never have strayed off a marked road, either. Some might not have ever seen gravel.
In that light, and also taking into account the breathtakingly large step the new Five has taken over not just its predecessor but also the X5 in terms of technology, comfort and refinement, you’d have to think the Touring makes a great X-marked lifestyle choice … at least until the new X5 comes. Then it will have to abdicate the limelight. Until then, however, it’s a star.