SINGAPORE, March 6 — The mid-sized executive car game has only two major players, and the BMW 5 Series is one of them. Its rival, the one car it would love to see step on a banana peel, is the Mercedes-Benz E-Class.
Traditionally, the choice between them was simple: The Mercedes for comfort and the BMW for athleticism.
However, things are a bit complicated now because the latest E-Class is no dud around bends, so BMW buyers should at least give it a look. And the latest 5 Series is rather plush too.
New, yet familiar
The new 5 Series is the seventh generation of a line that dates back to 1972. It somehow looks exactly as you would expect it to. Its proportions are just right when you see it in the flesh, and the design mixes the grand visage of BMW’s flagship 7 Series with the lithe, pert silhouette of the 3 Series. That strange sense of familiarity follows you inside, even though the cabin is completely new.
It has a large, freestanding touchscreen now, and the dashboard slopes low towards the front passengers, giving the interior a sense of space and airiness, but the controls and instruments should present no problems to anyone remotely familiar with BMW’s dashboards.
The new 5 Series dashboard mimics the latest 7 Series, with a similar layout, and a sense of engineering overkill.
For instance, there are four ways to enter an address into the navigation system, when no one really needs more than one.
Similarly, the optional gesture control system lets you mute the sound system by jabbing your fingers in the air. You could also do it in several other ways, two of which do not require you to remove your hand from the steering wheel.
Still, I found myself using it just for the heck of it. It made me feel like I was jabbing a tiny ghost in the eyes, and it was amusing to demonstrate to passengers. Perhaps luxury really is about giving you features you never even knew you wanted.
From subtle to smoking
Speaking of ghosts, the new 5 Series is pretty much as silent as one. BMW gave us the range-topping 540i version to drive, with a 3.0-litre six-cylinder turbocharged engine. In traffic, it is as well-mannered and obliging as a butler, doing your bidding with murmured acquiescence.But stretch that right foot and the BMW takes on a different character, the engine proving well capable of smoking the rear tyres.
In fact, the 540i is a car with multiple personalities. The optional Adaptive drive mode (another feature from the 7 Series) figures out your mood based on factors like your steering and pedal inputs, and adjusts the car’s settings accordingly.
It can even use the data in its GPS system to prime the car for sharp corners, by stiffening the suspension in advance and shifting to a lower gear to give the driver better acceleration out of a corner. Together with fearsomely grippy tyres, the 540i blasts through corners in a way that makes it seem like it can bend space and time.
It would benefit from more steering feel for a more engaging driving experience, but as a way to cover distance rapidly, it takes some beating.
Soft on the inside
This could be partly down to how comfortable it is inside. Even with 20-inch wheels and our test car’s optional, stiffer M Sport suspension, the 540i is hardly bothered by bumpy roads.
The seats are plush and infinitely adjustable, while an ioniser and fragrance delivery system (both from the 7 Series) keep the cabin so fresh that just sitting in the car helps you feel invigorated.
The BMW is even masterful at guiding itself, in a semi-autonomous manner. It has active cruise control that locks onto the car ahead, while a camera system looks for lane markings and feeds the data to the steering system. The result is a car that practically operates on autopilot during a traffic jam, and far more smoothly than other cars with similar systems.
The 540i, at an estimated S$356,000 (RM1.12 million) with COE, is the most pricey 5 Series money can buy. BMW is launching other versions, with a less powerful 530i that will cost about S$75,000 less. The base model will be the 520d, which has a diesel engine and a likely price tag of just over S$250,000. If you want a basic petrol model, the 520i should be in by the end of the year, although a plug-in electric 530e version is also on the way.
But the point is, without active suspension and other fancy features that come in the 540i, would the new 5 Series be as formidable a car?
It does have a built-in plushness and solidity that should be common to all versions, and if anything, the cheaper models should mambo through corners even more deftly, thanks to their smaller, lighter engines.
The new 5 Series seems to be an example of how BMW is aware of what a car needs to do well to succeed in this segment today: Everything.
BMW 540i M Sport
Engine: 2,998cc, in-line six, turbocharged, 340hp, 450Nm
Performance: 250kmh (limited), 0-100kmh: 5.1s, 7.2L/100km, 164g/km CO2
Price: S$356,000 with COE (estimated)
On sale: now
Pros: Supremely comfortable, ultra-refined and packed with impressive tech
Cons: Steering lacks feel, some features are overkill — TODAY