By Kevin Miller
Earlier this year, BMW made a major change in their marketing – from the Ultimate Driving Machine to Joy. Though it wasn’t evident at the time, now that I’ve driven the new 535i it is clear why the change had to be made. It’s because the 5 Series simply is not an Ultimate Driving Machine.
The sixth-generation of BMW’s 5 series is all-new for 2011. Historically, the design hallmarks of the German manufacturer’s mid-range sedan have included featured a tall greenhouse and great visibility, both of which are downplayed in the sixth-generation car. The new car has been developed based on BMW’s large 7 Series sedan, which is one of the reasons the 5 series car is not the Ultimate Driving Machine. The car is simply too heavy. BMW did a similar downsizing when they created the 1 Series from their mainstream 3 series, with the resulting 1 Series weighing too much. Unfortunately, history has repeated itself with the new 5 Series.
My first impressions of the 535i were very favorable; outside, the 535i I tested looks great, with wide fenders containing nice-looking 19” wheels (which are a part of the $2200 Sport Package) complimenting the high-tech-looking headlamp assemblies with their enchanting LED corona rings and adaptive Xenon headlamps, plus LED light-pipe tail lamps.
Moving inside, the interior fit and finish was flawless, with precise alignment of every panel and button. The cabin featured 18-way adjustable seats with heating, ventilation, and massage. Every control seemed to be engineered to provide instantaneous response, with appropriate weighting and feedback and legible markings. I had no problems using the fourth-generation of the much-derided iDrive system. I did initially suffer from a case of button overload, feeling that an owner could own the 535i for years and never use all of the buttons and iDrive sub-menus. I was also surprised to find that the $66,000 car didn’t include standard satellite radio (it’s a $350 option that wasn’t included on my test car). The leather-wrapped steering wheel is perfection at hand, with the perfect texture and diameter. The iDrive/Navigation screen features a 10.2-in., 1280 x 480-pixel main display in the dash, with a very clear and seamlessly-integrated secondary display at the bottom of the instrument cluster. The interface and the HDD-based navigation system react and render very quickly, and songs played from either the hard disk or an iPod are virtually instantaneous. The only real flaw I found was that in the middle of the day, sunlight glints off of the shiny, beautiful wood trim directly below the iDrive screen, whether or not the sunroof shade is closed.
Front seats in the 535i are very firm. While they are infinitely adjustable and equipped with heating, ventilation, and massage, they are not all-day comfortable. My backside was asleep after less than 2 hours behind the wheel of the 535i. My wife found the thigh support extension of the front seat to have an uncomfortable gap where it meets the main seat-bottom cushion, but I appreciated the support that extendable cushion provides.
The interior of 5 Series cars equipped with a manual transmission offer two drink holders for front seat occupants, and both seem like afterthoughts. The first is a shallow indentation immediately behind the iDrive controller, with a flimsy pop-up support ring to help stabilize beverages placed there. A soda can which hasn’t been opened might stay in place there, anything taller or wider probably won’t, which means you’re just one panic-stop away from a costly beverage spill onto the iDrive controller. The second cupholder is on the under-side of the center console’s split-opening lid, on the passenger side of the lid. Because of the reach-over angle, it would be very difficult for a passenger to use this beverage holder. Additionally, the iPod interface cable is in that covered compartment, meaning that if the beverage does splash or leak, your iPod will get wet. Cars with automatic transmissions have more-robust looking cupholders in front of the gear selector, at the base of the dashboard’s center stack. In the manual car, I would recommend against driving with any beverages up front.
For a car with such a large exterior, the interior seems relatively short on room for occupants; the legroom in particular is tight. The glove-box is a shin-banger for any front seat passenger when it is opened, and when accommodating our 5-year old in a booster seat behind her, my wife was unable to cross her legs in the 535i’s front seat. That is surprising because the back doors of the car are extremely long, especially along the bottom of the greenhouse- children riding back there would regularly inflict major door dings to vehicles in any adjacent parking spots, including at home in the owner’s own garage.
Being based on the 7 Series, I would have expected the heavy 535i to excel in rear-seat room, but it really didn’t. Our decade-old Saab 9-5 sedan has a smaller overall footprint, but has more rear seat room than the 535i. Perhaps it’s because of the massive 18-way power adjustable thrones installed up front, but my 19-month-old daughter was constantly kicking my seatback as a way of protesting the lack of legroom in the BMW.
Out back, the trunk was very spacious (offering 18.2 cubic feet of space), and included a compartment under the main load floor that could support a couple of grocery bags, plus another on the side that could keep a couple of plastic gallon milk cartons upright while trying to enthusiastically hustle the two-ton Bavarian home from the grocery store.
During my week with the 535i, I was able to get out of Seattle’s suburban sprawl and head to Mt. Rainier National Park. An icon of Washington State tourism (and even featured on the state license plate), I unfortunately found the park to be nearly bumper-to-bumper on a weekend afternoon. Worse still, I found the big 535i didn’t really come alive on the few unencumbered twisty roads I managed to encounter. The bulky exterior (and interior) made the car feel bigger and more unwieldy than I had expected from a 5 Series.
Additionally, that day trip (which took place on a day with temperatures in the mid-90s) proved 535i to be a hot car – literally. While the standard automatic dual-zone climate control was always willing to provide cool air (at whatever volume and location each front seat passenger dictated- the optional rear-seat climate control was not fitted), the ventilated seats didn’t provide much breeze compared to our recently-tested Toyota Avalon and Cadillac CTS. Too, the trunk interior was so hot that our 12-volt cooler in the trunk (plugged in to a convenient power port located there) couldn’t keep cool- we had melted cheese by the time we arrived at our picnic. Also, the glass in the 5 Series didn’t seem to block any of the sun’s rays, instead seeming to intensify them for whichever person was sitting on the sunny side of the car.
The new 5 Series is available in the US with three different engines. The range-topping 550i has a V-8 engine featuring twin turbochargers and direct injection, with an output of 400 hp. The entry-level BMW 528i features a 240 hp inline-6 featuring lightweight magnesium-aluminum construction.
The BMW 535i I reviewed features a 3.0 liter inline-6 with a single twin-scroll turbocharger, direct injection, and VALVETRONIC throttle-less intake technology. It delivers a maximum output of 300 hp and 300 lb-ft. The 535i is available with a 6-speed manual transmission, or a choice of two different 8-speed automatic transmissions (either Steptronic automatic, or optionally a Sport Automatic with shift paddles.
In BMW’s smaller 3 Series 335i, the 300 HP turbocharged inline six is the sweet engine to order. I had expected similar sweetness with the same engine in the 5 Series, especially as my tester was equipped with the 6-speed manual transmission and the $2700 Dynamic Handling Package (which includes adaptive dampers and altered throttle response).
In the 535i, the six-speed manual offers a precise feel it is easy to determine which gear is selected, and I never missed a shift. The clutch pedal wasn’t so stiff as to be tiresome to use (even in stop-and-go traffic), but the feedback through the clutch translated the fact that the 5 Series is a heavy car- there was a lot of inertia to overcome through the clutch plate when setting off from a start. Too, being in the wrong gear meant being subject to intense turbo lag- literally stepping on the accelerator and feeling as though the car is totally out of breath. Despite this, the inline six has an incredibly smooth idle, with a great sound, especially when operating at higher RPM.
The 535i is equipped with a much-appreciated hill-holder system to prevent the car from rolling back when setting off on a hill- it also works in reverse when backing up a hill, though I still managed to stall the car several times reversing up my driveway, as well as few times when setting off and not paying close enough attention to the clutch.
While the clutch actuation and gearchange had nice feel and feedback, the manual transmission didn’t seem to suit the 535i. The car weighs about 4300 lbs with a full tank of fuel and 175 lb driver, which is fat enough to keep the car from feeling lithe or athletic, despite the active chassis and 300 HP. The inertia I described above when setting off from a stop sapped a lot of the enjoyment that I had expected from the 535i.
Maybe it’s because my daily driver is also a 300 HP turbocharged car (a 3700 lb Volvo wagon until recently I considered quite heavy), but to me the two-ton 535i just doesn’t feel that fast, especially from a standstill. While driving the 535i, a 4.6 liter Mustang GT was challenging me at a two-lane freeway onramp. I was just able to keep up with the obnoxious Mustang, but I wasn’t able to gain on him, let alone overtake. Because the car is so heavy, the otherwise-brilliant 300 HP motor seems only “adequate” rather than anything more. Luxo-car trappings like the 18-way power seats and the automatic doors and trunklid are nice to have, but all of that hardware packs on the pounds to the already-stocky 7 Series based car.
While the 535i does not feel fast setting off from a stop and it won’t set any records on a 0-60 MPH run, it is a deceptively quick car once underway. Without trying, I constantly found myself driving 80 MPH on the freeway, alerted to the velocity only by the Speed Alarm I’d turned on.
The 535i I tested was equipped with over $15,000 worth of optional equipment. Among those was BMW’s Active Blind Spot Detection system, which is designed to indicate whether any vehicle is in the driver’s blind spot on either side of the car. A yellow triangle on the side mirror housing illuminates dimly when the system detects a vehicle in the blind spot, and flashes the triangle more brightly while vibrating the steering wheel if you signal for a lane change when a vehicle is detected. Unfortunately, on two occasions during my week with the car, using the system in heavy traffic on multi-lane interstate freeways, the system shut down, sounding the car’s malfunction chime and indicating that the system was inactive. Looking in the owner’s manual, I learned that the system can shut down due to overheating because of heavy use. One of my shutdowns occurred after just 40 minutes of use, the other occurred after just 25 minutes on the road. If the system is going to overheat after such a short time of driving in heavy traffic, I’d consider it worthless, and unworthy of paying the fee to have it installed in my own car.
Another option included on the 535i I tested was the $2700 Dynamic Handling Package, which includes active suspension dampers and adjustable throttle input as well as variable power steering assistance levels. The system has four modes (Comfort, Normal, Sport, and Sport+). I would venture to say that the standard suspension is probably just fine; the Comfort mode occasionally induced an artificial rebound response that is very familiar from the similar response that I encounter regularly in my Volvo with an early version of that company’s 4C semi-active suspension. BMW’s Normal mode does seem well balanced, as does the suspension in Sport mode. Unfortunately, the throttle response in Sport mode is poorly calibrated for anything other than ultra-aggressive driving, with a surging turbo spool occurring with even mild throttle application, such that it is very difficult (bordering on impossible) to drive the 535i smoothly in Sport mode. Sport+ mode additionally engages a reduced stability program; I didn’t have the opportunity to explore the 535i’s performance in this mode during my week with the car. While the extra-wide tires of the Sport Package have an unnerving tendency to wander on grooved pavement, they otherwise stick like glue on dry pavement.
The 535i also included the $1750 Driver Assistance Package, which provides BMW’s Parking Assistant. This features both front and rear ultrasonic parking sensors (with a proximity display on the iDrive screen) and a Parallel Parking Assistant. The parking assistant worked remarkably well, steering the big sedan into hopelessly-small-looking street parking spots while I used the clutch, accelerator, and brake to modulate motion in reverse. I probably used the system ten times during my week with the car; it “curbed” the tire on one of those parking episodes, but otherwise piloted the big sedan into the spot totally unscathed. As visibility out of the car is not great for parking maneuvers (and because no rear view camera was fitted to my car), the parking assistant was very appreciated.
BMW has a tagline of “Efficient Dynamics” which it proudly proclaims in a stylized ED logo on a rear-quarter window. References to Erectile Dysfunction (also called ED) and BMW buyers’ psyche aside, I managed to achieve 22.9 MPG out of the 300 HP sedan over 500 miles, compared to the 19/28 (22 combined) MPG EPA estimate on Premium Unleaded fuel. BMW’s press kit for the 5 Series states that ED includes features such as Brake Energy Regeneration (a system which uses an electronically-controlled clutch to engage the alternator only when the vehicle is decelerating or braking; otherwise, it freewheels and draws virtually no power from the engine) Electric Power Steering, a gearshift point indicator, active cooling air flaps, and on-demand operation of engine accessory drives. Of course, the Efficiency and the Dynamics of the car could have been vastly improved if it just weighed less.
The 2011 BMW 535i has an MSRP of $49,600. My test car was equipped with $550 metallic paint (Mojave Metallic or Havanna Metallic, depending on who you ask), $1950 Active Ventilated Front Seats Package (18-way front seats with heating, ventilation, massage, and two-position memory function), $1700 Convenience Package (Power open/closing Trunk Lid, Soft-Close Doors, and ComfortAccess Keyless Entry), $1750 Driver Assistance Package (Lane Departure Assistant, Automatic High Beams, Parking Assistant, Active Blind Spot Detection), $2700 Dynamic Handling Package (Electronic Damping Control, Active Roll Stabilization, Adaptive Drive), $1800 Premium Package (Auto-dimming Interior and Exterior Mirrors, Ambience Lighting, Universal Garage Door Opener, Venetian Beige Dakota Leather), $2200 Sport Package (19” alloy V-Spoke Wheels style 331 with Performance Run-Flat Tires, Sport Leather Steering Wheel, Multi Contour Seats, Increased Top Speed Limiter, Shadowline Exterior Trim), $750 Park Distance Control, $400 iPod and USB Adapter, $1900 Navigation System (2D/3D perspectives, iDrive with Real-time Traffic, and HDD-based map for quick response), and $850 Destination Charge, for a total of $66,175.
The 535i is not the canyon-carving, technical-track-loving “ultimate driving machine” I had expected. It is more of a Q-ship, personal luxury express that brings an amount of satisfaction or “joy” to the drive. The car is thoughtfully designed and beautifully assembled, and features an amazing number of innovative features. I spent a week with a 2010 Jaguar XF several months ago – also a rear-wheel drive sport sedan, but with 385 HP and an as-tested sticker price $3300 less expensive than the 535i. While the Jaguar’s in-car technology might be a half-step behind the seamless systems in the BMW, I described the XF as “phenomenal fun to drive”; I didn’t feel the same way about driving the more-expensive 535i.