Stop typing in the comments section about how another BMW won another comparison. If the BMW came second fiddle to the Audi or the Jaguar, you would be typing that the BMW got second only because it got first so many times before, and we were wrong. So first, second or last, the BMW gets this ranking based on merit, as I see it. Drive the top three, decide on your own. However, if I were to spend my hard earned money, I would purchase the “Ultimate Driving, all weather Sedan”, the BMW 535xi.
This car may be magnificent to drive, but unfortunately, the 5-series was the BMW most mangled by Bangle, who festooned it with a boatload of ineffective and downright silly styling details, such as the “flame surfaced” headlight treatment, the slab sides, and the quizzically-upturned taillights. Still, the 535xi, in profile, it evokes the proper BMW proportioning, and as a bonus, the build quality rivals your average Rolex. One highlight: the $3,000 M Sport package, which includes M5-lookalike body panels and wheels, plus wonderful multi-contour sport seats.
Inside, the styling story isn’t much better. The 5-series’ interior was a strange, austere cave when it first came out in 2003, and while it was restyled and given richer materials over the years, it still looks awkward when compared to the beautiful cabins in the Mercedes, Jaguar, Audi…. ok, so BMW crafted the weirdest interior of the test, but that’s like saying “The Bachelor” has no pretty women to choose from. The first thing the driver sees when he climbs in is the unsightly hump on the top of the dashboard, which is there to accommodate the navigation, climate and radio displays. Newer designs, such as the Cadillac CTS, instruct on how to integrate this sort of thing without the hump. Instead of enveloping the driver, the 535xi’s dash seems to curve away at the corners. The effect is odd, to say the least.
Then there’s IDrive. No more to be said about IDrive.
But the news isn’t all bad inside – materials and assembly are impeccable, the instrumentation is brilliantly simple and stylish, the switchgear feels aviation-grade The sport seats (part of the M-Sport package) are dead solid perfect – comfortable, highly adjustable, and supportive in any driving situation without being too constrictive. The 535xi’s rear compartment constricts legrrom but the seats themselves are well-shaped and extremely comfortable.
With the styling demerits out of the way, the driver can focus on what really counts: the drive, and that starts with what may well be the best all-around powerplant in the world. The basic unit is BMW’s classic 3.0 liter straight six, featuring direct fuel injection and BMW’s Double Vanos variable valve timing; the star of the show, though, is the twin-turbo system. Unlike turbo engines of old (or the ones in 2009 Saabs), which were out to lunch until the boost kicked in at 3500 rpm or so, the 535xi’s system delegates power and torque responsibilities to individual turbos; the smaller one handles boosts torque at low speeds, and the larger one handles high-rpm power.
The results are amazing: instant, pin-you-back-in-your-seat power off the line, a remarkably broad power curve (peak torque is at a Peterbilt-like 1400 rpm), big-time thrust available at any speed, and absolutely no turbo lag. Add in the all-wheel-drive system, and the 535xi simply picks itself up from a standstill and leaves…quickly. Instrumented tests reveal a 0-60 time of 5.5 seconds, but the 535xi feels even quicker than that. As a bonus, the 3.0 has an exquisitely refined exhaust note, and it is respectably efficient (16/25 per the EPA).
Diesel, Schmiesel – here’s your engine of the future, ladies and gents.
The 535xi can be ordered with a six-speed manual transmission – unique to this class – but the test vehicle was equipped with a six-speed automatic with a an excellent sequential shift function. Purists may prefer the manual, but the 535xi’s six speed felt a lot like the four-speed on my dad’s old 733i: slightly rubbery, with a too-long throw and excessive clutch travel. Given that instrumented tests found a minimal difference in acceleration, I’ll offer myself up as a heretic and recommend the automatic, especially with the paddle shift option.
Toss a challenging road at the 535xi, and it responds like Emmitt Smith carving up a defense in his prime. The key is its’ gem of a steering rack: sharp, precise, and communicative. The chassis is set up almost flawlessly to balance ride and handling, and the brakes feel bionic. All this makes the 535xi the best in class by far on a challenging road. On the highway, the 535xi trails the Mercedes and Lexus for long-distance cruising serenity, but it’s still plenty quiet and stable, and it has the same engaging personality it does on back roads.
So why doesn’t this car dominate the sales charts in this class? The styling is one answer; IDrive is also a major turnoff for other buyers. But the biggest culprit is the window sticker. Driving nirvana has its price, and Lord knows BMW makes you pay – the base here is a stiff $53,000, and at that price, you’re still on the hook for other goodies like navigation, premium sound, satellite radio, and keyless entry.
But the flip side is that for that money, you get the aforementioned performance envelope, but you also get to set up your car almost completely to your liking. Unlike its Japanese competitors, who outfit their cars in a one-size-fits-all configuration, BMW offers a huge array of trim options on the 535xi: no less than 11 different exterior colors, four leather colors in two different “hands,” and four interior trim options (three wood, one aluminum). That’s something that speaks to buyers in this class, as does the maintenance program, which lets the owner pass the bill for all scheduled maintenance to BMW for four years. Hey, if they have the balls to charge $750 for satellite radio when Hyundai tosses it in for free on the $19,000 Sonata, they ought to pick up the tab for something.
Then again, what price do you put on what may well be the best all-around car in the world?
Possibly the best all-around powerplant on planet Earth – powerful, extremely responsive, wonderful to listen to, and remarkably efficient
Amazingly well controlled for a car with this kind of handling prowess, if not quite as supple as, say, the Jaguar
Flawless over the road at any speed
Classic BMW proportioning is attractive, but Bangle-era styling details ruin the design
Instrument panel is six kinds of ugly; IDrive is improved but still a pain to use
Fit and Finish: 5/5
Can the guys who built this car do my kitchen?
BMW nickel-and-dimes you for every single option, many of which are standard on competitors, and all the options are expensive
Paraphrasing Han Solo: she may not be the prettiest in the bunch, but she’s got it where it counts, kid.