BMW 535i Review

Jay Shoemaker
by Jay Shoemaker

Back in the day, BMW didn’t exactly pander to its customers. We build, you buy. Life is life. As BMW’s fortunes and model lines expanded, options appeared. But the German carmaker never quite outgrew its arrogance stubborn streak. You want a 7-Series without iDrive? Not possible. Don’t like run-flats on your 3-Series? Go and buy what tires you like. Thankfully, you can circumvent the iDrive in the new 535i and run flats are now optional. Is this the harbinger of a kindler, gentler 5-Series?

Nein! Visually, the Bavarians continue to cling to Chris Bangle’s flame surfaced sacrilege. That’s an “Inside Baseball” way of saying the 535i is still pug-ugly both coming and going. Although BMW’s metal meisters have toned down the model’s Dame Edna headlights, the 535i’s riotous (not righteous) amalgamation of curves, creases, bulges and bustles is about as coherent as a teenager debating U.S. foreign policy– after his seventh alcopop.

Step inside Bimmer’s blingmobile and sitz down on a driver’s seat that’s harder than aggregated diamond nanorods; a perch that makes your old school desk chair seem like Roche Bobois low-level seating. What’s more, BMW’s swathed their ultimate thrones in a material they call leather that feels like charred and blistered road kill. Just in case you’re not aesthetically appalled, the new bamboo anthracite wood trim looks like tar on concrete and the headliner could have been X-Acto-ed from a Trabant.

What’s this? Martians have stolen the 535i’s transmission lever and left behind a replica of their sex organs. Too bad the tactile sensations produced by this flimsy plastic lever lack any hint of sensuality (extra-terrestrial or otherwise). Our non-sport pack equipped tester’s steering wheel was skinny and slippery. Overall, the 535i’s cabin ambience is more German taxi than $60k luxury car.

On the positive side, BMW has finally put me out of my iDrive misery. While Bimmer’s boffins haven’t actually fixed their multi-media controller’s inherent user-antagonism, the 535i now offers a six-button work around. You can program these buttons to do astonishing things, like change the radio station without having to bump and needle the still-ugly wart between the seats. This is a pretty amazing– and entirely welcome– concession from BMW’s automotive dictators.

I think I’ve finally figured out why so many people find BMW drivers offensive: there’s no way to enjoy the marque’s cars while driving responsibly. As long as I helmed the 535i emphatically, darting about, passing everyone, flaunting both decency and legality, the experience was exhilarating. At 9/10, the 535i is a weapon: cool, charismatic and kick-ass. It’s safe, predictable and plenty damn fast. The rest of the time…

It’s jittery. Yes, as soon as I rejoined the real world commute, I was miserable. I repeat: driving the 535i with even a modicum of civility at low speeds and/or stop-and-go traffic is torture. The 535i’s set-up conspires against it. The brakes are grabby at low speeds. The transmission is eternally restless; whenever I tried to bring the car to a stop, the autobox engaged in a herky jerky search for a lower gear. It wasn’t pretty, or fun, or pretty fun.

In the 3-Series coupe, BMW’s new twin turbo powerplant is awesome– in the traditional, standing mute in front of a Ferrari sense of the word. In the 335i convertible, the 300hp engine is… a bit muted. In the 535i, the mighty mill’s been completely hamstrung by electronics.

Flogged without mercy, the 535i’s in-line six is a gas; sixty arrives from zero in less than six seconds. Around town, it’s like having gas. On tip-in, throttle response is insufficient. Then, it’s WAY too much. As in the SMG-equipped M5, there’s just no way to parcel-out acceleration that’s fast, smooth AND consistent.

Speaking of which, BMW has quietly de-listed the SMG gearbox from the option sheet. This loathsome mechanical monstrosity was the reason I shunned the M5, one of the world’s finest sports sedans. While the next gen M3 is slated to receive the company’s replacement M DCT (M Dual Clutch Transmission) paddle shift system, low-end vehicles like the 535i need it most. With a proper cog swapper, I reckon the twin turbo 535i– indeed the whole 5-Series lineup– would be transformed.

As it stands, the BMW 535i is let down by its awkward exterior, cheap and charmless interior and jerky low speed dynamics. All of which can be, as TV people like to say, “fixed in post.” But will they? In fact, why didn’t BMW sort this out BEFORE they released the car to their dealers? Someday, BMW may learn how to listen to its critics. Until then, 535i buyers have to take what they’re given. Or not.

Jay Shoemaker
Jay Shoemaker

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  • Empee Empee on May 31, 2008

    These new 5ers are muted by electronics and therefore hardly any fun. I'd rather resort to a good early 90s 535i. Here in Holland, one could pick up a 1988-1995 535i (211 bhp) for just about 7K. And I'm talking 40K mile cars here, so about brand new. Those cars were made to drive, not to play music over 12-speaker sound systems, watch tv or heat your ass. They came with nothing but a great set of seats and a great, great 3-spoke steering wheel--although the US version probably came standard with an airbag. Driving was what these cars were for and BMW never forgot about that while designing every nut and bolt.

  • Jeff Jeff on May 15, 2013

    I read this review before I purchased a used 2008 535i in 2012. I like the car a lot more than the review. The review says that the car was no fun to drive slowly, and that the transmission was constantly hunting for different gears and very jerky. I wondered why he wrote that, because mine was very well behaved. Then one day what the author wrote described my car exactly! Turns out, I had left the "sport" button engaged. The car does not like to be driven slowly in "sport" mode. But there is no reason to do it. Frankly, the only think I don't like about the car is that the turn signal indicators are blocked by the wheel, so you can't see them. And the stalk has terrible feedback. It's comfortable, quiet, economical on the highway, and when the opportunity arises -- is quicker than hell.

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  • Carson D I thought that this was going to be a comparison of BFGoodrich's different truck tires.
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