Import Sport Sedan Comparison: First Place: BMW 535xi

Michael Freed
by Michael Freed

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.

Add all this up, and you have a sublime driving experience – best in this class by a wide margin.

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?

Performance: 5/5

Possibly the best all-around powerplant on planet Earth – powerful, extremely responsive, wonderful to listen to, and remarkably efficient

Ride: 4/5

Amazingly well controlled for a car with this kind of handling prowess, if not quite as supple as, say, the Jaguar

Handling: 5/5

Flawless over the road at any speed

Exterior: 2/5

Classic BMW proportioning is attractive, but Bangle-era styling details ruin the design

Interior: 2/5

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?

Toys: 1/5

BMW nickel-and-dimes you for every single option, many of which are standard on competitors, and all the options are expensive

Desirability: 5/5

Paraphrasing Han Solo: she may not be the prettiest in the bunch, but she’s got it where it counts, kid.

Michael Freed
Michael Freed

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  • Conceptmat Conceptmat on Dec 28, 2009

    i will disagree on styling comments. when equipped with M- Tech bumpers and 19' wheels like 172 or 166 this car looks great. in fact ,in my opinion it wins the styling over all competitors. as for interior, i only wish that they kept driver-oriented panel style. but flat one looks minimalistic though. people complain about idrive. yes it has it's flaws. but didn't audi and the rest of the cars copied it? all the controls we see in competitors is an improved idrive. the first one was in BMW, and sure it was not perfect because it's a first try! i am sure new f10 will win this part and yes, the handling is the best in it's class ovarall it deserves the 1st place (and it was designed over 6 years ago!)

  • Bamaboy Bamaboy on Jan 17, 2011

    Well, after test driving a 535i (RWD) I just made a difficult decision to NOT purchase a low mileage Certified Pre-Owned twin turbo BMW 535i. The driving experience was just amazing. My current car is a 1995 Nissan 300ZX Twin Turbo. This old Nissan also has a 3.0 liter twin turbo engine creating 300HP but I was amazed how well the BMW drove with the Sport Package. The 20-way adjustable sport seats and the thick beefy sport steering wheel along with a relatively compliant ride (at least compared to my old 300ZX) made this driving experience one that not only put a grin n my face but actually made me "hoot and holler!" My wife drove it and shouted with joy when driving it. I had been reading about how wonderful this BMW twin turbo engine was for a while and finally got to experience it first hand. The engine really is fantastic and the handling is amazing. Perhaps I've toned down my objections to Bangle styling over the years. When I first caught a glimpse of a "Bangle Butt" 7 series it was profoundly odd looking to me. I do NOT find the Bangle styling on this 5-series in any way objectionable. Maybe it was never really objectionable to me - just odd back in 2002 when I saw my first "Bangle Style" BMW. Maybe I'm just accustomed to it now. I actually like the Bangle styling on this 5-series. Now, the Banglized Z4 roadster is another thing altogether. As I told my brother, "beauty is in the eyes of the beholder" and for me the Audi trademark exaggerated "megamouth" grill is MUCH more off putting than any of the Bangle cues in the BMW 5-series. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion on aesthetics. I can find issues with some of the interior, but I can forgive them all in light of the car's ability on the road. So why did I decide to NOT buy the BMW with it's seductively silky twin turbo engine, fantastic handling and unparalleled sport seats? In one word - RELIABILITY. Remarkably, the evaluation article above did NOT use RELIABILITY as a criteria in judging this car against it's competitors. For me, RELIABILITY is way up on my list of criteria. The 135, 335, and 535 BMW's that use the twin turbo N54 engine are all plagued with a design flaw that could leave a motorist stranded on the road - or possibly present a danger if the anomaly were to occur while taking a curve with exuberance. It's the "High Pressure Fuel Pump" design. They fail routinely on these cars. There is now a recall on the cars equipped with the N54 engine but BMW simply replaces the HPFP with more flawed hardware and/or programs some new software and sends the owner back on the street with a car that is just-as likely to fail again. Some N54 owners have no problems with their fuel pumps and some have had it replaced numerous times. The Certified Pre-Owned 535i that I was SOOOO tempted to buy had less than 30k miles and yet was already on it's 3rd fuel pump. I spoke with the Service Manager at the dealership in an attempt to find out whether BMW had come up with a genuine "fix" for the problem and it apparently has NOT. For first hand details from 535 owners (or anyone with the N54 3.0 liter twin turbo engine) go to one of the BMW enthusiast forums and search on HPFP and 535. It seems that it's not really a matter of "if" the HPFP will fail but more of "when" (or perhaps "how often"): or I for one would NOT like to find myself stranded on a trip waiting for a BMW dealership to fix my car - even if it was covered with an extended CPO warranty. I also do not want to have to visit my dealership regularly to have the darned fuel pump replaced with another temporary "patch." Under pressure from an ABC special that exposed this problem to the world, BMW has extended the warranty for the HPFP to 10 years and 120k miles. This is nice, but I would prefer that they actually fix the problem. If you're a gambler and you're feelin' lucky, then perhaps this is the perfect car. For me and the money I was going to invest, the risk was just too much. I'll keep looking. Maybe the new 2011 single turbo 535 will have a more reliable fuel delivery system. Time will tell. BMW is facing a class action law suit associated with this unresolved flaw. (BTW: The "turbo lag" they mention in this law suit is a farce. I could not detect even a hint of turbo lag in this car. Turbo is seamless.)

  • Teddyc73 As I asked earlier under another article, when did "segment" or "class" become "space"? Does using that term make one feel more sophisticated? If GM's products in other segments...I mean "space" is more profitable then sedans then why shouldn't they discontinue it.
  • Robert Absolutely!!! I hate SUV's , I like the better gas milage and better ride and better handling!! Can't take a SUV 55mph into a highway exit ramp! I can in my Malibu and there's more than enough room for 5 and trunk is plenty big enough for me!
  • Teddyc73 Since when did automakers or car companies become "OEM". Probably about the same time "segment" or "class" became "space". I wish there were more sedans. I would like an American sedan. However, as others have stated, if they don't sell in large enough quantities to be profitable the automakers...I mean, "OEMs" aren't going to build them. It's simple business.
  • Varezhka I have still yet to see a Malibu on the road that didn't have a rental sticker. So yeah, GM probably lost money on every one they sold but kept it to boost their CAFE numbers.I'm personally happy that I no longer have to dread being "upgraded" to a Maxima or a Malibu anymore. And thankfully Altima is also on its way out.
  • Tassos Under incompetent, affirmative action hire Mary Barra, GM has been shooting itself in the foot on a daily basis.Whether the Malibu cancellation has been one of these shootings is NOT obvious at all.GM should be run as a PROFITABLE BUSINESS and NOT as an outfit that satisfies everybody and his mother in law's pet preferences.IF the Malibu was UNPROFITABLE, it SHOULD be canceled.More generally, if its SEGMENT is Unprofitable, and HALF the makers cancel their midsize sedans, not only will it lead to the SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST ones, but the survivors will obviously be more profitable if the LOSERS were kept being produced and the SMALL PIE of midsize sedans would yield slim pickings for every participant.SO NO, I APPROVE of the demise of the unprofitable Malibu, and hope Nissan does the same to the Altima, Hyundai with the SOnata, Mazda with the Mazda 6, and as many others as it takes to make the REMAINING players, like the Excellent, sporty Accord and the Bulletproof Reliable, cheap to maintain CAMRY, more profitable and affordable.