Review: 2011 BMW 5 Series (535i and 550i)

Michael Karesh
by Michael Karesh

Back in the 1980s, BMW was all about the compact, performance-oriented 3-Series. They also offered the 5 and 7, but these were greatly outsold by competing Mercedes. Seeking to expand well beyond its driving enthusiast base, BMW made its cars ever more stylish, luxurious, and laden with technology. Despite mixed reactions to the Bangled exteriors and iDrive, sales of the larger sedans grew even faster than their curb weights, and in recent years they have often outsold the E-Class and S-Class. A redesigned 2011 5-Series recently arrived at dealers. With the new car, has BMW further lost the plot, or rediscovered it?

With the new 5 and 7 BMW has returned to its old formula of “same timelessly styled sausage, different lengths.” The new F10 BMW 5-Series looks much like the F01 7-Series, only a size smaller. Which is still considerably larger than the previous generation (E60) 5-Series: the wheelbase has grown by three inches (bringing it within an inch of the E65 7-Series), the length by two, and the curb weight by about 400 pounds.

The styling of the previous generation (E60) 5-Series certainly had its critics, but I was not among them. It was the best of the Bangle-era designs. When fitted with the right wheels, it possessed a bold stance and aggressive edginess that the new cleaned-up 5 lacks. Looking at the new 550i fitted with the Sport Package, I kept wondering if it really had this package, for it doesn’t modify the lower body styling and its frilly 15-spoke alloys appear less sporty than the standard 18s.

The new 5’s interior styling has been similarly refined. The nav screen, though enlarged, is much more cleanly integrated into the instrument panel. A wider, shorter center stack angled six degrees towards the driver visually connects the instrument panel with the center console rather than visually separating the two. The new interiors still aren’t as driver-focused as those in classic BMWs, but they’re a definite step in the right direction. The main aesthetic fault: even more than the exteriors, the interiors’ designs are very conservative, and provide little visual excitement. Major gains have been made in ergonomics and usability. There are more buttons, so the much-improved iDrive doesn’t have to be used for as many things, but these buttons are logically grouped and located.

The standard driver’s seat in the 5 is serviceable for those who won’t be taking corners quickly. But the optional “comfort seats” included in the Sport Package are both much more comfortable and much more

supportive in aggressive driving. They’re a must. One puzzling deletion: the comfort seats have lost their power-adjustable side bolsters in the new 5-Series. Apparently these are more needed for aggressive cornering in the 750Li, where they’re still included?

The specs suggest that the new 5-Series is about the same size inside as the old one. But, relative to the driver, the instrument panel is farther away, and so provides the impression of a larger car. A fan of compact cars, I prefer the cozier driving position of the E60. The rear seat remains sufficiently roomy and comfortable for adults, but the view forward is more constricted. The largest dimensional change with the new 5: cargo volume has grown by a substantial 4.4 cubic feet, to 18.4. This is a bit more than in the 7, and up with the best in the segment.

The BMW 535i continues to be powered by a 3.0-liter turbocharged inline six officially rated for 300 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque. But not by the same 300-horsepower 3.0-liter turbocharged inline six as last year’s car. In another strike by the bean counters, one of the turbos has been deleted, though that remaining is a twin-scroll design. I haven’t driven the old car recently, but at low rpm the new engine seems to have more lag and more of a boosted feel. Get on then off the throttle in casual driving, and the new engine is a

noticeable split-second behind in both directions. From 3,000 rpm on up, though, power delivery is seamless. Even aided by a new eight-speed automatic, a gain of two ratios, acceleration doesn’t feel quite as strong as before. Credit here likely goes to the gain of 400 pounds rather than the loss of one turbo. A very quick car nevertheless.

With the E60, the 535’s twin-turbo six felt nearly as strong as the 550’s naturally-aspirated eight. What it couldn’t approach: the sound of the eight. For the F10, the V8 has lost 400 cc of displacement but has gained a pair of turbos to yield 400 horsepower and—even more noteworthy—450 pound-feet of torque. Acceleration ranges from effortless to astounding, depending on how deeply you plant the pedal. The 535i is plenty quick, but its engine is clearly working harder, and its boost builds less transparently. The traditional advantage of a V12 over a V8 has become the advantage of a twin-turbocharged V8 over a turbocharged six. Lost from the old 550: the turbocharged eight sounds relatively ordinary.

BMW deserves credit for continuing to offer a six-speed manual with both engines in the 5. Sadly, both of the cars I drove had smooth-shifting eight-speed automatics. The 550i had handy paddle shifters, but the shift lever summoned up quick shifts just as well in the 535i.

Even Hyundai can offer a quick luxury sedan these days. BMW’s key advantage has always been handling. At the event I attended, a Mercedes E350 was provided for comparison purposes. Its steering was far too light and vague, and its standard suspension permitted too much lean in turns and generally lacked composure. The optional sport suspension would have helped the handling, but not the steering. BMW didn’t have to stack the deck, but did anyway. In BMW’s defense, the 535i on hand also lacked an optional sport suspension. Even so un-optioned, the BMW handled with far superior precision and control. The electric power steering, a first for this segment, is on the light side, but is still much better

weighted and more communicative than the system in the Benz. Between the chassis and the steering, you can delicately place the BMW exactly where you want it. Driving the car along a winding road involved little guesswork. As with other BMWs past and present, the car readily seems a tightly integrated extension of the driver.

This said, anyone who cares about driving will want the Sport Package, and perhaps also the Dynamic Handling Package. I say “perhaps,” because I drove no car with the former’s sport suspension but without the latter’s adaptive shocks (new to the 5) and active stabilizer bars. With these two packages, the midsize BMW feels tighter, if still not tight, quicker to respond, and even more precise. Conveniently located buttons can be used to vary the suspension, steering, transmission, and throttle programming between “Comfort,” “Normal,” “ Sport,” and “Sport+,” the last of which disables the stability control. Want some throttle-induced oversteer? Done. Even with the torquetastic rear-wheel-drive 550i, oversteer comes on gradually and proved very easy to modulate even with the stability control off.

Oddly, the ride felt the same to me in every setting, and much smoother than in past sport suspended 5ers. Noise levels are all fairly low, if not the lowest. All is not better, though. From the driver’s seat the new 5 feels larger and heavier than the old one. Which shouldn’t come as a surprise, because it is larger and heavier, and (as noted above) the driving position is that of a larger car. The new 5 doesn’t as evenly split the difference between the 3 and the 7. It’s more 7, less 3.

Even though the Bangle-era cars were very successful, BMW clearly attended to critics when designing the new 5-Series. The styling is cleaner, the ergonomics are much improved, and the chassis is more refined. No great leap forward has been attempted this time around, and the car is better in virtually every way as a result. By nearly any objective measure, these are excellent cars. So why didn’t I enjoy looking at them or driving them more? Somehow, when BMW ticked off the boxes of items in need of improvement, enjoyment wasn’t in the list. They’ve rediscovered the plot, but in letter rather than spirit.

Vehicles for this review were provided by a dealer-hosted Ultimate Driving Experience

Michael Karesh owns and operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive pricing and reliability data

Michael Karesh
Michael Karesh

Michael Karesh lives in West Bloomfield, Michigan, with his wife and three children. In 2003 he received a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. While in Chicago he worked at the National Opinion Research Center, a leader in the field of survey research. For his doctoral thesis, he spent a year-and-a-half inside an automaker studying how and how well it understood consumers when developing new products. While pursuing the degree he taught consumer behavior and product development at Oakland University. Since 1999, he has contributed auto reviews to Epinions, where he is currently one of two people in charge of the autos section. Since earning the degree he has continued to care for his children (school, gymnastics, tae-kwan-do...) and write reviews for Epinions and, more recently, The Truth About Cars while developing TrueDelta, a vehicle reliability and price comparison site.

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  • Kdilkington Kdilkington on Aug 13, 2010

    I test drove the new 550i at the Ultimate Driving Event too. Pictures don't really do this car justice. It looks much better in person. The turbo-charged V8 engine is very impressive, I can't even imagine what the new M5 will be like. It was able to pull all of that weight from 55 to 90 mph on the highway effortlessly. My biggest gripe with the new 5 series is the amount of electronic gadgets they crammed into it. Some features, like the Heads Up Display, are very helpful. Others like the 270-degree, camera system (6 cameras in all) were neat, but completely unnecessary. All the new complicated features pretty much guarantee that you'll be visiting the dealership for most repairs. The BMW rep that showed me the car said that they softened up certain parts of the new 5 series to make it more appealing to Lexus buyers. So in other words, if you're looking to lease a nice luxury highway cruiser, this car is for you. If you're looking for something with a little more "joy" take a look at the M3 or the 335is. If you hate run-flats, then you're choices are severely limited.

  • Speedlaw Speedlaw on Aug 15, 2010

    I recently did an ultimate drive event as well, and drove the same cars. My take away is that there is no reason whatsoever to buy a base suspension/seat BMW OR Mercedes Benz. If you intend these cars, go to Infiniti/Acura/Lexus, save 15k, and get more gadgets and superior quality. The 535i was a German Buick. Thank you for explaining the turbo lag issue. There is clearly an unacceptable off/on to it. The MB with the small six is much smoother in normal city driving but way thrashy at high rpms, where the BMW is on the boil and pulling hard. If you intend to drive the cars, with sport package and seats, then you have little choice but to pay the premium, but you get what you pay for. I'd do a 535i, sport, manual, only. I have little exposure to COMAND or I drive, but was able to figure them out fairly easily. Best car at the event....the 335d, set up with M sport suspension and the sport seats....

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