By on August 9, 2010

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

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51 Comments on “Review: 2011 BMW 5 Series (535i and 550i)...”

  • avatar

    Are those 7 series in the photos? Why?

    I’d like to try one. Haven’t driven a 5 since the E39 540i….wow, that was a car. Still one of my favorites, of any car, from any manufacturer.

    • 0 avatar

      E39 5 and E46 3 were the last truly great BMWs

    • 0 avatar

      drifter: Agreed.

      While I like the look of this car more than the E60, the size and weight gain are troubling.

    • 0 avatar
      Tailpipe Tommy

      @drifter: E39 5 and E46 3 were the last truly great BMWs

      I Disagree. The E86 Z4 M Coupe was the last truly great BMW. E46 M3 running gear, but 200 lbs lighter, beautiful to behold, fantastic to drive. No iDrive, no auto transmission of any kind, last BMW to start with a key. Properly-weighted and fantastic hydraulic steering, no runflats. Hell, the thing listed for $50k, and you couldn’t even get Homelink in it. A true no-BS, gimmick-free, no apologies sports car. Rare: only ~ 1800 sold in the US in its 3-year run. Last non-SAV to be lovingly assembled at the “Bubba Makes Wheels” plant in Spartanburg SC. Turns heads and provokes smiles on a regular basis, without being pretentious. I hope to keep mine forever.

    • 0 avatar


      I don’t agree. I have a 2003 e46 330i with the M Sport Package, and driving a 335d at the same event, also with M Sport Package, the chassis, brakes and tires were almost exactly the same. Factoring out the engine/trans differences, the subjective feel is the same despite the run flats (I can only guess this issue was fixed, or I’m very used to sport tires). The M Sport cars are not “screwed up”, and overall I felt like I was driving my e46 but with fresh shocks. I would have to think long and hard between 335i or 335d, though. That Diesel pulls like you have the force of gravity and rips off shifts between 1700 and 3500 rpm like a motocross bike.

  • avatar

    I also drove the 750Li, but will be covering it in a separate review. I’ve sent a note to Ed to add photos of the 535i and remove those for the 750Li.

  • avatar

    I am driving a 2011 535 right now and I cannot say that I disagree with the conclusions here. I think that most gearheads will dislike the more anodyne driving experience offered by the new 5 series, while most ordinary citizens will laud it.

  • avatar

    Two things not covered in the review, pricing and styling.

    Pricing is actually a little lower than the 2010s, though lower incentives will no doubt more than make up the difference. Competitors continue to cost thousands less. To generate price comparisons with the 2010 and the usually less expensive competition:

    On the reliability front, I hope to have initial results from the Car Reliability Survey fairly quickly. This will depend, of course, on how soon we can get enough owners involved.

    To help with the survey:

  • avatar

    I think the E39 is the pinnacle of 5-series design wise. The new model does not change my opinion. I would love to buy a used E39 M5 one day!

  • avatar

    One additional note: the European 5 apparently still has the adjustable side bolsters. Perhaps this change was tied to safety and/or legal, but the feature continues to be offered in other BMWs.

  • avatar

    I’m sure the “mini 7” will be a sales success but I con’t help feeling that some of the old BMW magic seems to have gone. Particularly the steering feel of the new BMW models seems to feel somewhat detached.

    • 0 avatar

      That’s not a new thing. It started with the E46 3-Series in about 2001; they lightened the steering feel considerably. It continued with the E60 5-Series and “Active Steering”.

      I don’t know if it’s the case in Europe, but my understanding is that the bulk of BMW customers in North America didn’t like the heavy steering at slow speeds.

    • 0 avatar

      Then you haven’t driven a 3 series sport recently. I’ve got an 07 sport wagon and the steering effort and feel is nearly identical to what I remember the 2004 325i sport being.

      I remember the first time I drove a German car and finally ‘got it’ with regard to steering… ironically, it was the Catera, and it was a rental car.

  • avatar

    Ach du lieber! 400 lbs of weight gain?! Were you given a 5- or 7-series to test? BMW’s ongoing krieg against less mass – and the ultimate driving machine – continues.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      This new 5 Series is essentially a shortened 7. They share the same platform, which explains the weight gain and the feeling of sitting in and riving a larger vehicle.
      BMW should just call this a 735K (for Kurtz  “Short”)

    • 0 avatar

      Question, because I’m lazy: how does this car compare, in size, to the long-wheelbase 7-Series? It might make more sense in that perspective and I’d suspect that, at least in North America, most 7s are LWB due to “go big or go home” syndrome.

      Another question: wasn’t there talk of a LWB 5-Series as well?

  • avatar

    Interestingly I find most BMW’s look bland or a bit awkward in print but always look attractive and well planted going down the road from real-world angles.

    • 0 avatar

      Definitely. BMWs look a lot better irl than in pictures. Especially with the Bangle era designs (I think it’s the whole concave/convex style, which looks weird in pictures but stunning irl).

  • avatar

    Great review. C&D did not like the new 5’s new electric steering, to the point they placed it third behind the new Infiniti M and the old Audi A6.

    I will say I like the new design on the whole, in photos it evokes mini-7-ness and in profile it’s a scaled-up 3; very athletic. Details like the lumpy headlamp and taillamp forms suggest indecision on the part of the design team, and indecision doesn’t translate to attractiveness in this instance.

    Still, I’m glad to see the Bavarians returning to conservative design. The E60 wasn’t ugly, but it always struck me as a Chinese knock-off of a BMW rather than the real thing; especially when parked beside the E39.

  • avatar


  • avatar

    Can’t comment on the ride quality or sportiness of the car, but this is a HUGE improvement insofar as interior design and quality goes.

  • avatar

    That’s not a new thing. It started with the E46 3-Series in about 2001; they lightened the steering feel considerably. It continued with the E60 5-Series and “Active Steering”.

    – I think they corrected the light steering issue mid production on the e46 due to complaints

  • avatar

    Thanks for a great review Michael. I sat in the new 5 during a recent service visit for my E46 and really liked the interior, but I feel the car is a little TOO polished for me until I am perhaps a few years older. Have you heard any feedback from Munich concerning the backlash over runflats and lack of a dipstick?. I know it’s a dead horse that’s been kicked once too often, but the old school in me will never buy a car with these 2 “options”. Have heard some real horror stories on both fronts. Thanks.

    • 0 avatar

      I haven’t heard anything. BMW does seem to have addressed quite a few complaints with this car, though. I imagine they see no alternative to run-flats at this point. With the dipstick, no idea.

    • 0 avatar

      I drive an e90 335i, and the runflats (or rather, lack of a spare, as the e60 had runflats and a spare) is one of my least favorite features.

      The tires were very expensive, tramlined like crazy, and rode like bricks. On the plus side, they were very responsive with lots of feel due to the stiff sidewalls, and provided a margin of safety when I want to go over 130 on empty desert roads.

      That said, when you’re on one of those roads and get a puncture, you have a greater chance of getting stuck. Once, on a trip back home from the middle of nowhere, I got a puncture very near the sidewall, while about 5-10 miles from the nearest civilization (which was a VERY lucky break, seeing as it was more like 75 miles on most of the trip). I went as slow as I dared on this section of freeway- about 60-65, although you aren’t supposed to exceed 55 generally, but the 3 is a lighter car). By the time I got to town, every tire shop was closed but walmart (Sunday late afternoon). When I looked at the tire, the heat load from being on the edge had turned the puncture into a gash, and had worn away about 1/3″ of tread around that gash! Of course, Wal Mart didn’t have ’em in stock.

      Fortunately, I was able to have a friend get a snow tire from my garage and haul it the 40 miles out to me. If this puncture had happened any further out, and wouldn’ve been totally screwed. If I didn’t have a snow tire and a friend able to bring it to me I would’ve been stranded. If I had had a spare, I would’ve been on my way in 10 minutes.

      Now, since I know runflats can leave me stranded, I just got much nicer, cheaper regular “go flat” tires, and carry a snow tire on trips, which takes up a ton of trunk space.

      Run flats are just an awful solution for manufacturers trying to find a couple cubic feet of storage space. FAR too compromised to have on “The Ultimate Driving Machine”. I’ll definitely be trying to avoid them in the future.

    • 0 avatar

      It was for those reasons that my buddy didn’t seriously consider the 335xi when he bought his S4 recently. The S4 also doesn’t include a dipstick but it does have the tube, so a dipstick is cheap to buy and easily installed. We found the run-flats to be very harsh on choppy pavement, so there’s no way he’d ever buy replacement run-flats or run-flats for the winter set – especially since studded run-flats aren’t even available – and he’d end up wasting much of his trunk space on a spare tire.

  • avatar

    While it has nice flanks, I just can’t get over this cars hideous nose. That huge, 90 degree flat upright grille is just terrible. I’m sure the stylists didn’t want it this way, but had to make it that way for crush-space in the new euro pedestrain impact standards. What a shame.

    Such a compromise just ruins the car for me- I prefer the old one, despite the nicer flanks on this one. (Also note that the sides look like an e90 3-series, which has been on the market since 2006)

    The fact that this car has often been criticized for not having that BMW steering feel, and the collossal weight gain, makes me fear for BMWs future. BMW needs to remain BMW- not a Lexus or Mercedes clone.

  • avatar

    Having owned two 3-series (E46 wagon, E90 sedan), one might think we’d be looking forward to moving up to a 5 series…but not this overweight, numb barge (comely though it is).

  • avatar

    The fact that the new 5-series looks nearly identical to the 7-series is going to put a serious dent in the desirability of the latter. Who’s going to want to pay $80k+ for a car that is almost indistinguishable from the soon-to-be commonplace $45k 528i?

    The S-class, for better or worse, doesn’t look anything like the E-class for a reason.

  • avatar
    Amendment X

    Another uninteresting, overweight, ugly land barge from BMW. They dropped the ball 10 years ago.


  • avatar

    Truth be told, I love the E60 5er. As you said, with an aggressive wheel package (as see on the 545i with Sport package) or the delicious M5…

    I intend to get a CPO E60 M5 sooner rather than later.

  • avatar

    Lost from the old 550: the turbocharged eight sounds relatively ordinary.


  • avatar

    I have to say, I also liked the old generation better. The old E60 looked aggressive and ready to brawl. This one looks a little too passive for me, feminine even.

  • avatar

    The Infiniti M37 offers more for the money. Though I like the BMW interior, the M’s feels much more luxurious. I will agree that the 5 is a better car for enthusiasts than the E350, but, I perfer the E-350.

    I considered the BMW 750 to be an awesome car, but its not good enough to sway me from buying the next Sclass. Again, the BMW 7 interior is impressive – probably the best I’ve ever seen, but I don’t like the interior space because the roofline feels too low, the steering wheel doesn’t give me enough length and there is more road noise than the S550. I WILL NEVER GIVE UP my automatic bolsters or my massage function…EVER.

  • avatar

    About the only thing new is the un-Bangled butt and the 7 Series grille. Otherwise it looks like a 5 Series from 7 years ago. Yawn and wake me when BMW makes something that actually looks fresh and modern.

  • avatar

    I agree that this 5, and BMW’s new design language in general is too organic. The weight gain isn’t cool either. BMW needs to go back to its roots design wise and bring back the shark nose. Lift be damned!

    There’s a gap in the market, I think. Maybe my memory fails me, but didn’t BMWs used to be cheaper, even adjusted for inflation? I think there’s a market for no-frills compact/midsize RWD cars, maybe from a manufacturer like Mazda or something. With the 2002 7, BMW seems to have severed their ties in serving that purpose. This new 5 in all its weight and technology only adds to the rift.

  • avatar
    Sam P

    E39 M5? Make sure you’ve got a champagne budget for maintenance.

    If not, an E39 530i Sport with a manual or E46 330i Sport/ZHP will still provide lots of driving fun.

  • avatar

    As BMW’s models have grown with each model change, I’ve seen less and less need for anything bigger than the 3 Series. The current 3 Series is the size of yesteryear’s 5 Series

  • avatar

    Apparently the 2011 550i is not available with a manual in the US. I just called my local BMW dealer and was told that. The three manuals listed on their site were not really the 3 pedal true manuals with a clutch but the auto with paddles. Does anyone know for sure?

  • avatar

    I know they probably didn’t have the 5 series in mind when BMW launched the new “joy” campaign, but in any event this review seems to contradict that sentiment(yes, I understand marketing often takes place independent of reality) . Don’t get me wrong, on the occasions when I have tossed around a newer BMW its been fun, but “stern competence” was more the descriptor I left with rather than “joy”. Which is what a silver mid level execuliner should be anyway.

  • avatar

    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.

  • avatar

    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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