BMW’s Smooth 5 Series Has Fighter-Jet Option to Keep Cops Away

2011 BMW 550i
A 2011 BMW 550i sport sedan. Bayerische Motoren Werke AG, the maker of BMW, Mini and Rolls-Royce luxury vehicles, is paring incentives as it prepares to sell a revamped version of the 5 Series sedan, its most profitable car in the U.S., next month. Photographer: Mark Elias/Bloomberg

There’s a $1,300 option on the 2011 BMW 5 Series called a head-up display. Your digital speed is projected on the windshield so the driver never has to look down at the gauge.

The fighter-jet technology just may pay for itself within the first year of ownership.

Why ante up? Well, I’m placidly motoring along a divided freeway in a new 535i that lacks that option. It feels like I’m doing 50 mph but I glance down and -- gee whiz -- 93 miles per hour (150 kph). And is that a state trooper up ahead?

The sixth generation of the midsize sports sedan will be available in June, and it is bigger, heavier and more luxurious than the outgoing model. And, man, is it ever smooth.

Make that smooth with a bite, like Frank Sinatra crooning “Angel Eyes” just before punching you in the nose and making off with your girl. Even the base, $45,400 528i effortlessly manages 100 mph in a careless moment. The top-line $60,500 550i seems to be continually hunting for the autobahn.

Like all BMWs, there’s a wicked side when you want it. Frank would have liked it.

The good news is that the latest variants are priced from $900 to $1,650 less than the outgoing, which may help offset those “Sorry, officer, I didn’t realize I was going that fast” moments.

So goes progress. First released in 1972, the 5 has long served the gap between the sprightly 3 Series and the mature 7 Series executive sedan.

Getting Bigger

But as Bimmers have become bigger and we see “niche” vehicles like the Frankenstein-esque X6, that gap has narrowed. The current 3 Series looks the same size as the original 5.

So who’s the target buyer for the new 5 Series?

If the 2011 model were to put up a profile on dating Web site, it might advertise itself as a 47-year-old with an appetite for good food, traveling, alpine skiing and rock climbing. It might not mention the house in New Brunswick, the recent divorce or the two kids.

At a stoplight in my silver 535i, I pull up next to a third-generation 525i, which was made between 1988 and 1996. Both cars share the upright double-kidney grill and the signature kink in the rear side windows.

Yet the new 5 dwarfs the old, its keen angularities all filled in -- the difference between Alec Baldwin’s cheeks in 1988’s “Beetlejuice” and today’s “30 Rock.” As much as anything, it resembles a slightly smaller version of the new 7 Series, which is both compliment and complaint. Loads of interior room and very handsome, but not svelte.

Spoiled for Choice

With as many variants as Frank’s greatest hits, buyers must first decide which 5 they want. It will be offered with 240- and 300-horsepower, six-cylinder engines and a 400-hp twin-turbo V-8. Hybrids and a diesel will follow.

As for the body: Standard sedan or a new quasi-hatchback thingamajig termed the Gran Turismo? Manual or 8-speed automatic? Rear-wheel drive or all-wheel (to be released later). Regular or caffeinated (the super-fast M version, also out later)?

I recently drove the entire BMW range on both road and racetrack, and was reminded why BMW remains so strongly attractive to a certain type of driver. The meaty steering, instant-on acceleration and tactile road feel translate all the way from the X6 M to the Z4 roadster.

Taking out the new 5 between the 3 and 7 Series sedans was especially instructive. The 535i is heavier in the corners than the 335i, certainly, but shows a surprising willingness to turn on a dime. And it eats up straightaways with the gusto of a 750i.

Fast Corners

While no owner is going to take a 550i on the racetrack, it still acquits itself there. I found myself shooting into deep corners at speeds well over 100 mph with complete confidence.

Opt for the $3,500 sport package and you’ll be able to adjust the stiffness of shocks and throttle sensitivity, from comfort all the way up to sport sharp.

Part of the 5’s smoothness is due to the new 8-speed automatic, which aids gas efficiency and keeps things moving smartly. For old-school drivers, you can even have a six-speed manual, which is, frankly, a blast to drive.

Up in front, the interior is a luxe topography of wood and leather. Nice to sit in, nice to touch. The gauges are easy to read and navigation and entertainment systems are now controlled by an iDrive you can actually figure out on the fly. Progress indeed.

Even the back seats are generous. I make a lousy passenger (control issues), but an hour in the rear gave me little to complain about.

You can choose high-tech options such as a self-parking system, active steering and night vision, which will quickly add to the base price.

Just remember to buy the head-up display. That way you’ll at least know when you’re being wicked.

The 2011 BMW 535i at a Glance

Engine: Turbocharged 6-cylinder with 300 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque.

Transmission: 8-speed automatic.

Speed: 0 to 60 mph in 5.7 seconds.

Gas mileage per gallon: 20 city; 29 highway.

Price as tested: $59,350.

Best features: Generous interior space and smooth, effortless power.

Worst features: Bigger and heavier; that power may lull you into excessive speeds.

Target buyer: The commuter who likes it both ways.

(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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