First Drive: 2010 BMW 550i Gran Turismo

Up Front The 2010 BMW 5 Series Gran Turismo is the German automaker's creative new variation on the popular crossover vehicle theme. The first version of this new Bimmer, the 550i GT, powered by a 4.4-liter, 400-horsepower twin turbo V8 engine, will hit U.S. dealerships on Dec. 5, with a starting price of $64,725. A second version, the 535i GT with a 3.0-liter, 302-horsepower 6-cylinder engine under its hood, will debut next spring. BMW expects it to start at about $55,000. The 5 Series GT competes most directly with other new high-end crossover vehicles, such as the Acura ZDX, Cadillac SRX, and BMW's own X6 (and, personally, I much prefer it to the X6).However, BMW's (BMWG) new crossover is also designed to appeal to shoppers who otherwise might buy a luxury sports sedan, or an SUV such as the Porsche Cayenne, Mercedes M Class, or the BMW X5. In the standard format, the 5 Series GT seats up to five, but it's more sumptuous with the $3,950 luxury rear seating package, in which there's a center console in place of the middle seat. This reduces maximum seating to four but gives the cabin the roomy, luxurious feel of an executive lounge, as well as allowing the back seats to be folded down at the push of a button. In either format, lowering the rear seats creates 60 cubic feet of hauling space big enough to accommodate a bicycle or other bulky cargo. As usual with a BMW most buyers can count on spending at least another 10 grand on options such as a Sport Package ($4,200, or $5,200 with 20 in. wheels and performance tires), $2,950 for ventilated seats, $2,200 for a rear seat entertainment system with dual screens built into the backs of the front seats, and $1,400 for a premium sound system. Currently the 5 Series GT is only available with rear-wheel drive, but an all-wheel-drive option will be added next spring. The 5 Series GT comes packed with new high tech gear and design innovations. For instance, it's the first four-door BMW to feature cool-looking frameless door windows. It's also BMW's first U.S. model with regenerative brakes, which recharge the vehicle's extra-powerful battery during braking. High tech options include a $1,300 heads-up display and a $2,600 night vision system. In addition to all that, the 5 Series GT's transmission is a smooth new eight-speed automatic. BMW says the new gearbox doesn't add weight or bulk yet provides faster shifts and better fuel efficiency than the previous six-speed automatic. Despite such innovations, the V8-powered 550i doesn't get great mileage. It's rated at 15 miles per gallon in the city and 21 on the highway (17 on average), which is about the same as a top-of-the-line 7 Series sedan (though better than the X6). If fuel economy is your priority, wait until spring and opt for the 535i GT, which is expected to get two or three mpg better mileage than the 550i GT. Behind the Wheel The 5 Series GT can't match the stellar driving dynamics of the 5 Series sedan but then few vehicles can. The new crossover is longer, wider, and taller than the sedan, and occupants sit a couple of inches higher up (though a full four inches lower than in an X5). BMW says the 550i GT will accelerate from 0 to 60 in 5.4 seconds and the 535i GT in a little more than six seconds. Top speed is governed at 150 miles per hour with the sport package, 130 mpg without. The driving experience, however, is geared more toward comfort than in most BMWs. For instance, there are no steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters in the 5 Series GT, though you can shift manually using the shift lever. Feedback to the driver via the steering wheel feels more muted than in a BMW sedan or coupe. That said, you can noticeably alter the 5GT's driving dynamics by opting for the Sport Package. That option includes an adaptive drive that allows you to a choice of four settings: "comfort," "normal," "sport," and "sport+." Changing the setting not only alters the throttle, shift, and power-steering response but hardens or softens the suspension. During my test drive, I toggled back and forth between the settings, and my driving partner, who was sitting in the back seat, invariably knew which setting I had shifted to. It really makes a difference. The front seat area of the 550i GT is reminiscent of the 7 series sedan, with a very similar dash and center console. The 5 Series GT also comes with the fourth generation of BMW's iDrive system, which is much more user-friendly than earlier versions and can be had with an optional extra-large high resolution video screen. There are also now easy-to-use buttons that allow you to command the radio, navigation system, etc. There's even an all-important "Back" button that gets you out of trouble when you can't figure out what else to do. However, the 5 Series GT's appeal stems largely from the comfort and versatility of the rear section of its cabin. The rear seats move back and forth, and the rake of the rear seatbacks can also be adjusted. Rear leg space is comparable to that of a 5 Series sedan when the rear seats are forward, and to that of a 7 Series sedan when the seats are back. A lone passenger can fold down one of the rear seats and use the seatback as a desk. With the rear seats up, luggage space is an adequate 15.5 cu. ft. The luggage area is isolated from the passenger compartment by a hinged partition, and there's a rear-deck lid that can be removed and stowed in a space under the floor in back. Another innovation is the dual rear hatch. If all you want to do is quickly stow luggage, you can open the bottom section of the hatch door. It's more like opening the trunk of a car in the sense that the partition and deck lid keep passengers from getting blasted with outside air. For stowing bigger gear, the back door also opens wide and high like a conventional hatch. Buy it or Bag It? Personally, I don't much like the exterior of the 5 Series GT. It looks ungainly to me, as if an SUV were grafted onto a sedan's body. I much prefer the looks of the new ZDX from Honda's (HMC) Acura division. It starts at just $45,760, but its truncated rear seat makes it much less comfortable and practical than the BMW. The 5 Series GT commands a premium vs. other BMW models, too. It starts at roughly 8 grand more than the 2010 X5, whether with 6-cylinder or V8 power (and the X5 comes standard with all-wheel drive). The 550i GT also starts nearly $4,000 higher than the '09 550i sedan, and the 535i GT about $8,000 higher than the '09 528i sedan. However, keep in mind that a redesigned 5 Series sedan is coming out next year as a 2011 model, and pricing hasn't yet been set on the new version of the car. The BMW X6 is slightly more expensive than the 5 Series GT but comes standard with all-wheel drive. I prefer the 5 GT, anyway, because it's lighter, roomier in back, with the option of five-passenger seating, and gets better mileage. BMW acknowledges that in the U.S. market, the 5 Series GT may end up replacing the 5 Series station wagon, a weak seller on this side of the Atlantic. These days, North Americans want station wagons like the 5 Series GT—wagons that don't look like station wagons. Click here to see more of the new 2010 BMW 550i Gran Turismo.

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