The Little Things Make the BMW 5 Series the Best Sedan for the Money
BMW has made its 5 Series sedan since 1972.
It is the company’s second-bestselling model, after the 3 Series. This is quite a feat, considering that passenger cars (as opposed to SUVs and pickup trucks) composed 39 percent of the car market last year, down from 43 percent in 2015 and as much as 52 percent in 2012.
In the current automotive landscape, crossovers are king.
But the 5 Series and its rival sedans—the more homogenous Audi’s $47,600 A6 and heftier Mercedes-Benz’s $52,150 E-Class—have something the fresh-faced sport utes don’t: longevity. And the seventh-generation version of this six-cylinder 335-horsepower sedan, codenamed G30, has lasted so long because it excels at getting the little things right.
Bayerische Motoren Werke AG has long been rightly acknowledged for crafting superior chassis, suspension, and handling. But the Bavarians have been a little behind on the technology front—early versions of its iDrive earned derision for coming up short on what drivers actually needed. Meanwhile, since the early 2000s, Daimler AG's Mercedes unit has led the pack with progressive innovations.
BMW has been working furiously to narrow that gap, and this year's 5 Series offers a surround view system with 3D view exterior cameras. The system uses four cameras that work together to create three-dimensional views of the space surrounding the vehicle. The effect is that you can see obstacles in the entire vicinity, not just slivers of it, including things so low as curbs. When I drove the 540i last week in New York, I was transfixed. It’s like watching a movie of your actual drive. After using it, anything less feels vastly inferior.
Yes, everyone has rear-view cameras, but the ones in this car are better thought-out in how they show the car and its surroundings. The screens are clearer. The angles of the camera shots are better. Heck, the whole thing is slightly angled to please the driver first.
What’s more, this technology is displayed on a new, 10.3-inch display touchscreen that syncs with features that you can control with buttons on the steering-wheel and center console. It's also sensitive to voice commands and hand gestures (results may vary), and even the top of the iDrive knob, which has a touchpad on it.
This is perhaps the best setup in the game, not because it’s revolutionary, but because it executes the little things well. (It’s the system BMW's Rolls-Royce subsidiary also uses.)
BMW excels at painstaking attention to details that add up make this sedan striking in a sea of ho-hum contenders.
The challenge when driving—and writing about—midsize luxury sedans is that they are ubiquitous, innocuous, and frequently bland in style and temperament. They are the cars you buy so you don’t get accused of being ostentatious. It’s difficult to find anything about them—good, bad, or otherwise—outside the lines.
That is also the reason for their popularity. A $56,450 car such as the 2017 BMW 5 Series 540i I drove last week in New York allows you to possess something precious without inciting class warfare. The BMW 5 Series is why we can have nice things. (In fact, at $82,610 with upgrades, the one I drove was very nice.)
This car won’t leap out at first glance, but here’s what to look for on the second: the way the crenellations on the hood are slightly pinched compared with previous models, making it look just a bit leaner; the way the body is made of high strength steel, magnesium, and aluminum, which means it’s lighter and stronger than products made from mere aluminum and steel.
New this year is an etch along the lower part of the sides, which you'll notice the way you come to appreciate a new set of abs after you’ve been working out a while. The door height and handles are positioned and weighted for perfect entry; you don’t even notice getting into and out of the car.
What’s more, the adaptive LED lights (larger than in previous years) complement slightly larger kidney grilles that now contain automatic shutters for the first time, helping move air around the car for improved aerodynamics and therefore, improved efficiency. It’s a small change, that grille engorgement, but it makes the car just that much more memorable.
The bottom line: While the Audi’s gaping grille may be more noticeable on the street, the 5 Series as a whole, with its structured body and bulging hood, is the more chiseled option in the segment.
In this midsize luxury sedan segment, a place potentially as sexy as the floor of a movie theater, details matter—especially details that feed the five senses. The 540i has many, beginning with the sound of the improved soft-close automatic doors. The Dakota leather trim (richer, softer) smells like a saddle shop, and will keep its scent for months. The way the rear-view mirror gently auto-dims after you turn off the car will satisfy you like the last pop in a sheet of bubble wrap.
And the new, optional, 20-way ergonomic seats, which can inflate to change from bucket-style racing seats to plush loungers, will make even mother happy.
I also loved the full-color, heads-up display. This technology is nothing new—except this version was clearer and 75 percent larger than in previous generations. This was noticeable, and it mattered. The controls on the center console, set squarely around the center dial, were big, easy to use, and clearly labeled. Dare I say foolproof? I daren’t, but still.
The interior is the part of the car we directly interact with, so it’s essential to get it right. Apart from the actual driving experience, the mood set in the cabin most closely reflects the caliber of the car.
Germans … uh, German sedans … can be cold. This one is warmer than most.
Drive: Every Little Improvement Helps
Now for the good stuff. Driving the 540i provides a lesson in proper German engineering. As it picks up from the lower of its eight gears to topping out in sport mode, the balance of the car's lighter weight (BMW claims to have shaved 137 pounds from previous models) and renewed connection on its now-standard run-flat tires harmonize beautifully, better than in previous years.
Why? We now have an upgraded dynamic handling package and an M Sport package ($2,600) that is lowered. We also have a newly stiffened suspension; adaptive drive mode, which automatically adjusts the electric power steering and automatic transmission to your driving style and road conditions; and optional integral active steering, which combines rear-wheel steering with variable-ratio steering up front. That means the steering becomes quicker the more you wind the wheel, even as it remains consistent in velocity. This all makes for a more predictable car.
Predictable, yes. But not boring.