The arrival of a new BMW 5-series brings a sense of an automotive epoch changing. It is a reference point; along with the smaller 3-series, it is the heartland car of what is – arguably – the world’s most consistently good carmaker, and at times it has been – again, arguably – the best car in the world. For BMW’s engineers and designers, it’s a privilege but maybe a little stressful to be tasked with making a car for which merely being better than all its rivals isn’t enough; it must be crushingly superior.
The old 5-series was spiky, angular and architectural, and looked literally harder to swallow than this new one. The latest model is more curvaceous but blander. It looks as if it will slip down more easily but the danger – and the basis of a row among BMW diehards – is that design that is too easily palatable now might be all digested too soon. Buyers are less likely to reject the car for being too conservative than too aggressive, but will it look dated in six years’ time?
The more organic look works better in the cabin, where the old Five’s bluff, upright forms have been replaced by curves and the return of the driver-focused fascia. There are some particularly soft leathers, rubbery plastics and tight panel gaps, even on the very early example we tested, and rear-seat passengers are better catered for, with leg- and headroom to challenge the Mercedes E-class; previously, BMW had prioritized those in the front.
The row over the looks distracts from the long list of engineering and technological changes that will radically alter our notion of how a 5-series should function and drive. The range is led by the 550i powered by a twin-turbo V8 engine with 407bhp. Across the range, power and efficiency have been improved; the twin-turbo inline-six 535i petrol with 306bhp is 13 per cent more efficient and produces 17 per cent less carbon dioxide than the 540i it replaces. There will be a Prius-style hybrid option later, and all engines – including the humblest – can be equipped with an eight (yes, eight) speed automatic geabox from BMW’s flagship V12 760Li.
The other big change is the adoption of the FlexRay in-car data network. FlexRay has twenty times the capacity of previous systems and makes it possible to offer a dizzying list of gadgets, and, by integrating them, multiply their usefulness. So the 5-series’ cameras and radar and ultrasound sensors together with electronic control of the steering, throttle and brakes give you a car that can – among many other talents – recognize a suitable parking space and drive itself into it, give you a birds-eye view of everything surrounding the car, read speed limit signs as you pass them and remind you if you break them, warn you if you’re drifting out of your lane or if there’s a car in your blind spot, maintain a constant distance to the car in front down to a standstill and slam the brakes on in an emergency. If collision can’t be avoided it can call the emergency services, tell them where you are, what colour the car is and what kind of crash you’ve just had. You can surf the web and deal with emails and plot navigation routes on your laptop and send them to the car, or play fighter pilot with the head- up display and the night-vision system that can spot pedestrians in the dark. Almost all of this is optional, of course; specify the lot and you’ll have a 5-series that costs as much as that V12 7-series but is smart enough to chauffeur you to work in the morning and remind to wipe the egg off your tie before you go into that meeting.
But when you take full control, you won’t be disappointed. The engines are, predictably, sensational: refined, responsive, powerful and seemingly uncompromised by their green credentials. That new eight-speed gearbox shifts utterly seamlessly and its broader spread of ratios provides both sharper initial acceleration and lower revs and near-silence when cruising.
Refinement and handling are often hard to reconcile, but the new 5-series offers more of both than almost any other car on sale. Over Hong Kong’s city streets it will provide an impressively quiet, jolt-free ride, but press it harder on faster, twistier roads and it will do a fair impersonation of one of BMW’s sports cars, with strong grip, flat cornering and sharp turn- in to bends. The only real criticism is a slight lack of involvement from the steering, BMW having switched to the more fuel-efficient but less natural-feeling electric power assistance from hydraulic in order to save a few more grammes of carbon dioxide.
The wrangle about the design just proves that the Five still matters. BMW’s range might have multiplied endlessly since the first one was launched in 1972, but the 5-series still accounts for 20 per cent of the firm’s sales and profits, and people who buy a 1-series or a Z4 or an X6 need to see that BMW’s heartland car is still the best in its class. Mercedes’ new E-class provides some very tough competition, but for innovation and involvement the Five is still way out in front.
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