Brent Romans, Senior Automotive Editor
Permanent heartburn. That's pretty much what the BMW 5 Series has been giving the executives at other luxury automakers. This midsize luxury sport sedan has been the best-selling car in its class the past five years, an automobile that can make the morning slog in commute traffic perfectly comfortable and yet hustle down a scenic road and make you feel alive again.
For the 2011 BMW 5 Series, the competition will have even more to worry about. This seventh-generation 5 Series boasts more power, better fuel economy, a roomier interior and more comfort and convenience features. But there are some mild surprises here, too. For one, the BMW 5 Series has abandoned avant-garde styling, and it trades in its former Lady Gaga costume for the equivalent of a three-piece business suit. Actually BMW has made the 5 Series more like the 7 Series, with the two cars sharing not only the same personality but also the same hardware and the same features.
How does it all come together? Well, after our initial drive we have to say that BMW has indeed created another car for Goldilocks, a "just right" combination of luxury and sport. This 2011 BMW 550i has proven so impressive that we are left with precious little in terms of negative commentary. The new 5 Series is simply a brilliant sedan that should perfectly suit the luxury sedan buyer. Those auto executives better start stocking up on more Tums.
This 2011 BMW 550i is the top dog of the current 5 Series product line. It features the same twin-turbo, direct-injection 4.4-liter V8 that's also found in the 7 Series sedan. Rated at 400 horsepower and 450 pound-feet of torque, the engine delivers a rush of power when you stomp on the throttle pedal. BMW claims the 2011 BMW 550i will accelerate to 60 mph from a standstill in 5.0 seconds, notably quicker than the last Mercedes-Benz E550 we tested, which took 5.3 seconds to reach 60. You're also going to get respectable fuel economy, as the 550i with its automatic transmission is rated by the EPA at 20 mpg combined.
This new eight-speed automatic transmission is also part of the reason the new BMW 5 Series drives so well. At first you might think that eight gears are just too many to choose from, like a 7-Eleven coffee drinker face to face with a Starbucks menu for the first time. After all, even BMW's former six-speed automatic seemed alternately obstinate and arbitrary in its shift patterns. Yet the new ZF-built eight-speed makes the transitions from gear to gear without a hint of shift shock, and the gear selection is wonderfully intuitive, effectively balancing performance with fuel economy.
This example of the 2011 BMW 550i features the Dynamic Handling option package, which offers driver-adjustable settings for suspension firmness, throttle action, steering assist and transmission responsiveness. There is a noticeable difference between the car's four progressive tuning modes, which include Comfort, Normal, Sport and Sport +. We found Normal to be a good pick for, well, normal driving, with Sport being best for drives on winding roads. Some of our editors felt that Comfort mode made the car a little slow to respond to throttle inputs for their tastes.
The 5 Series has grown 2.3 inches longer and gained about 375 pounds with this new platform based on the 7 Series, yet the car still feels agile on the road thanks to a new front suspension design and a wider track, while the Dynamic Handling package's adaptive dampers and adaptive antiroll bars are more responsive than before. With a handling balance as neutral as Switzerland, this is a sedan you can hustle down the road without reservations.
The 5 Series now has electric-assist power steering this year, yet it still communicates a respectable amount of feedback where the front tires meet the road. Also new is optional active four-wheel steering, which quickens the car's responses on the highway and makes this new, longer 5 Series a bit more maneuverable at parking-lot speed.
If there's a downside to the new 5 Series, it's that the car drives a lot more like a 7 Series than a slightly bigger 3 Series. On tight roads in particular, this 2011 BMW 550i felt a little unwieldy compared to previous generations of the 5 Series. If the car is equipped with the various electronic helpers available (as this car has been), the 2-ton curb weight isn't really an issue. But this is now a big car in terms of personality as well as dimensions.
Planning on driving from Las Vegas to Cleveland without stopping? No? OK, good, we wouldn't either. But you could hardly ask for a better car for the task than this 2011 BMW 550i. While the new 5 Series can't quite match the refined ride of the Mercedes-Benz E-Class, the 550i's adaptive suspension lets you dial in the car to the pavement under the tires, and the Comfort setting beats back even broken concrete until you sense nothing more than a gentle whump. As expected, road and wind noise are subdued, though our test car seemed to produce a bit more highway wind noise around the front doors than expected.
Our test car came with the upscale "multicontour" front seats, which are very impressive in terms of comfort and adjustability. Up front, we had no issues with headroom or legroom and indeed found it quite easy to get an ideal driver position. Are these the best front seats in the midsize sedan segment? Quite possibly.
In back, there's a bit more legroom than before, and two normal-size adults should find the backseat comfortable enough should you actually make that drive to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. As expected, though, the center seating position of the rear seat is for small children only, as it's like sitting on a camel's hump.
BMW now offers an optional automated parallel-parking system, and the 5 Series is the first car to get it. In operation it's similar to the system that Ford uses for a variety of its vehicles. Sensors mounted on the side of the car measure the length and width of available parking spaces as you drive by them at speeds up to 22 mph. Once the system has found a likely spot, you're only responsible for working the throttle and brake, because the car will handle the steering. In action, it works pretty well (it takes about 30 seconds from start to completed park).
In its younger days, iDrive was largely reviled for its confusing software and clumsy controller. But just like Neil Patrick Harris, iDrive has matured and improved. The 2011 5 Series finally gets the fully updated version this year, which includes a new menu structure for the information displayed on the view screen and a full allotment of shortcut buttons around the rotary control knob on the center console. Overall the new iDrive works quite well, and nearly all functions (including iPod integration) are easy to either use or learn. Every BMW 550i comes with a hard-drive-based navigation system as standard equipment, and the 10.2-inch display screen is bright and clear.
In terms of practicality, the 550i's trunk measures 14 cubic feet. The opening is wide, but this is less capacity than what's offered by the BMW's competitors. Within the passenger cabin, interior storage is about average for this class of car, with an adequate-size center console bin and two cupholders both front and rear. Should you have children, the 550i's backseat will easily manage front- or rear-facing child safety seats.
Design/Fit and Finish
Fit and finish has always been a big part of the appeal of a BMW 5 Series. The quality of the materials is very high and everything is put together beautifully. Thanks to iDrive, the dash has a clean, modern design that's free of confusing buttons. We also like this year's revised interior design, as it's now a bit more driver-centric than before.
As for exterior styling, the 2011 5 Series certainly looks more conservative. Visually it has much in common with the 7 Series, and at first glance you may just have a bit of trouble figuring out which car you're looking at. But on the whole we like the new look, as the car is still handsome and undeniably a BMW.
Who should consider this vehicle
While just about any luxury sedan shopper will be quite happy with a 2011 BMW 550i, it will likely appeal most to those who prioritize performance or sporty driving dynamics. The strong V8 and athletic handling are the car's standout attributes.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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