Surveying the sharp but sober lines of the all-new 2011 BMW 528i, we're reminded of this car's predecessor, the fifth-generation 5 Series that carried the E60 manufacturing code. You know, the "I sorta like it but it's sorta wacky" BMW 5 Series, the one epitomized by the Dame Edna headlights and slablike trunk lid that caused so much controversy.
It seems as if BMW has been trying to figure out what to do with the 5 Series, first making it a more intense sport sedan with the E39 in 1996, then making the transition to an art car with the E60 in 2004. And now the new-generation 5 Series has adopted the chassis architecture of the BMW 7 Series to become the F10.
If you were disturbed by the design of the previous 5 Series, then the sturdy and classic styling of the new-generation F10 should put you at ease. But if you've been concerned about the drift of the 5 Series away from its identity as a sport sedan, then this latest car will increase your doubts. Based on the architecture of the BMW 7 Series, this new 5 Series is 2.3 inches longer and now rides on a wheelbase that's 3.2 inches longer, so it's more refined than before, but also less lively.
The 2011 BMW 528i is less like the slightly stretched 3 Series that you remember and more like a slightly smaller 7 Series.
The 528i is the entry point in the 2011 lineup for the 5 Series, and while the on-the-road performance from this latest edition of BMW's sparkling, 3.0-liter inline-6 engine is as much as most drivers will ever want, its output of 240 horsepower and 230 pound-feet of torque looks a little thin compared to the competition.
Supreme refinement is what this engine is all about, not pure power. It spins encouragingly and enthusiastically to its 6,750-rpm rev limiter — we'd expect no less from this perfectly balanced engine layout — and that's a good thing, because its peak power is generated just 150 rpm short of the redline. Almost better than the deceptive zip of the power delivery is the polished snarl that even the clatter of the efficiency-enhancing direct fuel injection can't muffle, nor would you want it to.
BMW's flexible and willing inline engines always have punched above their weight, but since the 2011 5 Series has put on several hundred pounds in extra weight, the engine needs an assist. It gets this from an eight-speed automatic transmission that is two ratios better than the automatic of the outgoing 5 Series, and vastly better by almost any measure. In Edmunds testing, this car gets to 60 mph from a standstill in 7.1 seconds on the way to the quarter-mile in 15.1 seconds at 91.6 mph.
Engine and transmission combine for one unexpected bonus: an EPA fuel economy rating of 22 mpg in the city and a genuinely impressive 32 mpg on the highway. We laid down plenty of 80-mph highway miles in our test car and the 2011 BMW 528i churned out 30 mpg without breaking a sweat. We find this impressive.
To get the utmost from the driveline (and the chassis, for that matter), however, the expensive Sport package incorporates Driving Dynamics Control, which offers four settings to adjust the sharpness of the response of the throttle and steering and the firmness of the damping action. Of course there was a time when all BMWs had one fairly aggressive calibration of the response from the steering, gas pedal and suspension, which ensured crisp handling at the occasional expense of ride comfort. But for the apparently increasing number of customers who'd prefer their BMWs a little less edgy, they get to pay extra to dial back what BMW is famous for, hence the elaborate electronics of Driving Dynamics Control.
When it comes to braking, this 3,910-pound 528i came to a halt from 60 mph in 113 feet during Edmunds testing.
Now that the 5 Series shares the same chassis architecture as the 7 Series, you get not only a more spacious interior but also the same sophisticated hardware as the big car at a much lower price point.
The biggest change in moving the 2011 BMW 5 Series to the 7 Series platform is increased size, increased weight and a wholly new front suspension. It's all kind of a wash, though. In theory, the new double-wishbone front suspension should offer increased dynamic responsiveness, but any gains have largely been erased by the car's increased length and significantly increased weight. You can't mistake the change, as the 5 Series feels like a much larger car, and there's been a discernible toll on the nimbleness that for so long has made the 5 Series a benchmark among sport sedans.
Of course, the standard electric power steering is almost brilliant in the tactile feel it delivers — something few electric-assist systems can achieve — and this helps the new 5 Series keep its credibility as a car with a sporting flavor. But you can't totally get past the feeling that concerns about comfort and size got extra attention when the BMW engineers were handed their mandate for this totally new generation of 5 Series.
For many customers, BMW's move toward a luxury identity for the new 5 Series is welcome. But traditional BMW buyers — the rare birds who might also ask for the six-speed manual transmission that, to BMW's credit, remains available for every 2011 5 Series model — might detect a bit of a philosophical drift here.
The basic 528i comes standard with all the equipment and safety features one expects of a luxury sedan, but there's no question you must option up to come away with the feeling of absolute premium luxury.
But the extensive array of options and option packages merely makes nicer what is already plenty respectable. The 2011 BMW 528i is the kind of straightforward luxury-sport sedan that could satisfy many in its base form with little extra festoon. The new, more driver-oriented cockpit is all business, the driving position is magnificent and rear-seat passengers will feel less pinched, although we don't believe the newfound 3.2 inches of wheelbase translate to enough extra rear-seat legroom. The trunk isn't exactly vast, either.
Design/Fit and Finish
BMW didn't shortchange us when it came to the furnishings for the new 5 Series. The interior is tightly assembled and almost all the materials have noticeably high-quality finishes, including outstanding metalwork.
The superb transmission selector sets the tone for an interior that flaunts some tech but doesn't overdo it, a foible of some of BMW's competitors. The 528i interior brilliantly walks the line between the cool look and feel of new-age components and materials and the soothing warmth of natural surfaces.
Who should consider this vehicle
The 2011 BMW 528i is the choice for those who prefer a luxury car that transmits the message that serious engineering remains the chief priority. And gone are the oddball styling details that made some look askance at the outgoing generation of BMW's most versatile sedan.
That the new 5 Series is larger, heavier and more luxury-oriented doesn't disappoint because the execution is superb. The BMW 5 Series always has been the clued-in choice among midsize luxury sedans and remains the car to buy for those who prefer performance over pampering.
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