The March Toward Technological Perfection Continues
That the 2011 BMW 535i is available with an eight-speed automatic transmission — about three too many speeds in some situations — is emblematic of the newest generation of the company's core midsize sport-luxury sedan. This is an exponentially more complex thing than the car you first met as the 5 Series.
For 2011, the 5 Series has adopted the underpinnings of the 7 Series, and undeniably, some of its styling. It's received the company's Driving Dynamics Control, which allows drivers to tweak powertrain and chassis response across four settings. And beneath the front fenders are one upper and two lower control arms that replace the aging-but-proven strut suspension.
Whether these changes are for the better will depend on: 1) your willingness to drink the BMW Kool-Aid and 2) a thorough survey of the technologies and how they affect the experience.
We can only help you with No. 2.
Certainly the only bit in the 2011 BMW 535i that is simpler is the engine — a new version of the 3.0-liter turbocharged mill that previously powered 1, 3 and 5 Series cars. The simplification was accomplished by removing both turbochargers and replacing them with a single twin-scroll turbo, which BMW says helps improve throttle response. Also absent is a throttle valve. The new engine is throttled via BMW's Valvetronic system, which alters valve lift to control engine speed.
Direct injection is at least partially responsible for the 535i's improved EPA fuel economy ratings, which rise from 17 city/26 highway in 2010 to 20 city/30 highway for 2011.
Despite these changes, or perhaps because of them, power and torque ratings remain the same at 300 horsepower and 300 pound-feet. Our dyno test, however, showed the new engine was less consistent in delivering the much-appreciated platform of torque. Power, too, suffered by wandering slightly and peaking below that of the old engine.
The Human Dyno
Fortunately, those machine-measured differences never registered at our backside. Once under way, there's a virtually immediate shove when the throttle is depressed for passing. In fact, response is near instant in every situation due to the transmission's rapid shifts.
Despite rev-matched downshifts activated via wheel-mounted paddles, we found it easy to lose our place among the transmission's numerous gears in Manual mode. The solution is to simply let the transmission do the shifting. With so many gears to choose from, we never found a hole in power delivery while exiting a corner or climbing a hill.
Standing starts, though, never feel intuitive. Acceleration, at least initially, isn't proportional to pedal input. On many occasions this caused us to dig into the pedal even further — an effort which often produced an unwanted surge of acceleration once the throttle position actually registered with the car's electronic brain. Whether this is a product of throttle calibration, transmission calibration or the power delivery of the new engine isn't clear. But it's something we noticed on our long-term 7 Series as well.
Ultimately, though, a throttle delay from a standing start is a subtlety to which we can adjust. And when the car is moving it does nothing to diminish the engaging driving character that is still present — if somewhat tempered — in this midsize sedan. Bump the optional Adaptive Drive switch up to Sport mode ("Normal" is the default) and you get more aggressive gear selection logic, quicker shifts, stiffer damping and increased roll control.
And it works. Subtly.
The most effective trait of Adaptive Drive is Dynamic Damping Control, which tunes damping for the mode selected and the conditions the car is experiencing. There's a wide range of personalities available, ranging from bump compliance that would make your grandma's Buick jealous to remarkable levels of control useful for laying waste to on-ramp dawdlers. A testament to BMW's confidence in the system's abilities is its choice of 35 and 40-series tires on 19-inch wheels — a combination that removes any hope of tire compliance and demands the suspension do all the work.
Electric power steering enhances efficiency and offers appropriate weight in most situations, but still lacks the feedback of the best EPS systems. Our test car wasn't fitted with BMW's Integral Active Steering, which integrates rear steering to add high-speed stability and low-speed maneuverability.
Ultimately, however, almost every interface inside the 535i is quite good. Especially considering the audience. Sure, there will always be those hard-core devotees who insist that this sedan should come with a manual transmission and be driven accordingly. Largely, though, this is a comfortable cruiser that is just as at home in the daily traffic slog as it is on the open road. And there are few machines better adapted to those environs.
At the Track
We'd love to tell you that all these advances result in better test numbers, but the simple and unpopular fact is that, save the 60-0-mph braking distance, the 2011 BMW 535i is outperformed in every performance test by its predecessor. And let's not forget, that predecessor had twin turbos and adjustable suspension damping.
Notes from our test driver indicate the above-mentioned delay from a standing start, which likely contributed to a 0-60 sprint almost a half-second slower than the previous-generation 535i. At 5.9 seconds (5.6 seconds with a 1-foot rollout as on a drag strip), the 2011 BMW 535i's performance is on par with Infiniti's M37. In the quarter-mile it's slower than both the old 535i and the Infiniti M37 at 14.3 seconds at 95.1 mph.
In addition to the power deficit, at least some of the lazy acceleration can be pinned on an as-tested weight 171 pounds higher than the last 535i we tested. BMW acknowledges this difference itself even more significantly, claiming a 386-pound variance between the curb weights of the current and outgoing model.
An average of 0.84g around the skid pad is less lateral grip than the M37S and previous 535i (0.86g and 0.89g, respectively). What's more, Active Roll Stabilization still allows more body roll than we'd prefer. Slalom speed, at 64.9 mph, is accompanied by admirable balance despite feeling somewhat limited by tire grip. It's also slower than the previous 535i (65.3 mph) and the current M37S (67.9 mph).
We recorded a combined fuel economy of 22.7 mpg over 1,438 miles — almost identical to the 22.5-mpg number we measured in the old car.
But deciding the worth of a multitalented sedan like the 2011 BMW 535i based solely on its track performance is like writing off a Scorsese film because of its violent content. There's a lot more to this stately sedan than what GPS instruments can measure.
For example, there's the standard fourth-generation iDrive, which we find pleasantly usable relative to previous generations even if we have seen it before in other models. Our test car lacked navigation and was relegated to use of the smaller 7-inch screen rather than the 10.2-inch IMAX version that comes with the navigation system. The presence of the "Nav" button near the control knob was somewhat confusing at first, but overall intuitiveness of the iDrive user interface has been elevated to among the most easy-to-use multicontrol devices on the market.
Our tester was also upholstered in Venetian Beige Dakota Leather — a truly stunning material to view and touch, but also one that is easily discolored. The now-familiar BMW dual-zone climate controls are present, as are new steering-wheel-mounted cruise control buttons. Fortunately, they're as functional and logical as the stalk-mounted cruise control of the 3 and 7 Series.
But the absolute stunner of the interior is the thick, small-diameter steering wheel, which comes wrapped in the same leather as everything else. For our money, this device, which you touch every time you drive the car, seals the deal.
In following the current more-is-better automotive design philosophy, the 5 Series' wheelbase has grown 3.2 inches. At 116.9 inches it is the longest in its class. Oddly, this doesn't translate to the most front and rear legroom — that honor goes to the Infiniti M. Even our larger editors found ample space in the 5, however. Average-size passengers have room to swim in the rear seat and large adults (6 feet plus) can fit behind their own driving position without being cramped. But none of this should come as a surprise in this class.
Also, unsurprising is our test car's $60,225 sticker price (including destination). Major options include the $2,700 Dynamic Handling package, $2,200 Sport package, $1,450 Dakota Leather and $800 Side and Top View Camera option.
At the end of the day, the 2011 BMW 535i might not be as quick as before and it might not answer a rigid test track protocol with the alacrity of its predecessor. We'd even say that it's no longer the sportiest driving car in its segment. But we'd guess most buyers won't measure it using those criteria.
Rather, the critical question will be how the 5 measures up to the tasks of daily driving, convenience, over-the-road comfort and moving passengers with grace and style. And using those standards it's hard to say it's anything but a wild success. The 2011 BMW 535i is a graceful, competent and rewarding sedan — whether or not you drink the Kool-Aid.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.