It's not an overstatement to say that the BMW 5 Series sets the standard for premium sport sedans and up until the current generation, wagons, too. Introduced in the United States for 1972, the midsize 5 Series has long offered a near-perfect blend of performance, luxury and interior room.
Most BMW 5 Series cars you'll come across new or used are rear-wheel drive; however, all-wheel drive has been optional in recent years. Most 5s also have an inline six-cylinder engine, though BMW has offered V8 versions since 1994 and the current generation now uses a turbocharged four-cylinder as its base engine. When people ask us to recommend luxury cars, BMW's 5 Series is invariably high on the list. Wealthier shoppers may gravitate toward the newer models loaded with technology, but older 5 Series cars can be just as satisfying to drive and own.
Current 5 Series
Unlike past versions, the BMW 5 Series is available only as a sedan, since the wagon has been replaced in North America by the 5 Series GT (discussed in a separate review). The base 528i features a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder that produces 240 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. Stepping up to the 535i gets you a turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-6 that produces 300 hp and 300 lb-ft of torque. Finally, the 550i has a 4.4-liter twin-turbo V8 that produces 400 hp and 450 lb-ft of torque. Each model comes standard with rear-wheel drive and a six-speed manual transmission. An eight-speed automatic and all-wheel drive are optional.
Standard features include a sunroof, power seats, a power tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, Bluetooth and a 12-speaker sound system. Typical luxury upgrades (depending on the model) include adaptive xenon headlights, parking sensors, navigation, night-vision camera, active cruise control, an automatic parallel parking system, ventilated front seats and heavenly 14-way "multicontour" front seats.
In reviews, we've found the 5 Series doesn't have the same level of sport sedan zest that the car has traditionally provided. But the upside is that the car is more comfortable, spacious, efficient and luxurious. For a majority of buyers in the class, this is the best 5 Series to date. Although some may scoff at a four-cylinder luxury sedan, the 528i's engine is superb, delivering strong acceleration and excellent fuel economy. That same majority of buyers should be more than happy sticking with the base engine, although the added oomph provided by the 535i and 550i certainly won't disappoint. Downsides are few, and really only the lofty price and stiff competition prevent the 5 Series from being an easy choice.
Used BMW 5 Series Models
The current-generation BMW 5 Series debuted for 2011. Compared to the previous-generation 5, the current car returns to a more conservative appearance, one that shows a stronger family resemblance to other BMW sedans. It is also bigger and heavier, while mechanically sharing much with the 7 Series. Interior controls and electronics were also upgraded to the latest BMW norm, and the design itself returned to a more driver-centered dash layout. In many ways, the latest 5 Series represents a visual return to the past while carrying on the technological advancements of the present and future.
For 2011, the 528i was rear-wheel-drive only and powered by a 3.0-liter naturally aspirated six-cylinder that produced 240 hp and 230 lb-ft of torque. Its fuel economy wasn't nearly as impressive as the turbocharged four-cylinder that replaced it. Used buyers of this first model year should also note that every 5 Series engine suffered from significant throttle lag that could make the car difficult and irritating to drive. Complaints from consumers and car reviewers alike were common.
The previous, fifth-generation 5 Series was produced from 2004-'10. On the surface, this 5 Series incorporated bold styling cues that departed from BMW's traditional styling language established over the preceding four generations. Inside, the 5 boasted one of the most spacious and comfortable cabins in its class, particularly when optioned with the fantastic multicontour front seats.
There were a number of different model designations used for this generation, as well as a wagon body style. For 2004 and '05, it was offered only in sedan form and only with rear-wheel drive. There were two six-cylinder models, the 184-hp 525i and 225-hp 530i, along with a top-line V8 version, the 325-hp 545i. Throughout this generation, a six-speed manual transmission was standard and a six-speed automatic optional. For 2006, the entire engine and model lineup was refreshed. The six-cylinders both displaced 3.0 liters, resulting in a more spirited 215-hp 525i and a 255-hp 530i. The top-of-the-line sedan became the 550i and featured a 360-hp 4.8-liter V8.
The 5 Series wagon also arrived for 2006. It was offered in a single 530xi model and all-wheel drive came standard. Additionally, all-wheel drive became optional for the 530 sedan. For 2007, additional standard equipment was added like an auxiliary input jack and BMW Assist, while new options include high-definition radio, BMW's Night Vision system and 20-way-adjustable front seats.
For 2008, the six-cylinder engines were replaced. The base engine was now found in the 528i, which featured a 3.0-liter 230-hp inline-6. The midgrade choice became the 535i with its twin-turbo 3.0-liter inline-6 good for 300 hp. Indeed, we'd argue this was the best choice as it offered similar performance for less money than the unchanged 550i. The xDrive all-wheel-drive system was now standard on the 528i and 535i sedans, while the wagon could only be had in 535i xDrive form.
Another area a used shopper should note is the system called iDrive, which corralled audio, climate, navigation and communication functions using a central LCD screen and console-mounted control dial. This system was especially cumbersome to use and could make seemingly simple tasks a confusing, multistep affair. For 2009, the 5 Series received an updated iDrive control knob and menu buttons, but the old cumbersome menu structure remained the same. For 2010, the entire iDrive system was updated with the menu structure of newer BMWs as long as you ordered the navigation system.
This BMW 5 Series was a well-balanced machine that could handle aggressive driving on winding back roads just as easily as it dispatched weekday commutes on crumbling expressways. The 5's adeptness at both ride comfort and handling prowess borders on the amazing. The steering was equally sublime, with perfect weighting and a near-telepathic feel -- however, it could be rather stiff in parking lots. If you like the styling and aren't irritated by its electronics interface, the 5 Series is an excellent choice for a used luxury car.
The fourth-generation BMW 5 Series was produced from 1997-2003. Many purists consider this the finest era for the BMW 5 Series, as exceptional on-road dynamics, premium furnishings and unparalleled refinement came together in one classically styled package. Resale value has always been high for this generation, so expect to spend more than you would for competitors of similar age. Reliability has been strong as well.
Provided it's well maintained, any car from this generation is worth your consideration. For 1997 and '98, only sedans were offered: a 528i with a 190-hp 2.8-liter inline-6 and a 540i with a 282-hp 4.4-liter V8. The wagon joined the lineup in 1999 and was available with either engine, both of which gained variable valve timing that year. In 2001, the 528i sedan got a new 225-hp 3.0-liter six and became the 530i; the 528 wagon was dropped. BMW also added an entry-level 184-hp 525i sedan and wagon to the lineup.
Third-generation BMW 5 Series cars (1989-'95) are still common as well. Although not as perfectly balanced as its successor, this car was highly regarded in its day. If you find one in good condition, you'll almost certainly find it enjoyable to own. The best years were 1994 and '95 when BMW offered V8 power in two 5 Series with the 530i sedan and wagon (215 hp) and the 540i sedan (282 hp).
If you are looking for newer years, visit our new BMW 5 Series page.
For more on past BMW 5 Series models, view our BMW 5 Series history page.