One of the most challenging tasks faced by any manufacturer occurs when it's time to redesign a model that is already considered a segment benchmark. This isn't usually a problem because by the time most cars are due for a redesign (about every five to seven years) they have likely been surpassed by at least one or more competitive models.
But in the case of BMW's 5 Series, which was last remade in 1997, the car remains the model by which all other luxury sport sedans are measured. Its sales figures continue to climb, and nearly every major automotive publication, including our own Most Wanted Awards, has repeatedly identified it as the car to buy in this segment.
But successful car companies know the folly of waiting until a vehicle is dying on the vine before injecting new life into it (not that it doesn't still happen). World-class automakers know there's always room for improvement, and they'll work to refine even the most highly regarded cars, regardless of their current position in the marketplace.
While the 2004 BMW 5 Series is considered a complete redesign, the changes to its basic character seem more like subtle refinement. It was already a comfortable, capable and highly dynamic machine. The latest version is still all of these things, just a bit more so. You could say it's still basically the same vehicle, but now "it goes up to 11."
In terms of overall philosophy, the largest shift from the previous model comes in the form of technology. Several items are pulled directly from the recently redesigned 7 Series, including iDrive, Active Roll Stabilization (ARS), Active Cruise Control (ACC), Park Distance Control (PDC) and a Harmon Kardon Logic7 sound system though only iDrive is standard on all 5 Series models. If you've driven (or even read about) the current 7 Series, you are already familiar with these features. It's worth mentioning that the 2004 5 Series uses what BMW calls an "updated" version of iDrive that is supposed to incorporate simplified menus for greater ease of use. Other than the larger and more colorful display (available when you order the optional navigation system or premium climate control system), we could hardly tell any difference between the 5 Series and the 7 Series iDrive units. And it still took three BMW engineers nearly 10 minutes to switch our test car's system from German to English when we asked them to help us perform this function.
But don't think of the 2004 5 Series as just a smaller version of the current 7 Series. While much of the 7's technology has migrated down to the new 5, several advanced technologies make their debut this year on BMW's premier sport sedan. The most exciting of these is dubbed Active Front Steering (AFS) because it is capable of varying the steering ratio between 10 to 1 and 20 to 1, depending on vehicle speed. BMW says it is similar in philosophy to the "steer-by-wire" systems used on aircraft, except the BMW version still uses a mechanical link between the steering wheel and front wheels (if the system malfunctions for some reason, the car will default to a 15-to-1 ratio and it can still be driven). The final effect is that, regardless of speed, the driver is often using the same relatively small level of steering wheel input to negotiate a turn. This lack of consistency in steering ratio might sound disconcerting, and we admit that at least once, after slowing down from highway speeds, we went to turn into a hotel entrance and initially used far too much steering wheel input. However, the learning curve with this system was almost instant, and it undoubtedly proved helpful when we were charging through tight switchbacks along the Southern coast of Sardinia.
AFS will be optional on all 2004 5 Series trim levels except the 545i with manual transmission, on which it comes standard. It is part of the Sport Package on the 525i, 530i and 545i with automatic, and it works in concert with Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) to maintain stability by measuring the car's yaw rate and steering angle. The BMW folks told us the system will even "kick back" against steering input if it senses inputs that will result in a spin, though we never felt such intervention.
In fact, we found it difficult to get any sort of unwanted response from the new 5 Series during our brief but intensive seat time. The car's all-new platform feels extremely balanced, and BMW confirmed that the company achieved a 50/50 weight distribution between the front and rear axles by utilizing all-aluminum front suspension and chassis components. Basically, almost everything under the skin and ahead of the firewall is aluminum in a move BMW calls "intelligent lightweight construction." It is the first aluminum-steel chassis combination created by the company, and it uses high-tech bonding agents to ensure that the disparate metal types don't come apart. BMW told us it shaved 81 pounds off the front end, which is significant when you remember that weight at the end of a vehicle has a greater effect on handling dynamics because it is further from the car's center of gravity. We were also assured that no specialized repair facilities will be necessary due to this design.
Additional features to debut on the 2004 5 Series include optional adaptive headlights and adaptive brake lights. Adaptive headlights are bi-xenon units that can rotate to illuminate the road ahead in a turn (they are also networked with AFS and DSC). Adaptive brake lights will brighten the taillights to brake light levels when the driver applies extra pressure on the brake pedal, giving additional warning to following vehicles that hard braking is taking place. Optional run-flat tires and a tire-pressure monitoring system as well as a heads-up display (HUD), also make an appearance on the 2004 5 Series. The HUD is unique in that it can display in multiple colors and it has a sensor to constantly vary its intensity based on ambient light (meaning it won't blaze too brightly while you go through a tunnel or fade when the sun comes out from behind the clouds). The driver can customize what information appears in the HUD, including navigation instructions (if the vehicle is equipped with the optional DVD-based nav system). And speaking of DVDs, there's even an optional fold-down DVD player for rear-seat passengers.
If all the high-tech stuff has you scratching your head (or worse, thinking the 5 Series has become nothing more than a glorified, passionless computer chip), don't forget about the more basic upgrades. For instance, while the 2.5-liter and 3.0-liter inline six engines are essentially unchanged from the previous version, both models can now be had with either a six-speed manual transmission or a six-speed Sequential Manual Gearbox (similar to what's been available on the M3 for the past year). A six-speed Steptronic automatic transmission is also available this year and it features both a Sport and manual shift mode for drivers who want to be aggressive without clutch concerns. Finally, let's not forget the 4.5-liter V8 (lifted directly from the 7 Series) that comes in the new 545i. This engine features all the advanced systems (Valvetronic throttle control, steplessly variable intake, etc.) as it does in the 7. Another exciting new feature is the 18-inch cast alloy wheel-and-tire package that can be included with Sport Package-equipped cars.
While we would like to say we experienced the new 5 Series in all its many forms, the truth is that only 530i models, with either the six-speed manual or automatic transmissions, were available during the press introduction. While limited in scope, we had enough seat time inside the 530i to confirm a few items. First, as previously mentioned, it's an extremely balanced machine. Aggressive driving maneuvers did little to affect its overall poise, and even on models equipped with the AFS system BMW's trademark steering feel has not been lost. The car is also refined and quiet at highway speeds, more so than what we recalled of the current 5 Series. We were also surprised by the ride quality on cars equipped with the optional run-flat tires. While these tires often trade "anti-flat tire" security for harsh reactions over bumps, the new 5 Series' suspension seemed capable of balancing both notions in a single vehicle.
Inside the 2004 5 Series, we noticed several 7 Series design cues (iDrive being the most obvious), but we were grateful to see that, even on automatic vehicles, the shifter still resides in the center console rather than on a truncated lever hiding behind the steering wheel. As in the 7 Series, basic audio and climate control functions can be accomplished without going through iDrive, and all controls (along with all interior surface materials) had a quality look and feel. We were particularly taken with the "Dark Poplar" wood interior trim (it's part of the Premium Package) that managed to look both upscale and sporty at the same time. Rear-seat room has benefited from the slightly larger size of the new 5 Series, and seat comfort (both front and rear) is exceptional.
With so many upgrades and additions to the 5 Series in 2004, it's clear that BMW wanted to maintain the car's position within the luxury sport sedan class. And although we don't feel that technology can address everything when it comes to creating ultimate driving machines, BMW has married the two concepts successfully in the new 5 Series.