Ed Hellwig, Executive Editor
Developing the latest 5 Series sedan must have felt like making the sequel to The Godfather. Just how do you go about improving upon perfection?
Widely considered to be the quintessential midsize sport sedan, the previous-generation 5 Series was nearly flawless in both its manners and its shape. Even after four years on the market, it was still one of the best-looking sedans in its segment and steady sales numbers confirmed its appeal. While such popularity may have been comforting to BMW in the short term, the company was well aware of how quickly that aura of desirability can fade.
The 2004 5 Series is BMW's attempt to fine-tune its midsize sedan into an even more polished and technologically superior machine than it was before. Its size, power and weight are similar, but upgrades under the skin promise an even more precise connection with the road. And like it or not, there's also a new shape for the few who had grown tired of the previous edition's familiar lines. Considerable time behind the wheel of a well-optioned six-cylinder model led to several conclusions about how this sedan stacks up against its predecessor and "better" wasn't always one of them.
With three available engines, the 5 Series extends across a broad range of performance and price. The base 525i and 530i use carryover engines from the previous generation while the top-of-the-line 545i gets the larger V8 used in the flagship 7 Series. Our 530i tester rolled in with a base price of $45,000 but its substantial list of options pushed the bottom line to nearly $56,000 a discouraging figure that was hard to ignore as we put the car through its paces over the course of a week.
At first glance, the differences between the latest model and the previous car are not overwhelmingly obvious. Other than a slightly larger size and more dramatic front and rear fascias, the 5 Series first comes across more as a modest update and less as a complete redesign. The interior offers up a more noticeable departure in styling, but even there the overall design theme looks familiar. To many, the subtlety of these changes is a welcome respite from the drastic alterations made to the 7 Series in its last redesign, and a sign that BMW may have heeded the calls for a more traditional shape when it came to the 5 Series.
The connection with the past continues under the hood as the 530i uses the same 3.0-liter inline six that powered the previous model as well as several current 3 Series offerings. Known not only for its deliciously smooth delivery but also for an uncanny ability to produce more thrust than its 225 horsepower would suggest, the smallish six is undoubtedly one of the best engines available anywhere at any price. But as impressive as we find this engine in most applications, it displayed a lack of punch in this car that left it teetering on the brink between deceptively fast and noticeably slow.
That slowness is most apparent in its off-the-line performance, as its lack of torque leaves it dragging until the engine speed climbs above 3,000 rpm. From that point on, the pace quickens considerably, but choose the wrong gear and you're left with little in reserve. We can't imagine how the smaller 2.5-liter engine fares with only 184 horsepower; unless the badge on the hood is the only thing that matters to you, we would suggest steering clear of the paltry power plant in the base model.
As lethargic as it can feel at lower speeds, the 530i takes little prodding to make time on the highway. Call up the right gear, mash the pedal and the car silently whisks itself up to extralegal speeds before you even notice it's time to shift. A 0-to-60-mph run of 7.2 seconds seemed to jibe with our assessment of the available power, but considering that a 2002 530i with the same engine turned in a time of just 6.5 seconds, we expect that a slightly quicker time is possible.
A six-speed manual transmission is standard equipment, and like most BMW gearboxes, it moves through the gears with such a light touch and smooth action that you often find yourself rowing through the gates for no particular reason. There were a few complaints about the length of the throws, but if you're intent on having a manual in your luxury sport sedan, you would be hard-pressed to find a better box than this one. The feathery clutch is still on the finicky side and it doesn't hold up well to hard launches, but without much torque running through its durability isn't likely to be a problem.
While the carryover drivetrain may leave you wishing for more at times, the heavily revised suspension has few discernable flaws. Nearly identical to the underpinnings used on the top-of-the-line 7 Series, the 5's suspension is anchored to a chassis comprised mostly of lightweight aluminum with the weight split in equal proportions front to back. The majority of the suspension components are made from aluminum as well, while multiple elastic mounting points provide isolation from the ultrastiff structure. Its advanced construction could be a story unto itself, but after experiencing the results those kinds of details don't seem quite so relevant.
The confidence that the 5 Series inspires on the road is nothing short of extraordinary. It feels as though it would be as content at 150 mph as it is at 50, with a connection to the road that feels unfiltered yet is undisturbed by minor bumps and jolts that would require constant correction in lesser cars. Road and wind noise are suppressed so well that the speedometer remains as the only reliable point of reference, and even then you'll be taking second looks in amazement.
Our particular model was fortified with the optional Sport package that adds upgraded seats, 18-inch wheels, run-flat tires and a retuned suspension. Also included is BMW's newest innovation dubbed Active Front Steering (AFS). Unlike some variable steering systems, AFS is able to vary the steering system's ratio as well as its level of assist. The idea is to make for fewer turns at parking lot speeds while maintaining the feel necessary during more spirited driving. With only one full turn needed for full lock, the system's usefulness at low speeds is apparent, but the difference at high speeds is negligible.
In fact, the only time we noticed the presence of AFS at higher speeds was during timed slalom runs where it tried to rein in our more aggressive maneuvers. Working in conjunction with the Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) system, AFS serves as a safety device by actively changing the direction of the front wheels when the system senses a loss of control. It's undoubtedly a useful aspect of the system, but when you're trying to put the car through its paces, its intervention is more of an annoyance than a helping hand. Thankfully, a push of the DSC button disables both systems entirely, allowing you to push the car the way it was intended, and it's in this state that we were reminded why the 5 Series is still one of the best sport sedans in the world.
Between the grip of the meaty 18-inch tires and the absence of roll courtesy of the Active Roll Stabilization (ARS) system borrowed from the 7 Series, the 530i is a truly tossable sedan that never surprises. Run it to the edge of adhesion and you never get the sense that it's going to just let go and leave you hanging wide in a turn. Its skid pad numbers might not be best in class, but the way in which it allows you to use every ounce of its grip without fear continues to elevate the 5 Series above every other car in its segment. That feeling is reinforced by the world-class braking system that is as precise and refined as anything on the market. Again, these brakes didn't turn in the shortest stops we've ever measured, but when it comes to their ability to stop smoothly and consistently, the 5 Series' brakes are as good as it gets.
The fact that the 5 Series is still one of the best sport sedans around hardly comes as a surprise. Even with all of the new technology packed in, BMW's engineers still understand the importance of an intuitive feel and precise control when it comes to creating a car that delivers exactly what you expect. Had they transferred that philosophy directly to the design of the cabin, this 5 Series would offer little to complain about, but we found several elements of the interior that suggest otherwise.
Not surprisingly, the inclusion of BMW's much maligned iDrive system is the most notable offender. Designed to consolidate the car's numerous functions into one cohesive system, iDrive uses a single console-mounted knob and a dash-mounted screen as the vehicle's primary interface with the driver. First used in the flagship 7 Series, iDrive was deemed too complicated by most owners, so the 5 Series uses a redesigned version with fewer menus and options.
At first glance, the simplified menu does present a less confusing entry into the system, but when it comes to daily operation we still found it to be a ponderous means of tuning the radio or dialing up some air conditioning. Call up the climate control menu and you're greeted with nothing more than a human figure and some unlabeled boxes. Play around with it enough and you can figure out all the various functions, but more often than not, we found ourselves resorting to the redundant dashboard dials that perform the same function.
The frustration continued with the radio menu as it, too, lacks an intuitive feel. The fact that the CD changer was buried in the glovebox didn't help matters much, and when we figured out that our $56,000 luxury sedan didn't even have a navigation system the disappointment persisted. If there was a saving grace to the system, it was the fact that the optional Logic 7 sound system produces phenomenal sound that will impress even the most finicky audiophiles.
Aside from the annoyance of the iDrive system, the rest of the 5's interior is about what you would expect top-notch materials, rock-solid construction and plenty of room in every direction. A longer wheelbase opens up nearly two additional inches of legroom in back, while a taller overall vehicle height increases headroom front and rear. The optional sport seats feature extendable thigh support as well as power-adjustable lumbar and multistage heaters.
Several extended trips produced no complaints from either the driver or front passenger. The firm support of the optional seats offered plenty of comfort without feeling overly stiff after several hours. Even the rear seats elicited few complaints, as the additional legroom and surprisingly well-contoured seat backs provided more than enough comfort for two taller (over six-foot) passengers on an hour-long trip. Trunk space is also up by two cubic feet, but with a total of only 14 cubic feet, it's still one of the smaller compartments in the class.
New design details like the floating gauges and metallic trim met with mixed reactions, as some favored the previous car's more traditional design while others considered the new décor an acceptable act of modernization. The distinctive design of the doors is visually interesting but not particularly practical as it places the grab handles too far forward for good leverage. The revised satellite controls on the steering wheel also drew our ire as they forego rational markings in favor of indecipherable symbols that offer no hint as to their function. Exactly what does the button with the star on it do?
Minor design flaws certainly aren't cause for knocking the 5 Series off its mantle, but when you combine them with the ridiculousness of iDrive, average acceleration and a price that promises perfection, the 530i is harder to justify this time around. It's still the sedan of choice for those who value the feel of the road above all else, but when you're paying $50K for a car, the flaws should be few and far between. It's not likely to lose its class-leader status just yet, but for the first time in a long time, we have reason to think it could.
System Score: 9.0
Components: All 5 Series models now come standard with a radio and CD player combination, but our particular test car featured the top-of-the-line Logic 7 audio system as a $1,800 option. That hefty chunk of change gets you an array of 14 speakers along with a six-disc glovebox-mounted CD changer to supplement the in-dash single-disc unit that comes standard. The individual speaker components include tweeters in both the front A-pillars and rear parcel shelf, a 4-inch midrange driver in each door, three 4-inch woofers in the rear parcel shelf, another 4-inch driver in the dashboard and two 8-inch subwoofers beneath the front seats. A volume knob and two seek buttons reside next to the in-dash CD player, but the majority of the system's functions are located within the iDrive vehicle control system.
Performance: According to BMW, the Logic 7 system is the first of its kind in any automobile (other than its own 7 Series sedan) and was designed to recreate original recordings in the most precise manner possible through its digital audio signal processing software. The explanation is long and complex, but the results are nothing short of spectacular as this system is easily one of the best currently available. We found it nearly impossible to find a genre of music that didn't sound great when running through this system. The sound stage created by the well-placed tweeters, center channel speaker and door drivers is just right not too far out in front but never muddled together, either. You can crank this system up to ear-splitting levels with minimal distortion and the deep bass produced by the under-seat woofers stays clean even when grinding through the most bass-heavy tracks.
If there's any drawback to this system, it would have to be the iDrive interface, which presents somewhat of a challenge if you don't know exactly what you want. Although much improved over the original system in the 7 Series, there are still elements of this interface that make day-to-day operation tedious. Once you get the hang of its push-and-play operation, there's a lot of functionality built into it (a full range equalizer is one example), but for anyone just looking to toss in a CD or grab the local traffic report, the iDrive system is still a bit on the complicated side.
Best Feature: Superb sound quality at any volume with any music.
Worst Feature: iDrive interface still lacks everyday functionality.
Conclusion: Easily one of the best systems you can get from the factory, but be prepared to put some time in to figure out how to use it. Ed Hellwig
Road Test Editor John DiPietro says: The first thing most people will notice about the new 5 is the "flying headlights." Another quirky Bangle styling flourish, they're likely the oddest element in this BMW's design. Yet I have to admit, the otherwise crisp lines of this 530i grew on me rather quickly. Of course, it's not nearly as handsome as the outgoing model, but thankfully neither is it bizarre like the 7 Series or the Z4.
Although the looks of the 5 Series may leave some BMW traditionalists lukewarm or even cold initially toward the car, the performance is everything one would expect from this longtime benchmark in the midsize sport/luxury sedan class. The carryover inline six was left alone, and that's fine with me as it's still an overachiever (is it really just 225 horsepower?) that performs in an effortless fashion. The gearshift is smooth through the gates, but the throws are kind of long for a car that emphasizes sporty driving. As far as the new active steering goes, the best thing I can say about it is that I really didn't notice it. I mean this in a good way, as it simply felt like very quick steering that somehow wasn't darty at high speeds. Whether it's worth the added complexity and cost is questionable, as I had no complaint with the former 5's communicative system.
The practical aspects of the car are spot on, for the most part. Great seats front and rear (in terms of support and comfort) and a compliant and quiet ride make for an ideal daily driver that can still give an enthusiast a thrill in the twisties on a Sunday afternoon.
The bottom line is that, aside from its simpler but still annoying iDrive system, the 2004 5 Series is a worthy successor to one of my longtime favorite cars.
Road Test Editor Brian Moody says: Wow! This is a stellar car in terms of driving and handling dynamics. The precision with which it corners is impressive it even brought an unexpected smile to my face. The engine is smooth and adequately powerful. It's no hot rod, but the six does offer enough pull to make the car fun. In addition, I simply love the shifter. It felt like it was being guided to the next gate by some force other than just my hand.
The seats could be more comfortable, but they did a good job of keeping me in place during hard cornering. I still don't dig that silly iDrive. I mean, really, there is just no excuse for that. And the afterthought of a sticker on the console indicating which direction to move the knob for climate control looked silly as well.
Mechanically and in terms of driving, this is probably the best six-cylinder sedan on the market. However, I was expecting a little lower price given the lack of a V8. At $55,000-plus when fully optioned, it's obvious why brands like Acura and Infiniti are doing well. But like everything else in life, if you want the best, it's gonna cost ya.
"This is just an awesome vehicle. I drove other Japanese cars claiming to be in the same class, and while they had impressive specs, none could come close to the driving experience of the 5. Plenty of power, flawless transmission with sport and manual modes and impeccable handling. I found immediately that I need to work on my driving skills because this car does exactly what you tell it to. I know people are complaining about iDrive, but I find it pretty easy to use. Although I work with computers all day." Panderse, Dec. 23, 2003
"A well-built, tight-driving car. Smooth ride and suspension and handles like a sports car with a luxury feel to it. The iDrive system takes a day or two to master but after that it's a real pleasure to set controls and only reset them as desired. No clutter of buttons or switches on the dash to deal with. I'm a BMW owner for life now. Maybe the next one will be the 7 Series." Beamer novice, Dec. 1, 2003
"I have owned the '04 530i since October. I absolutely love this car. Everything you would expect from BMW. Ride, performance and handling are great. I'm not sure what all the noise around iDrive is about. I find it very straightforward and easy to use. I have had to go in twice for service. The SOS feature was not functioning properly at delivery and the iDrive display panel had to be replaced (recall). A bit frustrating at the time, but now all is well." Richw425, Jan. 10, 2004
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