Chris Walton, Chief Road Test Editor
Nearly perfect doesn't come around too often, but the 2008 BMW 535i turns practical science into a kind of art. Maybe we should hold some kind of celebration at the local museum of science and industry.
The practical science sounds easy. Ample room for four or five adults and luggage, enough power to regularly move the people with ease and occasional urgency, a ride that's confident, comfortable and quiet and, naturally, a sharp sense of style.
The thoroughly revised 2008 BMW 5 Series not only hits the target in all these categories, but also revitalizes the whole concept of a sport sedan. And that's the art part of the equation.
This Is a BMW, So Let's Start With Power What does BMW's new twin-turbo 3.0-liter inline-6 engine do for the 5 Series? This 2008 BMW 535i test car with an automatic transmission effectively equaled the acceleration of a 2006 BMW 550i equipped with a manual transmission. The 535i's 5.5-second acceleration to 60 mph proves a sedan doesn't need the 550i's V8 engine to be quick.
Each new application of BMW's wundermotor leaves us breathless. The ease with which it makes belly-flattening torque translates directly to an ability to deliver an effortless experience when it comes to merging on the highway or passing, not to mention undemanding cruising at super-legal speeds right up to 150 mph, where the electronic limiter calls a halt to the fun.
What's more, our test car recorded 22.5 mpg during our two-week drive. By the way, this is one of the first vehicles we've tested that reflects the new-for-2008 EPA average fuel economy ratings. Our real-world 22.5-mpg average (24.2 mpg best/20.0 mpg worst) over 1,600 miles does, indeed, reflect the 535i's official 17 mpg city/26 mpg highway fuel economy ratings for 2008. See this thorough explanation of the new method for more detail.
What's New? This midsize BMW sedan has been around since 2004, so both its interior and exterior were due for a worthwhile freshening. A quick glance doesn't reveal the subtle changes, but you'll eventually detect the new front and rear fascia, and both the new headlights and taillights have integrated LED side markers.
Meanwhile, the interior casts aside the cold and faintly cheap industrial look for a new feel of luxury, thanks largely to the way the dash neatly sweeps into the door panels. There's more leather for much the same reason. In addition, the window switches have been moved to the armrests.
When it comes to hardware, the 2008 BMW 5 Series parallels the 3 Series rollout with two new inline-6 engines, including this 535i's overachieving 300-horsepower N54 twin-turbo, which replaces the former 255-hp six in the now-departed 530i. The new, normally aspirated 230-hp N52 engine in the 2008 528i replaces the 215-hp inline-6 in the 525i.
By the way, these engines all displace 3.0 liters, despite the nonsensical badge nomenclature. Both new engines can be mated with rear- or all-wheel drive and in sedan or wagon body styles. The 550i's 360-hp V8 is carried over, and can only be had in the rear-drive sedan.
BMW has also upgraded the transmission choices for the 5 Series to take advantage of the additional power. The quick-shifting Steptronic six-speed automatic transmission is a no-cost option, and it features a new-style shift lever on the central console that was first seen in the recently introduced second-generation X5. An even quicker-shifting version with steering-wheel-mounted shift paddles costs an added $500. Meanwhile, the six-speed manual is standard equipment, and widespread dismay about the unfriendly personality of the SMG sequential manual transmission has led to its not-very-mysterious disappearance from the options list.
An optional lane-departure warning system jiggles the steering wheel when you drift out of line, and a new, optional active cruise control functions in true stop-and-go traffic. And slowly iDrive seems to be improving, as this new calibration incorporates six programmable favorites buttons that can be set to access things like destination addresses, phone numbers or radio station presets.
Practical Science Costs Money The 2008 BMW 535i has a base price of $50,175. For that amount of money, you'd expect a pretty healthy helping of standard items, and you'd be correct. As we've already mentioned, the automatic transmission is a no-cost option, yet even the active bi-xenon headlamps, halogen foglights, rain-sensing wipers, auto dual-zone climate control, power tilt-telescoping steering wheel, moonroof, power seats, dark poplar wood trim and iDrive are all standard as well.
It's also worth mentioning that BMW Assist (utilizing a satellite phone to call for help in an emergency) is included for four years, as is free scheduled maintenance.
We were also treated to the exhaustive $2,100 Premium Package, somewhat useful $750 Cold Weather Package, highly convenient $1,000 Comfort Access Package, scuff-reducing $700 Park Distance sensors (front and rear), slightly obtuse $1,900 Navigation, highly recommended $500 HD radio and $1,200 Logic 7 audio upgrade. That lengthy list of options brought our 535i's as-tested price to $61,125. Woof, but considering the $59,275 base MSRP of a 550i, we can make an argument that there's real value here.
Artful Driving As with every regular-issue BMW, the 535i deftly walks the tightrope of supple ride versus performance handling. Even while equipped with the reasonably priced Sport Package, our test car delivered a comfortable ride that never deteriorated, even over broken pavement. For $2,800, BMW includes 18-inch wheels shod with high-performance run-flat tires, and a retuned suspension including active antiroll bars. You also get 20-way-adjustable front seats to enhance your ability to command such a fine piece, while satin-chrome exterior trim makes you feel good about this car when you walk up to it in the parking lot.
The midsize 535i is not just an upgraded version of the trendy executive assistant's compact 335i. No, this is the executive express that the boss drives. Although its price is just out of reach for many, the executive can afford a 5 Series, and its price sets him apart as does its performance. This guy is smart enough to know that the 7 Series doesn't do well in a cost-benefit analysis, and he cares less about going fast than about rear-seat accommodations and luxury features. He could afford the $10,000 premium for the 360-hp V8-powered 550i, but it's no faster than the 535i, and yet thirstier. Yes, the 528i is $5,000 less expensive, but one freeway on-ramp shows its 230-hp engine is just adequate motivation.
Yes, the right BMW sedan to possess and enjoy surely is the 535i. Swift, comfortable and frugal, the 535i is the perfect balance between the performance we've come to expect from BMW and a new appreciation for practical science.
Think of the 2008 BMW 535i as a 550i with a big price discount, and take pleasure in one of the world's few nearly perfect sedans.
Senior Copy Editor Doug Lloyd Says: Last night I had a date with some sexy twins, the turbos in the 2008 BMW 535i. There's simply nothing like stomping the loud pedal, hearing those turbos spool up and getting punched back in the seat by raw, unadulterated power, which in the 5 continues well into triple-digit speeds. While this kind of acceleration dictates keeping your eyes glued to the road, occasionally I'd peek down just to see the tach needle swing up to redline.
I love a good sport sedan (my own ride is an '88 535i), and the '08 535i is a master. It's incredibly solid, the brakes could stop a bullet and the handling inspires pure confidence. On a decreasing-radius on-ramp usually taken at 10 mph, I powered through the turn. What a driver's car. Great thick, meaty steering wheel and fantastic seats. And that rich, full-sounding stereo, whether playing Oscar Peterson or Pink Floyd. BMW really has it right with the keyless entry, too. Grab the door handle to unlock it, and touch the outside of the handle to lock. That's it.
I've driven the rocket-fast 500-horsepower M5 and it is undeniably sweet. But the 535i offers all the power you need, for about $30K less.
Overall Grade: A
Harman Kardon with Logic 7
Price if optional:
Six-disc in glovebox
CD, CD-R, MP3
Bluetooth for phone:
How does it sound: A This system is easily one of the best factory audio systems currently available. We found it nearly impossible to find a genre of music that didn't sound great when running through this system. The soundstage created by the well-placed tweeters, center-channel speaker and door drivers sounds just right, not too far out in front but never muddled together either. You can crank up this system to ear-splitting levels with minimal distortion and the deep bass produced by the under-seat woofers produced cleaner, heavier bass notes than the Bose and Mark Levinson systems in the Acura and Infiniti.
How does it work: B- If there's any drawback to this system it would have to be the iDrive interface, as it presents somewhat of a challenge if you don't know exactly what you want. Although there are improvements versus the original system, many day-to-day operations are 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.
Special features: BMW is still one of the few automakers offering HD radio. When combined with the optional Logic 7 sound system, even your local broadcast radio station sounds excellent — it adds $500 to the price tag. Sirius Satellite Radio is available for an extra $595 on top of that.
Conclusion: Easily one of the best systems you can get from the factory, but be prepared to put in some time to figure out how to use it. — Brian Moody, Road Test Editor
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