John Griffiths, contributor
The launch of the then-latest 5 Series BMW a couple of generations back took place on the highways and byways around the lovely old Black Forest-bordering spa town of Baden-Baden. A quick look at the map reveals that it lies only an hour or so's drive from that entertaining 14 miles of tarmac rejoicing in the name of Nordschleife. There was a Germanic huddle; some pretty dubious glances across at me; finally, a reluctant nod of consent. If I absolutely insisted, I could give der Funf a twirl or two around the 'Ring in addition to the official test route.
At the end of just one lap the BMW was in the same state as our late, great, overweight Chow-Chow, Winnie, after a stroll to the pub: namely, as the British say, completely knackered.
Its brakes had cried enough. Its tires had long ago stopped giving a damn about which way the car was pointing. The dampers were of such unadjustable softness that the rate of heel would have made an America's Cup contender proud. Circuits, in short, are not kind to unmodified road-going sedans, and the Nordschleife that day was clearly in a thoroughly filthy mood.
Nor, just a week or two ago, was Portugal's tortuous Estoril circuit very kindly disposed toward the very latest iteration of the 2011 BMW 5 Series.
The 3.0-liter diesel 530d and 535i gasoline models I drove, when engaged in Sport mode, felt more composed than their forebears and would hold a cornering line more consistently — as one would expect after more than a decade of further development. But, rightly or wrongly, the 5 Series has long been regarded as the definitive midsize premium sport sedan, and this latest version was clearly not relishing its on-circuit role. The steering was peculiarly lifeless; any sense of joie de vivre curiously absent. After the three brisk laps allowed, we could pull into the pits with no sign of the brake and handling degeneration that had dogged the 5 Series of yore. But since three laps of Estoril gets you only halfway around the Nordschleife, the comparison is hardly fair.
In its more natural haunts of freeways, autobahns and everyday roads, however, the 2011 BMW 5 Series is a different proposition altogether, loping along with relaxed ease and lending plausibility to BMW management Board Chairman Norbert Reithofer's breezy confidence that it will turn out to be another winner. (It needs to be, because the 5 Series for years has accounted for around half of BMW group profits.)
For a start, it has emerged as one of BMW's more elegant and stylish, if undramatic, shapes in recent history. Indeed, Reithofer tells me with a grin — he is by nature one of the more amiable of German auto industry bigwigs — "this car is symbolic of the future of BMW." Unspoken but implicit is that the new 5 Series marks fresh design thinking and a determination to consign to history the fierce debates that have swirled around the aesthetics of BMWs during Chris Bangle's tenure as chief designer.
Bangle quit early last year and started his own design consultancy, having been responsible for cars such as the 2002 7 Series luxury car with its curiously raised trunk lid (it came to be derided as the "Bangle butt"), the company's SUV range and a couple of generations of the mainstay 3 and 5 Series models.
The feeling of a fresh design culture coming into play is not confined to the exterior. Inside the 2011 BMW 5 Series, there is a dashboard of disarming simplicity: twin instrument binnacles containing only the most immediately needed data, set out clearly and without any distracting embellishments. Audio system and climate control units are packaged neatly above one another in the central console. There is a good-size navigation and information screen operated by the latest version of BMW's once unnervingly complex iDrive controller knob but which, at last, has become reasonably intuitive. Using it this time round, there was no lessening of my will to live; nor any fear that my desiccated body might be found in a lay-by six months on, skeletal fingers still clutching the instruction manual.
In an age of cab-forward design and windscreens and dashboards arching away like the curvature of the earth, there is also a welcome intimacy to the cockpit engendered by a less steeply raked windscreen than usual and the upright nature of the dashboard. The work largely of one of BMW's new generation of young designers, Oliver Heilmer, it gives a sense of focus for the purpose of concentrated driving.
And yet, and yet... it is hard to work up unmitigated enthusiasm for the 2011 BMW 5 Series. One reason is the steering — an issue with which BMW must soon start getting to grips on a wider front if its claim to maker of "ultimate driving machines" is not to be increasingly called into question. It is an electrically assisted system and it does no justice to the car. It is lifeless and uninformative, particularly around the dead-ahead position. It is not as bad as BMW's Z4, when in combination with hard-sidewalled, run-flat tires the EPAS removes all precision from fast cross-country driving. But it is no coincidence that Lotus, Aston Martin and a rival of the 5 Series, the marvelously fluid-driving Jaguar XF, have tried and abandoned electric systems in favor of the precision and feel of hydraulics. Others at Inside Line have been a bit more favorably impressed with the 5 Series' electric steering.
In Comfort mode it rides well and, driven with more spirit and firmer damper settings on open roads, it will still satisfy the vast majority of traditional 5 Series buyers. Indeed, some will regard it as a bonus that it is slightly larger and more accommodating than its predecessor, and that increased refinement brings it closer to its old and traditionally more sedate archenemy, the Mercedes E-Class.
There is no lack of model choice with the 2011 BMW 5 Series, ranging from a frugal 2.0-liter diesel for Euro-reps through to a 400-horsepower twin-turbo 4.4-liter V8. Later, doubtless, will come a successor to the current range-topper, the manic, 500-hp V10-engined M5. All versions benefit greatly from the new eight-speed automatic transmission first seen on BMW's curious 5 Series GT hatchback. It is an option, but few are likely to opt for the basic six-speed manual pudding-stirrer.
Reithofer is currently that rarity in Europe's auto industry, as it braces for plunging sales when various countries' car scrappage incentive schemes expire this year: an optimist, at least as far as BMW's future is concerned.
"Let us not fool ourselves that the global financial crisis is over," he beams. "But for BMW I am sure we will sell more cars in 2010 than last year."
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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