Matt Davis, Contributor
We're now officially 37 years beyond the introduction of the first-generation 5 Series and we still haven't gotten over it. And now the 2011 BMW 535i sedan that we're driving near Lisbon, Portugal, and around the nearby racetrack at Estoril is part of the sixth generation of the 5 Series family.
How important is the 5 Series family to BMW's bottom line? Worldwide, the lineup of these premium executive sedans accounts for just over 50 percent of annual net profits. (Just think of what BMW can do with that money now that its cash-sucking Formula 1 circus act is finally done!) This is also a car that speaks to those who believe in the BMW brand, as 80 percent of 5 Series buyers have owned a BMW already.
After our early viewing of the new 5 Series last November, this is the first drive of the new, larger car, now built at the Dingolfing factory alongside the new 7 Series and 5 Series GT. And having now just diced up around 150 miles of tight two-lanes, open rural highways and high-speed motorways, we are ready to pronounce the 2011 BMW 535i sedan a class leader in several respects.
When we're in take-it-easy mode, the new 5 Series feels damned near ideal and not boatlike in the least. Then we punch Sport+ in BMW's Driving Dynamics Control and knock out all the stability control systems when it's safe to do so, and the gnarlier spirit of the 2011 BMW 535i glows through the handsomely toned-down interior redesign.
Not Begging Attention
We hardly need to remind you of how hard contenders in this market segment (especially those of the German persuasion) crave attention to set themselves apart. Just look at the entire mega-edgy Mercedes family of the current generation or the mega-curvy Audi explorations of late. And indeed the last 5 Series (the E60 body) will go down in history as perhaps the poster child C.O.A. of all C.O.As. But this new 2011 5 Series (the F10) reverses course and does so deliberately, as this 2011 BMW 535i shows us.
BMW Group Design Director Adrian van Hooydonk brought up a good few points about this transition in a conversation with us. "Our approach through history," he tells us, "has generally been to experiment quite a lot with every other generation of each model." This certainly helps explain the styling calm of the F10 car following the E60 storm.
Van Hooydonk and his team, like all design squads these days, have had to give paramount attention to new regulations that attempt to minimize injuries among pedestrians in the kind of low-speed impacts you see in crowded cities (a big deal in Europe, apparently), and this recent phenomenon has really changed the styling game. It's why recent BMWs have returned to a larger, vertical dual-kidney grille. "A key player in being able to do this on the new 5 Series," says Project Director Josef Wüst, "was placing the grille lower to the ground." To aid this effort, the engine has been moved rearward 1.6 inches and then down 0.4 inch.
Stylingwise, the shape of the new bi-xenon headlights leave us just a bit underwhelmed, though the new rigidity-enhancing creases in the more curvaceous aluminum hood do add some pizzazz. Lastly, the profile of the 2011 5 Series sedan reveals a cabin set farther back in an almost coupelike configuration, which helps explain why rear seat legroom has increased just a half inch over the previous car, though the wheelbase is 3.2 inches longer and overall length has increased 1.8 inches. But, c'mon, it's still plenty of room.
New Tech Talk
Just as Audi and Mercedes have been working some magic with new front suspensions for their sedans, so, too, has BMW worked some dynamic wonders with the new double-wishbone setup that replaces its traditional front struts. As seen now in the 7 Series and 5 GT, this configuration helps lower the grille and hood for pedestrian safety while enhancing suspension compliance by isolating forces from the antiroll bar from the hub carriers.
You'll also notice the way the new electric-assist steering feels in your hands, because it seems neither numb nor over-assisted. There are just 2.1 turns lock-to-lock, which makes all maneuvers for parking easier than any pie you've ever eaten. Then if you opt for the optional four-wheel steering (which you should), your entire interaction with the steering interface feels like something you've always wanted but never knew existed.
At or below 60 km/h (37 mph), BMW's Integral Active Steering turns the rear wheels up to 2.5 degrees in the opposite direction to the fronts, helping the chassis react more quickly. Above 37 mph, the rears turn in the same direction as the fronts, making it easier to accomplish speedy moves without tossing around the rear passengers. It's not a revolutionary technology, but it is in this segment, and the 2011 BMW 5 Series benefits greatly from it.
All-Important Sport Package
BMW is going to try and keep the cost of the fully optioned Sport package to around $4,500 for North America and, honestly, this is another add-on for the 535i that you should add on. The main subset for this package is the BMW Adaptive Drive, a triple threat of Driving Dynamics Control (modulating suspension damping, steering assist, throttle response and shift points for the optional eight-speed ZF automatic), faster-acting Dynamic Damping Control (lowering ride height by 0.4 inch) and Active Roll Stabilization (BMW's active body control, which works through hydraulically actuated antiroll bars).
Other Sport package features include 19-inch wheels and tires (18-inchers are standard kit, while 20-inchers are available), sport seats, plus black chrome exterior window trim.
An additional goodie is the sport configuration of the new eight-speed automatic with which our 2011 BMW 535i came equipped. It includes the ZF-built transmission itself, of course, as well as BMW's best M Logic three-spoke steering wheel (left paddle for downshifts and right paddle for upshifts) applied to the new five-clutch (yikes!) slush box.
But, as we discovered on the 13-turn, 2.6-mile track at Estoril, a former Formula 1 circuit, there is no substitute for the fantastic ZF six-speed manual transmission that comes as standard equipment for the 5 Series when you want the perfect gear and revs at every moment. Such a choice would place you among the elite 5 percent of all 5 Series buyers worldwide who don't care much about resale value but do really like to decide all matters when it comes to shifting.
Tracking the Changes
Most of our time with this fairly heavily optioned 2011 BMW 535i involved dashing around the coastal hills in the rural region around Lisbon. We had 245/45R18 96Y Dunlop SP Sport Maxx GTs under the fenders along with most of the items from the Sport package.
The combination of BMW's new four-wheel-steer tech with electric-assist steering felt superb throughout all of the hundreds of quick left-right-left maneuvers we negotiated at speed. We preferred the Sport mode in the DDC, especially the ability to make customized modifications within that mode through the fourth-generation iDrive interface. (Portuguese roads and drivers are not of the highest quality, so a little electronic oversight is best.)
All the while, the calm within the redesigned though still driver-oriented cabin was up there with the finest we've ever experienced (excepting all Rolls-Royces, of course). The Dunlops transfer a modicum of road sound while the wind noise, even during our top-speed run, proved incredibly low (the bodywork has a 0.29 Cd).
Five laps of Estoril showed off the ability of this big car (the biggest in the segment) to feel less big than all of its competitors. The 2011 BMW 535i comes with the new turbocharged 3.0-liter N55 inline-6 with its single twin-scroll turbo, and when the car weighs in with the new eight-speed automatic, the scales register 4,058 pounds. This is some 177 pounds more than the outgoing car (even though the new eight-speed automatic actually weighs 7 pounds less than the old six-speed automatic), but that's the price you pay for a larger package and a 55 percent increase in structural rigidity. Fortunately the combination of 300 horsepower at 5,800-6,400 rpm and 295 pound-feet of torque from 1,200-5,000 rpm gets the new 535i four-door to 60 mph in 5.7 seconds.
Of course, if you want the track-eater setup, you'll have to wait until the fifth-generation BMW M5 shows up in public late this year.
Much Good News Coming
When we first saw the 2011 BMW 5 Series, the Munich executives told us that the base price of the 2011 BMW 535i would stay the same as the 2010 BMW 5 Series, which has a base price of $51,250. Well, maybe it was the intoxicating Portuguese sea air, but these same execs have just told us that the decision has been made to price this new and improved 5 Series below the outgoing model. Are we looking at a possible $49,999.99 base price for the 2011 BMW 535i? Wait and see.
Meanwhile, when deliveries of the 2011 BMW 5 Series begin in June 2010, the 2011 BMW 550i will be part of the program. With its revamped, twin-turbo 4.4-liter V8 making 402 hp, the price of the 550i will go up just slightly above the current car's $60,600 tag. Perhaps this is a reaction to the overall decline of BMW sales during 2009, notably the 190,000 5 Series cars sold during the year after several years at more than 230,000 sales (the Audi A6 is now the segment leader, in fact).
Other news is that we will not be getting the new BMW 535xi Sport Wagon when it launches in Europe at the end of 2010; reason being that 2009 saw just 878 Americans buy the current version. As for the appearance of the BMW 535d with its turbocharged inline-6 common-rail diesel, things are looking pretty good. It's a pretty nervy decision, though, as there will be a BMW ActiveHybrid 5 Series coming our way and diesel power made up some 30 percent of BMW X5 sales in November 2009.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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