The latest BMW 5 Series shows its rivals quite how much work they need to do. Jonathan Crouch reports.
Ten Second Review
We take for granted the fact that the BMW 5 Series is the best drive in the executive sector and that it has the most efficient engines. BMW doesn't though and is constantly improving the car to stay at the top of the pile. This latest version of the 'F10' generation 5 Series also subtly improves in areas that have traditionally been Audi and Mercedes territory.
Despite its enormous success over four decades and five different generations, BMW's 5 Series remains a car that many of us underestimate. Yes, we know that it's an extremely good vehicle that doubtless deserves its position at the top of the executive car sales chart, but pause for a moment and consider just what this car needs to do to succeed. Its key selling point alone takes some beating, namely that it's the best driver's car in its class and the most efficient. Now bear in mind that it not only has to do that, but it has to cover off the build quality you'd expect in an Audi and the gadgetry and ride quality you'd want from a Mercedes-Benz. That's an enormous ask. The latest F10 5 Series was launched in2010 and despite garnering very favourable initial reviews, BMW definitely sees this one as a work in progress. It has to be to keep pace with an ever-moving target. It's been tweaked once already and this latest refresh sees a mild facelift, better efficiency and more high tech features included.
Although it doesn't instantly smack of the Ultimate Driving Machine, there will be quite a few fleet buyers who will welcome the introduction of an entry-level 518d diesel. With 150bhp on tap thanks to clever TwinPower Turbo technology, it's no weakling and will bring the entry level price for a BMW 5 Series diesel onto the radars of many who were maybe considering a 3 Series instead. The 190bhp 520d gets a few efficiency tweaks which make it as clean as the old EfficientDynamics model (which now finds itself out of a job). The flagship M5 has also come in for a makeover, with some tempting options including carbon ceramic brakes and a Competition Package. This boosts power of the 4.4-litre V8 from 552bhp to 567bhp and helps cut 0.1seconds from the sprint to 62mph, taking that down to just 4.2 seconds. Also included is sports suspension, which lowers the car by 10mm and includes stiffer roll bars. The hydraulic power steering has also been made 10 per cent livelier too. As much as most customers would love an M5, reality for many is the 184bhp four cylinder unit in the 520d. Then there's the same engine offered with 218bhp in the 525d before you get to the six cylinder 24v diesel variant that most customers choose, the 258bhp 530d. This sits just below the top 313bhp 535d version. An interesting alternative to diesel is provided by the petrol/electric ActiveHybrid5 model, costing a little more than the top diesel and putting out 306bhp from a 24v six cylinder 3.0-litre petrol powerplant. More conventional petrol Fives start with the 184bhp 520i. Using the same 2.0-litre four cylinder engine is the 245bhp 528i, arguably a better choice than the 272bhp six cylinder 530i. Really quick 5 series motoring starts with the 306bhp turbocharged 535i and the 407bhp 550i before culminating with the aforementioned 4.4-litre V8-powered M5 super saloon.
Design and Build
You'll need to look quite carefully for the cosmetic updates to this latest car and believe me, that's a good thing. There's a maturity and elegance to the F10 generation 5 Series, a certain understatement that speaks of confidence. It's not the attention-seeker its predecessor was and it's all the better for it. Styling changes to the 5 Series saloon and 5 Series Touring estate models include a revised front air intake in the bumper and sharper-looking tail lights, while the 5 Gran Turismo hatch variant gets an improved tailgate design which helps increase boot space from 440 to 500-litres. There's a bit more work done on the M5, with adaptive LED headlights and thin blade technology LED tail lights. The front kidney grille has been re-profiled, with gloss black vents and a discreet M badge. There's also a rather interesting two-tone seven-spoke 20-inch alloy wheel offered and the latest rather voguish matte paint finishes. The interior hasn't changed dramatically but then it didn't need to. It was already one of the best in class and BMW has updated it with a few equipment updates. If you're not familiar with the post-2010 'F10' generation 5 Series model, a seat in the rear will quickly reveal where its design priorities lay. There's significantly more leg and shoulder-room than the previous generation E60 series could offer and were it not for a prominent central transmission tunnel, you'd probably have reasonably comfortable room for three adults. At the wheel, there's a high dashboard angled slightly towards the driver and dominated by a large information screen which serves the iDrive infotainment system and its functions for the control of sat nav, stereo, 'phone, trip computer, suspension settings and much more. Pay a little extra and you can get a touch-pad on top of the rotary dial. This can be used to input letters or numbers without having to scroll through the seemingly endless on-screen menus. Yes, Audi got there first with that trick but sometimes a good idea is too tempting not to adopt.
Market and Model
The old days where 5 Series models were distinctly mean on equipment have, thankfully, passed. They needed to as well, with rivals such as Jaguar and Lexus demonstrating that even at the entry-level point in their ranges, even the most exigent button-prodders could have something to occupy their time. The opening rung on the 5 Series trim walk up, the SE version, now gets features such as a head-up display, satellite navigation and xenon headlights, which does draw into question the wisdom of forking out for the 'Modern', 'Luxury' or 'M Sport' versions. What BMW gives with one hand, however, it takes with the other as prices have risen by around £1,100 model for model. Still, that's about in line with its key rivals from Audi and Mercedes, and when viewed in the context of long-term running costs, the value proposition remains strong. All models get leather trim, a high quality stereo and a Bluetooth telephone kit, while six-cylinder variants gain a USB audio connector and ambient lighting around the cabin. Six speed manual gearboxes come as standard but many will look to the options list and choose either the eight-speed automatic (standard with the 550i) or the Sport automatic which also has eight speeds but features steering wheel paddle shifters.
Cost of Ownership
BMW has made some big gains in fairly unexpected places. The old 520d EfficientDynamics model has been rendered redundant because the standard 520d now matches its numbers. It's worth reminding ourselves what those figures are. Firstly fix this in your mind. This is a car that weighs nigh-on 1700kg, will sprint to 60mph in less than eight seconds, seats five in comfort and develops almost as much torque as the latest Porsche 911. Despite that, it'll emit just 114g/km (whether you choose manual or auto) and return 65.7miles per gallon. In case you're wondering about a perspective on that, well you're talking better figures than you'd get from a 1.2 litre Kia Picanto citycar. The 5 Series is helped to this by a whole raft of EfficientDynamics measures, not least of which is its impressively low 0.25 Cd aerodynamics figure. That's on top of features like Auto Start-Stop, Brake Energy Regeneration and the ECO PRO function to aid with economical driving. Advanced ancillary units, such as the on-demand coolant pump and the electronically controlled oil pump, further enhance intelligent energy management. It's helped the 530d cut its emissions from 149 to 134g/km.
Just when you wonder how the 5 Series can be materially improved, BMW goes and does it. Admittedly this latest set of changes can best be described as incremental, but they further improve what was already a deeply formidable package. With a 518d diesel appearing at the affordable end and plenty of goodies added to the M5 at the other extreme of the model range, with added equipment added to most models in between, there's something for almost everyone. That said, BMW can't afford to rest on its laurels. The days when choosing a 5 Series was a bit of a no-brainer have long gone and its key rivals now all stand on their own merits. Most will tell you that it now comes down to personal preference and which brand best fits your own sense of style. That's a lazy summation though. Look at the numbers and there's a clear superiority and it weighs in favour of the 5 Series. The gap may be small, but there's still a gap. If you want the best, you know what to do.