- Sep 21, 2009
First Drive: BMW 535i Gran Turismo evolves the wagon with clever packaging, solid dynamics and... a prehensile tail?
BMW 535i Gran Turismo – Click above for high-res image gallery
Evolution is a tough thing to watch – and not merely because it takes millions of years. While the developmental pace of the automobile has proven to be rather quicker than the natural world surrounding it, the car industry's recent house-on-fire rush into new niches and sub-genres has often been similarly challenging to make sense of. Like those primordial fish that beach themselves, drag their bellies on the sand with their fins and eventually mutate into, say, Adriana Lima, you just have to know that the industry's recent diversification efforts will eventually yield a timeless beauty or two. But thus far, you could be forgiven for thinking that the process will take a few hundred millennia – especially where it concerns the industry's nascent call-me-anything-but-a-station-wagon movement.
While the burgeoning four-door coupe segment has already yielded some supermodels, the kinlugger set has yet to work out the same way. This, despite seemingly every automaker downing the midnight Red Bull in an effort to hit upon a package that bundles the functional attributes of a family hauler without their social stigma. Some companies are disguising their efforts as SUVs (traditional square-rigged crossovers); a few have waded in with quasi-minivans, while others are staking their claim to the muddy hatchback middle ground. Enter the latest automotive platypus, BMW's 5 Series Gran Turismo, a distinctive new five-door that aims to meld the practical utility of a CUV and a station wagon without the either genre's dynamic and civil penalties.
First things first. There's no point in dodging the obvious: Aesthetics will be the primary topic of discussion whenever the 5 Series Gran Turismo comes in for scrutiny. And with good reason – we haven't seen anything quite like it before. Up front, the 5GT's enlarged kidney grilles cant forward ever so slightly, creating an aggressive look reinforced by twin corona headlamps and muscular front fenders. The grille's rake isn't as deliberate or convincing as, say, an E28 5 Series, but it does lend the face a degree of menace without running afoul of European pedestrian safety standards. Follow the headlamps along their main character line, and you'll run across a traditional high-waisted beltline. But it isn't really until the rear end that the shock sets in – the 5GT's jarring, fastback-like greenhouse that terminates in a novel (if controversial) dual-hinged liftback arrangement.
While we wouldn't use the word "elegant" to describe this vehicle's styling (as our BMW hosts often did), it certainly possesses a shape for which the old classified ad chestnut "Must see to appreciate" was surely created. Simply put, while far from a traditional beauty, the 5GT's proportions acquit themselves significantly better in the metal than they do in print or on screen. Natural light plays with the body's details in more flattering ways, and on the road, its scale can be more readily appreciated.
More than most, the 5GT is a motion-sensitive design, looking quite a bit better on the move than it does when static. And although it isn't likely to be confused with something from, say, an Italian design house, we must say it looked very much at home parked in front of the beautiful vistas and posh hotspots of Lisbon, Portugal, where we sampled it last week. Still, it's clear that the 5GT's polarizing visuals will undoubtedly be its biggest hurdle to consumer acceptance.
As you might reasonably surmise, the real beauty here is on the inside. Light and airy thanks to a standard-fit panoramic sunroof, the 5GT's cabin manages to eschew the inky Teutonic sobriety that most modern Bimmers succumb to, particularly when lighter material colors are selected. Like other BMWs, the dashboard is a study in horizontal layers that emphasize the interior's width, and the 5GT has genuinely inspired door panels whose undulating lines flow uninterrupted between the front and rear passenger compartments. In particular, the rear cards take an unusual and visually compelling form, with the door handles riding the crest of a wave that wraps around behind the second row.
As with the door panels that surround them, the rear seats are actually the most interesting perches in the whole place. 5GT models come standard with a 40/20/40 split seat with a nice fold-down console. However, that narrow center section is unlikely to prove useful for actual occupants, so we would recommend splurging on the optional fixed armrest/console, which adds electric articulation and more luxurious buckets (either setup has 3.9 inches of fore-aft travel and 15 to 33 degree adjustable rake), individual climate control for each occupant, sunshades and a genuine limousine-like environment – especially when fitted with optional creature comforts like the dual-screen DVD. With the legroom of a 7 Series and the headroom of an X5, it's a much nicer place to spend time than in the current 5 Series Touring. And while we don't normally tend to think of pent-roof five-door hatchbacks as "Gran Tourer" material, a stint in the second row of this Bimmer readily communicates why the moniker has been appropriated.
Of course, the front seats aren't so bad, either, and BMW has resisted fitting a too-thick steering wheel here as it has to some of its other vehicles. Observed fit-and-finish was first rate, and it's surprising to find such features as auto soft-close doors and power headrests as standard equipment. All major controls are within easy reach, with many being accessed through the latest generation of iDrive, which is much improved but still a bit complex for our tastes.
The 5GT's pièce de résistance is the aforementioned twin-hinged liftback. The hatch can open wide at its roof-mounted hinge to accept bulky items, or a smaller secondary aperture below the glass can be opened giving the car sedan-like versatility. Why is this a big deal? Well, aside from being a party trick to awe the neighbors, if you select the smaller opening, you can load what is effectively a completely sealed trunk, ensuring that wayward drafts – be they frigid or acrid – won't invade the passenger compartment. Further, with a sturdy parcel shelf (which can be stowed below the flat load floor) and a partition between the passenger compartment and the cargo hold, the system pays aural dividends as well. Despite using frameless doors, the 5GT is impressively isolated from the sorts of road noises typically fomented by boomy open cargo areas.
At first, the hatch arrangement struck us as a bit gimmicky, but in practice, its advantages become clearer. One thing that doesn't come clearer, however, is the view out back. Presumably, the double-joined mechanicals eat into space that might otherwise have manifested itself as a larger glass area, because what's left is a mail slot of a rear window. Oddly, BMW has declined to use shingle-style headrests that would have made the best of the available sightlines. As it is, plan on becoming BFF with the excellent backup camera.
For a marque that has prided itself on being the Ultimate Driving Machine, it's perhaps a bit ironic that the best seat in the 5GT's haus is in the back. But if you were expecting us to say that BMW's latest is a disappointing driver – or that it rides and handles like a 5 Series Touring with three-inch lifts on – dock yourself a few points, because it's better than all that.
For one, this segment-splitter isn't really analogous to the E60/E61 5 Series at all – it's actually built on the modular chassis that will underpin the next generation 5- and 6- Series. As such, its closest relative is the new standard-length 7 Series sedan, a model with which it shares its 120.7-inch wheelbase (the current 5 Series Touring's is considerably shorter at 113.6-inches) and front- and rear tracks. The wheels are nearer to the corners than in Bimmer's big-dollar sedan, however, as the overall length is trimmer by about three inches, and the roofline is taller by just over the same amount.
That generous footprint pays dividends not just in a munificent interior, but also in polished, big car comportment. While Bavarian Motors of yore suffered stiff-legged rides because of their run-flat tires' reinforced sidewalls, we experienced no such issues on Portugal's admittedly first-rate roadways. Further R&D by rubber companies has clearly helped to minimize ride penalties associated with the technology, and both the 245/50 18-inch tires and 245/45 front, 275/40 rear 19-inch tire packages we sampled struck a reasonable balance between comfort and handling.
With its so-called "semi-command" seating (the hip point is two inches higher than the current 5 Series but a full four inches lower than the X5), you might expect the 5GT to feel a wee bit tipsy, but it's nothing of the sort. Yes, there's no denying the physics behind 4,500+ pounds if you really overcook it going into a corner, but this rear-driver responds gamely to inputs, with the right amount of compliance from the double-wishbone front and rear multilink suspension setup and decisive, well-timed gearchanges from its ZF eight-speed automatic to aid driver confidence upon entrance and exit.
While we were a bit surprised at the absence of paddle shifters on the vehicles we sampled, with the octocog transmission's broad selection of ratios at the ready and plenty of torque from both the inline-six in the 535i and 530i diesel (we couldn't resist sampling this not-for-U.S. treat) we didn't miss them – and besides, there's a tap-shift feature on the gearlever. No manual gearbox is offered, and even if the 5GT gets an M variant, we wouldn't bet on finding one inside.
Despite the car's long wheelbase and substantial curb weight, the 5GT still proved itself to be an engaging steer on the undulating coastal roads around Lisbon. Speaking of – if you prefer a quicker helm, BMW offers an optional Integral Active Steering system that varies the rack's ratio and provides a bit of rear-wheel steering. However, we're not sure we see the need. While IAS may help shave a second or so off your lap time at the Nürburgring, it seems rather beside the point with a practically minded vehicle like the 5GT. Further, the standard hydraulic system offers superior feedback and more predictable turn-in with the added benefit of lower cost and complexity.
Similarly, although the 4.4-liter V8-powered 550i model wasn't available for sampling at the launch event (it's the only engine that will be available Stateside when the model launches in December), we can't see why we wouldn't save some ducats and go with less expensive 3.0-liter twin-scroll turbo inline-six of the 535i, as it's substantially lighter, offers plenty of power, and promises to be more economical to purchase and operate. With 304 horsepower (@ 5,800 rpm) and 295 pound-feet of torque available from just 1,200 rpm, it's also no slouch. Sixty mph arrives in an estimated 6.3 seconds and the party doesn't stop until 155 mph. Unfortunately, you'll have to hold out until next spring if you want the new direct-injected, Valvetronic-equipped six, but at least if you're willing to wait that long, you'll also probably be able to select xDrive for enhanced all-season grip.
Regardless of engine choice, all U.S.-bound 5GTs will feature Dynamic Drive Control, a rocker switch that gives the driver the ability to electronically gird the car's various systems for performance driving. DDC alters everything from throttle response to gearbox shift points, stability control thresholds and steering assistance. Those settings come in the form of Normal, Sport, and Sport + – we'd recommend the middle setting even for daily driving duties, as it isn't too firm.
Having spent some quality time both driving and reflecting upon what BMW has created here, we're convinced that Munich has come up with a far more complete product than we might have reasonably thought. It drives very well and it offers a number of unique functional attributes that we can see being of real value for some customers. What we're still foggy on, however, is how BMW will successfully market this thing. With its modest ground clearance, it isn't a crossover, and it isn't really a minivan/people mover either. It's just different enough that it has no natural competitors – especially in America, which isn't slated to get vehicles like Audi's A5 Sportback. Premium rear-drive hatches like the Porsche Panamera and Mercedes-Benz's slow-selling R-Class are just too far afield to be considered rivals, and even though pricing has yet to be revealed (we're guessing the generously equipped 535i will start in the mid-$ixties somewhere), it figures to be costlier than, say, an Audi A6 Avant.
To be fair, being a party-of-one can be an enviable position from which to operate, but it can also place one outside popular consideration. Whether BMW's marketing crew can convince American consumers that a tallish 5 Series with a prehensile tail is the next evolution of the premium family car remains to be seen. Will the Gran Turismo prove to be the missing link that buyers have been clamoring for, or an evolutionary cul-de-sac? Only natural selection customer dollars will decide.