The Redesigned 5 Series Becomes A Baby 7 Series

2011 BMW 550i
2011 BMW 550i - Click above for high-res image gallery

More than one mile above sea level, located in the heart of Sequoia National Park, is the General Sherman tree. This nearly three-hundred foot tall Giant Sequoia is considered the largest tree in the world, as based on total volume. More impressive than its mass is its age – scientists believe it is between 2,300 and 2,700 years old. Giant Sequoias have prospered over centuries, while countless lesser trees have come and gone, because they posses very unique qualities. Their foot-thick bark allows them to resist fire, and their shallow roots take advantage of rain showers during periods of drought. And, in an interesting twist of natural survival, their tall canopies effectively block the sun, preventing competitors from taking hold and surviving in the darkened shadows at their base.

The BMW 5 Series is in a similar position. The long-established benchmark mid-size sport sedan finds itself in a constant battle with competitors trying to push it aside in an effort to capture its territory. Instead of resting on its laurels, BMW re-engineers the four-door once every eight years to conform to a changing and ever crowding segment.

Introduced earlier this year, the all-new 2011 BMW 5 Series breaks new ground. Now sharing platforms with the 7 Series, the sedan seems to have changed its tune from sport to luxury. We spent a week with the range-topping 550i, fitted with the automaker's twin-turbo 400-horsepower V8, to put our fingers on its new mission.

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Related GalleryReview: 2011 BMW 550i
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Photos copyright ©2010 Michael Harley / AOL

The BMW 5 Series isn't nearly as old as General Sherman, but it does have its own impressive lineage. Designed as a replacement for the "New Six" sedans in the early 1970s, the 5 Series was the fifth of BMW's "new series" cars. The first 5 Series sedans (known internally as type E12) were fitted with four- or six-cylinder gasoline engines sending power to the rear wheels. The second-generation models (E28) followed the same template, but that chassis is credited with introducing diesel powerplants and the amazing M5 – the fastest production sedan on the planet when it was launched in 1984. The third-generation platform (E34) brought enthusiasts eight-cylinder power, an engine configuration that found its way under the hood of the fourth-generation (E39) M5 model. The fifth-generation model (E60) has been around since 2004. Last year, it was offered with a twin-turbo inline-6, V8 and V10 (M5) powerplants.

As you read in our First Drive in January, the all-new sixth-generation 5 Series (F10) has moved significantly upscale. Now riding on a modified 7 Series platform (thus making it easy for BMW to produce both the 5 Series and 7 Series at its plant in Dingolfing, Germany), the slightly smaller sedan nearly equals its bigger sibling when it comes to luxurious appointments and ride comfort. The two even share most of the same powerplants and drivelines.

2011 BMW 550i side view2011 BMW 550i front view2011 BMW 550i rear view

At the launch of the 5 Series, we spent countless hours behind the wheel of the "entry-level" 535i model equipped with BMW's single-turbo "N55" inline-6 and new eight-speed automatic. That car was fitted with the optional paddle shifters (Sport Automatic) and next-generation electric Integral Active Steering (IAS). Now we now have our hands on the range-topping 400-horsepower 550i with the standard automatic transmission and standard electric steering.

The base MSRP of the 2011 BMW 550i is $59,700 (plus $875 destination). Our test car, wearing Titanium Silver Metallic paint over Cinnamon Brown leather, is fitted with the Convenience Package (comfort access entry), Dynamic Handling Package, Premium Package 2 (rearview camera, rear sunshades, heated front seats, iPod and USB adapter, satellite radio and premium hi-fi audio), Sport Package (19-inch alloys, sport steering wheel and multi-contour seats) and split fold-down rear seats. The bold number at the bottom of our window sticker reads $70,450.

2011 BMW 550i headlight2011 BMW 550i wheel2011 BMW 550i taillight2011 BMW 550i tailpipe

Interestingly enough, our car isn't heavily optioned. In fact, we would have added the Sport Automatic with shift paddles (more on that later), four-zone climate control and Smartphone integration. While we don't condone such behavior, you can further burden your 5 Series with night vision, side and top view cameras, a head-up display, radar cruise control and 20-inch factory alloy wheels. With a heavy hand on the options list, a non-M model 2011 5 Series can top $95,000. *Gulp.*

The cabin of our test car arrived loaded with premium Dakota leather (standard on the 550i) and dark Burl Ash wood with contrasting aluminum trim. A silver exterior over brown upholstery isn't a color combination they teach at Art Center in Pasadena, but it looks sharp in the new sheet metal. Primary instrumentation is logically distributed and easy-to-read under nearly all conditions (kudos to BMW for giving us an oil temperature gauge). Satellite navigation, standard on the 550i, upgrades the center information screen to a razor-sharp 10.2-inch 1280 x 480 pixel "transreflective" display, meaning light from the sun actually enhances the images on the screen (the screen, and all other displays, are easily read through polarized sunglasses, too). The passenger compartment is beautifully trimmed, both inviting and functional, but the big news is under the hood.

2011 BMW 550i interior2011 BMW 550i front seats2011 BMW 550i gauges2011 BMW 550i navigation system

In contrast to the 3.0-liter single-turbo "N55" inline-six found under the hood of the 535i (rated at 300 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque), the 550i is fitted with a direct-injected 4.4-liter twin-turbo "N63" V8 punching out 400 horsepower and a stump-pulling 450 pound-feet of torque. While a six-speed manual transmission is available (more kudos to BMW), our test car arrived fitted with the automaker's new buttery-smooth eight-speed automatic (ZF 8HP70). The two turbochargers, nestled in the valley between the cylinders, do a fine job of boosting atmospheric pressure right off idle. Throttle lag is negligible, and power is strong and seamless. BMW says the 550i will hit 60 mph in five seconds flat on its way towards an artificial electronic wall at 150 mph. Until the next-gen M5 arrives, this is the quickest 5 Series on the market.

We had one week with the 550i. As most vehicles appear rather competent in 20-minute bursts around town, when speeds never exceed 50 mph and seats always feel fresh and comfortable, we had something a bit more challenging in mind for BMW's new 5 Series – we took it to visit General Sherman. With four people on board and a decent amount of gear in the trunk, the one-day, 600-mile round-trip drive involved hundreds of miles of mind-numbing highways, capped by an invigorating 7,000-foot climb into the southern Sierra Nevada mountain range. The plan was to turn around and head back home that night.

2011 BMW 550i engine

The 5 Series sedan would prove to be a comfortable fit. Our six-foot two-inch frame drops into the 18-way multi-contour front seats and melts. With articulated upper backrests, and extendable lower cushions, the seats are more comfortable than your mother's womb (and they heat up equally as warm). The rear seats are acceptable for adults, but the space would never be considered generous, as the backs of the front seats are not sculpted for rear passenger knees. (In truth, the 5 Series rear seating area only has about an inch in every dimension on the smaller 3 Series "E90" sedan.) We did find trouble installing a child booster in the back seat, as the thick outboard seat bolsters forced the plastic seat inward, covering the female end of the seatbelt buckle.

Nevertheless, nobody chooses a BMW 5 Series for interior room – they select it for the way it drives.

Last year's 550i (E60) was fitted with a 4.8-liter normally-aspirated "N62" V8, rated at 360 horsepower and 360 pound-feet of torque. It's hard to believe, but the new 400 horsepower twin-turbo 4.4-liter makes the outgoing engine seem anemic. Around town, the 550i launches with serious authority. The accelerator goes down and all skulls are pressed back into the head restraints. Strangely enough, there isn't a whole lot of noise to accompanying the thrust - it's eerie, almost electric. The eight-speed gearbox (the 535i and 550i do not share the same transmission) shifts through the gears smoothly, but not as quickly as we would have expected.

2011 BMW 550i engined details2011 BMW 550i engine details

On the highway, the mid-size sedan cruises very fast, and very quietly. With engine noise effectively (deliberately?) muted, there is only a faint whisper from the outside wind (the 550i's drag coefficient is .30) and the dampened rumble of the wide run-flat tires rolling over irregular road surfaces. Velocity isn't a concern, as the 5 Series relishes triple digits. The serene cabin creates an excellent atmosphere for conversation (or listening to the premium audio system), as passenger voices are held at low dining room levels. Averaging just less than 25 mpg on the open road, the miles roll by faster than the days of summer.

Off the highway, we started the long climb up East Kings Canyon Road (Hwy 180), just outside Fresno. Thanks to forced induction, the 550i is all but immune to the high ambient temperatures and rapidly gaining altitude. We used the 450 pound-feet of torque to effortlessly pass countless cars exhaustively wheezing in our path. The road eventually became twisty, but the BMW didn't flinch. Thanks to the Dynamic Handling Package, body roll is nearly absent. Our three passengers cry "uncle" long before the tires protest.

2011 BMW 550i front 3/4 view2011 BMW 550i rear 3/4 view

The steering is properly weighed and incredibly accurate, but a bit numb ("isolated" is probably a better description). There has been a lot of negative press with regards to new electric steering technology, but we didn't find it a deal breaker as it seems to match the tone set by the rest of the vehicle. That said, we became accustom to it within an hour and didn't have any problems dodging cantaloupe-sized pine cones in the road.

Our big gripe, however, is directed at the transmission. To be perfectly blunt, there isn't a single electronic setting we like. When the toggle (located to the left of the transmission shifter) is in "Comfort" or "Normal" mode, the gearbox seems to have a mind of its own as it constantly shifts to higher gears seeking fuel economy (EPA 17 mpg city / 25 mpg highway). In search of more power, we keep goosing the throttle commanding the opposite reaction. On the other hand, when in "Sport" or "Sport+" mode, the transmission is more responsive but wouldn't go into eighth gear. As we alluded to earlier, our test car is missing the "Sport Automatic" option, a serious omission. This $500 upgrade adds proper paddle shifters and remaps the transmission for faster shifting (plus, it allows you to further tune the steering and throttle response through the Driving Dynamics Control). It could only make things better.

2011 BMW 550i shifter

On a positive note, there are a few worthy mentions.

The headlights are absolutely amazing. The HID assemblies deliver stunning white-hot illumination that blankets everything in front of the vehicle, yet somehow fails to annoy oncoming drivers. Thanks to the adaptive bi-xenon setup, driving down a dark and unknown mountain road (normally a white-knuckle adventure) didn't raise our pulse one beat. The navigation system, including iDrive, is intuitive and useful (finally!). The maps are displayed in traditional manner, or overlaid on geographic satellite imagery that impresses everyone. Lastly, the oversize disc brakes are confidence inspiring. No matter how much speed is carried, the 5 Series stops in a controlled manner and with room to spare.

Without question, the 2011 BMW 550i is much improved over its predecessor. However, something that was started a couple generations ago has finally completed its gestation. Just ten years ago, the 5 Series (E39) was a sport sedan for those who had outgrown the entry-level model – it was often described as a bigger and more powerful 3 Series with upgraded appointments. In stark contrast, today's new 5 Series has become a less expensive 7 Series.

2011 BMW 550i rear 3/4 view

While trying to trump its strong competitors, BMW has burdened the 550i with a long list of available luxuries never before seen on a 5 Series platform. The soft-close doors and power operated trunk lid are immediately obvious, but there are also hundreds of pounds of insulation, isolation and amenities buried within. That said, the 2011 BMW 550i tips the scales at 4,376 pounds – a startling 400 pounds more than the eight-cylinder Porsche Panamera S.

There was a time when the BMW 5 Series was designed to be the benchmark four-door sport sedan. It was the quickest, fastest and best-handling five-place saloon on the planet. Things are a bit different today. The all-new 2011 550i, the current performance leader in the 5 Series model range, appears to target luxury first, and sport second. It is an impressively engineered machine, an absolute pleasure to drive, but its new focus so changes the product that its mannerisms bear little resemblance to its predecessors. BMW hasn't lost its touch, but today's 5 Series appears to be chasing a different target. The remaining question is whether this change in focus will let enough light through the 5 Series' stifling canopy for more sporting competitors to grab a foothold.

Related GalleryReview: 2011 BMW 550i
2011 BMW 550i2011 BMW 550i2011 BMW 550i2011 BMW 550i2011 BMW 550i2011 BMW 550i2011 BMW 550i2011 BMW 550i

Photos copyright ©2010 Michael Harley / AOL