Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
The benchmark for luxury sports sedans.
BMW's 5 Series remains the quintessential midsize luxury sports sedan. Each model presents a distinct personality and price range, and all are wonderful cars in their own right.
The 5 Series sport wagons (525iT and 540iT) are fantastic. They offer much better handling than any sport-utility vehicle and better performance than most sedans; judged logically, they make a lot more sense than BMW's own X5.
A new 525i sedan drops the price of entry for 2001, and some minor styling revisions freshen the appearance of all models.
BMW's 5 Series comprises three sedans and two wagons. Retail prices for sedans: 525i ($35,400); 530i ($39,400); 540iA ($51,100); 540i ($53,900). Wagons: 525iT ($37,200); 540iT ($53,480).
525i, 530i, and 525iT sport wagon come almost identically equipped with a long list of standard equipment and leatherette (vinyl) upholstery. Montana leather upholstery ($1275) is optional. The 530i gets automatic air conditioning, instead of the manual controls on the 525 models. Both now come with 16-inch wheels, but with a different design to distinguish the 530i.
525i, as its nomenclature suggests, comes with a 2.5-liter fuel-injected six-cylinder engine. This is a new double overhead-cam inline-6 with BMW's Double VANOS system, which means it has variable valve timing for strong power and good fuel economy at all speeds (184 horsepower and an EPA-estimated 20/29 miles per gallon city/highway).
530i comes with a more powerful 3.0-liter six-cylinder engine that generates 225 horsepower and 214 pounds-feet of torque. (This is the model we tested for this review; it's the successor to the 528i.)
All three models come standard with a Getrag five-speed manual gearbox, though the ratios are specifically tuned for each. An optional five-speed automatic transmission ($1275) is available that features adaptive shift logic and a Steptronic shifter; the Steptronic works just like a regular automatic in normal mode, but the driver can slap it over to the left and shift manually when desired for better control on winding roads or heavy commuter traffic.
540 models are powered by a 4.4-liter V8. This twin-cam four-valve design with the variable valve setup generates 282 horsepower and 324 pounds-feet of torque. Woof! The 540 models come standard with Montana leather upholstery, burl walnut trim, automatic air conditioning, xenon high-intensity discharge headlamps,.
540iA is a luxury model that comes standard with the five-speed Steptronic transmission, a self-leveling rear suspension, 16-inch wheels and 10-way power seats.
540i is a special sports model with a 6-speed manual gearbox, sports suspension with firmer springs and shock absorbers, specially tuned anti-roll bars, a lower ride height, and 17-inch wheels with larger rear tires. The 6-speed is distinguished with Shadowline exterior trim, 12-way power sport seats and a three-spoke sport steering wheel.
An optional Sport Package with sports suspension, 17-inch wheels and other hardware is available for all models; it ranges from $1,500 to $2,800, depending on the model.
All 5 Series models come with a comprehensive array of safety features: Seatbelts use automatic tensioners and force limiters, and automatically adjust the upper anchor point as the seat is adjusted back and forth. In addition to dual two-stage Smart front airbags (that can detect whether someone is in the passenger seat, all models come with front door-mounted side-impact airbags and BMW's unique Head Protection System, which deploys tubular inflatable cushions in the areas of the front occupants' heads. Rear seat side-impact airbags ($550) are an option and can be activated and deactivated at any time by the dealer. This is in addition to anti-lock brakes and an electronic stability program.
(See separate NewCarTestDrive.com review for the M5.).
For 2001, BMW revised the styling of the 5 Series, including a reshaped front kidney-shaped grille, new front lighting units, a new front spoiler, new round front fog lights, new rear lighting clusters with red LEDs for improved reliability and longer service life, body-color side moldings and bumper strips.
Otherwise, the 5 Series remains instantly recognizable as a BMW with its beautifully proportioned lines, and elegant front and rear fascia. The overall shape of the 5 Series body is a well-done evolution of a handsome basic design that dates back more than two decades.
5 Series sport wagons differ visually from the sedans only aft of the C-pillar, where an extended roof and tailgate replace the sedan profile and trunk lid. The tailgate has a commendably low opening, giving access to the luggage bay right down to bumper-top level; if smaller items are to be loaded aboard, the rear glass can be raised separately. The 5 Series sport wagons offer a larger cargo capacity than the new BMW X5 sport-utility.
The 5 Series body shell is extremely rigid, a plus in terms of both safety and noise reduction. With its low 0.30 coefficient of drag, the 5 Series is one of the most aerodynamically efficient sedans on the market. Foam-filled body cavities and well-designed door seals help keep noise at bay.
The 5 Series interior gets high marks for comfort and appearance. Trim is sumptuous. The leatherette that comes standard on 525 and 530 models is attractive, with brushed-aluminum accents. The bucket seats feel like buckets; they wrap around your lower back and derriere. Our car did not come with a Cold Weather Package ($600), so we missed the heated seats.
Our 530i came trimmed in soft gray leather with beautiful Vavona wood trim panels discreetly applied to the center console, dashboard and door panels. This was part of the Sport Premium Package ($4300), which also includes the sports suspension and other features. Ten-way seat adjustments and a power tilt-and-telescopic steering column help the driver fine tune seating position.
The 5 Series center console is much more elegantly designed than the somewhat disappointing console in the 3 Series cars. The little cubbyhole with the roll-up lid and the slot for pens on top of the console seem out of place in an otherwise beautiful 5 Series interior, however. The 5 Series perfunctory cupholders show BMW is still struggling, or is not concerned, with this most American of features.
Studying the audio system owner's manual is needed to fully master the BMW Business CD Car Radio as it's called. It automatically changes volume according to speed, ties into a cellular telephone, and has tuning features useful for traveling from city to city. Once you're reading is done, you should be able to tailor station selection, tone controls, and other settings to your preferences. It's a good-looking system with buttons linked to fields displayed digitally.
The map lights work very well, but a compass would be useful. A nice sport steering wheel that came as part of our Sport Premium Package is elegantly designed without the big pillow associated with older style airbags. It has all kinds of buttons on it to control audio and other functions that may require a trip to the owner's manual to fully master.
The 530i's engine is smooth and responsive. It glides along quietly when cruising, feeling like finely engineered machinery. Freedom from vibration is an inherent benefit of inline-6 engines, and BMW's are among the best.
Nail the throttle and there's a growl akin to BMW's race engines. There's also instant throttle response: the 530i takes off like a rocket.
The 530i we drove offers an excellent balance with high-performance throttle response and handling without the expense of the 540i, which gets stuck with a $1300 Gas Guzzler Tax. On the other hand, the 540i offers an incredible 324 pounds-feet of torque for brilliant acceleration performance. The 525 represents an excellent value and we're eager to test it with the 2.5-liter engine.
From 0-60 mph, the 530i is about a half-second quicker than a 525i; you can feel that. Our 530iA was capable of accelerating from 0 to 60 mph in about 7.5 seconds; it could perform this with the manual transmission in 6.8 seconds. By comparison, a 525i accelerates from 0-60 in 7.3 seconds with the manual, 8.0 seconds with the automatic. At the same time, the 530i returns an EPA-estimated 21/30 mpg city/highway, though that drops to just 18/26 mpg with an automatic transmission. All these BMW engines require premium unleaded fuel.
Both the 2.5-liter and 3-liter engines are updated for 2001: A fully electronic throttle system replaces the electromechanical type. As a result, throttle response is even more precise than before. Also, a new intake manifold and increased valve lift improve performance.
We've tested the 540i in the past and found the 32-valve V8 to be quiet and unobtrusive, making itself heard only when pushed hard. When pushed hard, it's powerful, covering 0-60 mph in just 5.8 seconds with the manual, 6.1 with the automatic. The V8 has not been changed this year.
The 5 Series BMWs offer superb handling, regardless of suspension package and powerplant. They are true sports sedans, tracking precisely through corners with minimal body roll.
For the ultimate in razor-sharp road behavior, the Sport suspension package is the choice. Stiffer springs and shock absorbers result in a slightly harsher ride quality, but enthusiasts may find this tradeoff in comfort is more than made up for by driving pleasure. Our 530i was equipped with this package and it reacted crisply to steering inputs. Rippled pavement in downtown Washington was quite noticeable through the seat of the pants. For most people, the standard suspension (which is hardly standard) is probably the better choice.
Our 530i's Steptronic automatic transmission was excellent. It responds quickly to a tip of the throttle, dropping down a gear or two as needed. Equipped with adaptive electronics that tailor shift programs to driving style,. A sport shift program is followed whenever the 528i's transmission selector is in the third gear position, or the 540's lever is in fourth. BMW's manual transmissions work with precision and smoothness.
Traction control and anti-lock brakes are standard on all models. BMW's system of traction and cornering-stability enhancement, called Dynamic Stability Control, along with Dynamic Brake Control come standard on manual-transmission 540i sedans and are optional on 528i models. Dynamic Stability Control is a computer-controlled system that uses inputs from a variety of onboard sensors to selectively apply braking force and reduce power to individual wheels to counteract skids. Dynamic Brake Control reinforces the driver's pedal effort in emergency braking situations.
BMW's brakes are absolutely superb: They feel solid, like there's a direct connection between driver and brakes. They slow the car right now, but at the same time are easy to modulate, not grabby like some of the power brakes on old American cars.
Great cars abound in the mid-size sedan segment. Driving so many good ones can make us wonder whether BMW still has an edge. Climbing back into the 5 Series quickly dispels such notions, however. These sedan remain the benchmark for luxury sports sedans.
It isn't necessary to drive these cars up Spa's Eau Rouge to appreciate their exemplary handling. They track like they're on rails when cruising around sweepers on America's Interstates. Their suspensions offer a great balance between controlled ride quality and precise handling, though the sports suspension transmits road imperfections.
Sedans: 525i ($35,400); 530i ($39,400); 540iA ($51,100); 540i ($53,900)
Wagons: 525iT ($37,200); 540iT ($53,480).
Options As Tested
Steptronic transmission ($1275); Sport Premium Package ($4300) includes Montana leather upholstery, sport suspension, 17x8-inch alloy wheels, 235/45R17 performance tires, Shadowline trim, moonroof, auto dimming interior mirror, rain-sensor wipers, multifunction M sport steering wheel, high-gloss Vavona wood trim; in-dash single CD player ($200).
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