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.
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.
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.
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.
New Car Test Drive
All-new, better than ever, easier to operate.
The BMW 5 Series is all-new for 2011. Virtually no hardware was carried over directly to the 2011 BMW 5 Series from the previous models. The all-new 2011 5 Series lineup includes the BMW 528i and BMW 535i with six-cylinder engines, and the BMW 550i with a V8.
You'll never hear it from BMW. But with no less than nine new models arriving all at once in the 2011 line, to a significant degree, BMW is starting over. Not surprising. Under the guidance of controversial American Design Director Chris Bangle during the past decade, BMW took an excursion into doing some very un-BMW things. Contour by contour, the Ultimate Driving Machine became overstuffed looking, given BMW's famously aggressive design language, downright frumpy. Simultaneously, with the debut of the first-generation iDrive system several model years ago, Munich offered to the world the single most counter-intuitive, infuriating cockpit management system ever brought to market. Ever since that bleak debut, the revered company has been backtracking at a stubborn, no-we-never-screw-up rate. But at last, the news is spectacular; 2011's fourth-generation iDrive is wonderfully intuitive, a pleasure to use.
There are further good tidings. The broad line of new 2011 BMWs, far from looking frumpy, has regained the aggressive, exciting enthusiasm that had been the company's trademark since long before these difficulties began. From 7 Series to 5 Series to 3 Series, 2011 models are back to the reliable old BMW formula: Same sausage, in three different lengths. But oh, what sausage!
Dead center in the BMW sausage case is the 5 Series, always a strong choice for buyers who want vigorous acceleration and crisp handling, but not the limited interior space of the 3 Series, nor the girth, weight and fee-fye-foe-fum price of the 7 Series. As a luxury midsize sedan, the 5 will hit the sweet spot for many families that include a driver or two with a strong taste for performance accompanied by all the latest safety provisions.
In comparison with the previous 5 sedan, the 2011 version is two inches longer, with a three-inch longer wheelbase. That translates to one inch less frontal overhang than in any previous 5. This will certainly be helpful in tight parking situations, but far more than that, it give the 5 its stunning visual impact. With its forward-lunging shapes, muscular flanks, and low, road-hugging front end, the 5's appearance accurately communicates its racerly velocity and apex-strafing agility. Said agility is aided and abetted by the new 5's near-perfect 49/51 front/rear weight distribution. This package delivers levels of handling that have inherent stability, with no sudden surprises. Very, very BMW.
Sliding into the new 5's interior, you will find a typically German environment. The BMW representatives we spoke to describe the cabin as contemporary but warm, and so it is. The dashboard surfaces of our test BMW 550i were a combination of bright tan and matte black, highlighted by the expected graceful brushstrokes of wood. The instrumentation is thorough and easy to use, and the seats are covered in either leatherette, for the 528i and 535i, or leather in the 550i. As has been the case from nearly the beginning, cloth interiors will not be imported to North America.
And somewhat surprisingly, comparing content to content in the 2011 5 Series versus its predecessor, the 5 Series furnishings represent a drop in prices.
The 2011 BMW 5 Series is available in three models: the BMW 528i ($44,550) with 3.0-liter inline-6, the BMW 535i ($49,600) with more powerful 3.0-liter inline-5, and the 550i ($59,700) with 4.4-liter V8.
The 528i and 535i come standard with leatherette upholstery, automatic dual-zone air conditioning with micron air filter, 205-watt AM/FM/CD/MP3 audio with 12 speakers, redundant steering wheel controls, pre-wired for satellite radio and CD changer, iDrive, power moonroof, Bluetooth, wood trim. The 550i comes standard with leather trim.
Options: The Active Ventilated Seat Package ($2,950) adds front ventilated seats, active front seats, multi-contour seats, heated front seats; Convenience Package ($1,700) adds power tailgate, keyless entry, soft-close automatic doors; Cold Weather Package ($1,050) includes heated steering wheel, heated front seats, heated rear seats, retractable headlight washers; Driver Assistance Package ($1,750) supplies automatic high beams, lane departure warning, active blind spot detection, parking assistant; Dynamic Handling Package ($2,700) adds electronic damping control, active roll stabilization, adaptive drive.
The Premium Package for 528i and 535i ($1,800) upgrades to Dakota leather and includes universal garage-door opener, auto-dimming mirrors, ambiance lighting; Premium Package 2 for 550i ($2,800), 528i and 535i ($4,900) adds navigation, rearview camera, satellite radio, premium audio, power rear sunshade with manual side windows, heated front seats, park distance control, iPod and USB adapter. The Sport Package ($2,200) features 19-inch alloy V-spoke wheels (18-inch on 528i), increased top-speed limiter, leather steering wheel, multi-contour seats, shadow-line exterior trim.
Safety provisions in the 5 Series are lavish: two-stage front airbags, side-impact airbags and curtain front-to-rear head protection, active head restraints, LATCH child seat mounts, three-point seatbelts with force limiters and front-seat emergency pre-tensioners. Seatbelts are your first line of defense in an accident, so we recommend wearing them.
Optional rearview camera's wide-angle view and tracking lines make parking easier and safer; Top View combines views from side mirrors with rear-view to provide full picture of vehicle surroundings; Side View monitors side traffic, viewed from front bumpers. Active cruise control adjusts speed to maintain safe interval to car ahead, with provision to stop the vehicle completely if required; collision warning indicates an imminent collision, primes the brakes for full stopping power, and will automatically apply the brakes. Active blind spot detection monitors safe lane reentry when overtaking another car; a backup visual signal and a recognizable vibration in the steering wheel provide further warning. Lane departure warning monitors lane markers; when a lane change begins and turn signals are not activated, the system warns the driver with vibration in the steering wheel. Automated headlights follow curves in winding roads, and automated high-beam controls switch high beams on and off as required when drawing close to another car or meeting oncoming cars up to 440 yards ahead. Adaptive brake light system flashes bright taillights when ABS is engaged or brakes are applied strongly. Night Vision with Pedestrian Detection, provides early detection of objects and pedestrians in the night; warning is provided by the Control Display and is displayed on the inner surface of the windshield if fitted with head-up display. Head-up display delivers vehicle speed and other data without requiring a glance away from the road ahead.
The outward appearance of the 2011 5 Series is unmistakably BMW. It has no odd rear horizontal surfaces or Bangle bustles in its profile, adhering instead to the strictly functional appeal that has long been BMW's signature. The traditional kidney grille is present, and the 5's short frontal overhang, a BMW trademark, is accompanied by a traditional long hood and long, segment-leading 116.9-inch wheelbase.
The cabin is set considerably to the rear, giving the profile a slightly wedged, coupe-like forward-thrust shape that, given the car's performance, is in no way misleading. Handsomely flared wheel openings filled with stylishly modern wheels and large tires underline the car's muscularity and its rear-wheel drive layout. And the signature kink in the rear side window's aft edge confirms that this is a bona fide BMW.
At the nose, the 5 Series features BMW adaptive xenon headlights (optional on the 528i) for powerful, safe forward illumination. And in daytime running, the headlight complex is illuminated by LED rings of light. The new turn indicators, as well, are illuminated by LED. And following Audi practice, new taillight clusters are illuminated in an LED pattern distinctive to BMW.
The cockpit of the 2011 BMW 5 Series is all business, deferring in every way to the driver. The dashboard is angled towards the driver, while the horizontal lines of the dash add to a feeling of spaciousness for both front-seat occupants. And as expected, all controls are well placed, with the driver-only functions situated to the left of the steering column or on the wheel itself. The steering wheel contains 12 fingertip adjustments for audio, phone and adaptive cruise control. It also has a convenient tilt-away provision for easy ingress and egress.
The front seats are supportive and grippy, with unobtrusive but firm side bolstering. Both front seats have 10-way power adjustment, though with the Sport Package, for maximum comfort and driver alertness, the driver's seat is provided with deluxe 18-way multi-contour seats. The rear seats offer decent side bolstering, while rear seat legroom is generous, a half-inch greater than in the preceding 5.
Instrumentation includes four classic circular gauges set against a black panel for optimal legibility. The optional navigation system, located in the center console, proved easy to use, delivering a fine three-dimensional display and excellent, well-timed verbal instructions even in the most complex of multi-lane maneuvers. Combined with the navigation option, this entirely user-friendly fourth-generation iDrive is contained in a large and legible 10.2-inch screen. (Without navi, a 7-inch console screen is standard.) The display is transreflective, sunlight beating on it actually enhances its legibility. And if the head-up option is included, relevant navigational instructions are added to the head-up display.
Six different two-tone interior color schemes are available in the interior, and the standard Dakota leather can be replaced by optional, more luxuriant Nappa leather. The strokes of wood that give the 5 interior its deluxe feel are available in three colors, with Ash Anthracite and Fineline Matte optional.
Climate controls and ventilation are as expected: superb.
We drove both the 535i and 550i on the racetrack and were stupefied by how extremely competent and balanced this midsize performance sedan really is. The chassis of both models had exceptional poise and pace.
The 550i's front/rear weight balance was slightly more nose heavy, at 52.4/47.6 percent, than the 335i's 50.9/49.1, but it would take Mario Andretti to notice the difference, which he no doubt would. For the rest of us, merely bringing our game up sufficiently to fully exploit the real potential of the two different 5s was an all-day exercise.
So what does racetrack performance have to do with everyday driving in these 5s? Absolutely everything. Virtually any emergency maneuver in normal traffic demands near maximal use of a car's balance and grip. On the racetrack, a car's balance, grip and maximum performance and being assessed constantly. We found the two 5s to be extremely controllable at massive levels of acceleration, stopping and cornering. Compared with their competition, the BMWs should provide excellent performance in accident avoidance maneuvers.
One of the singular components of the new 5 is a superb new eight-speed automatic transmission, up from six speeds last year. This eight-speed, combined with newly intense weight-saving provisions with aluminum doors, hood, front side panels and suspension components, produce good fuel mileage for such a strong performer, in part because gears seven and eight are both overdrive.
Fuel economy are an EPA-estimated 20 City/29 Highway for the 535i and 17/25 mpg for the 550i. Not bad for a racing sedan. The 535i and 550i, after all, achieve 60 miles per hour in 5.7 seconds and 5.0 seconds, respectively.
Much as we admired the new eight-speed gearbox's quick shifts and energy efficiency, the shifter had a bit of the first-generation iDrive about it. It has a P button on top for Park and an unlock button on the left side. To get out of Park, you depress the unlock button and move the shifter forward or backward for Reverse or Drive. Sounds simple enough. You can only go from Drive to Reverse, and vice versa, by first pressing the unlock button. If you move the shifter left, you get manual selection of the eight gears. To return to Park, you must place the lever between D and R, in neutral, and press Park on the top of the lever. It takes a bit of self-training, and a goodly number of mistakes, to master the three simple goals of D, R and P. Like some other German carmakers, BMW thinks it's important to do things their way, even when there is absolutely nothing about their way that is superior to the utterly conventional PRNDL auto-shifter. On the plus side, the manually selected eight-speed did its very best to give us the shift we wanted every time.
The new 5's steering is electronic, variable ratio and feels seamless and precise. And breaking with longtime BMW practice, the new front suspension eschews struts in favor of a proper multi-link system.
To heighten controllability and give the driver an improved platform, available dynamic damping control constantly adjusts shock rates to match the current road surface. The system is so fast that when a front wheel senses a pothole a highway speed, the rear shock can adjust before the pothole arrives. In addition, active roll stabilization curtails body roll in hard cornering, giving the driver a heightened sense of command. As we found on the racetrack, these advanced electronics work wonderfully well.
The new BMW brake system is combined with the other stability control systems, pre-setting the brakes in heavy braking, drying the brakes in wet driving, and compensating for brake fade in vigorous driving. And the brakes have a regenerative-energy feature, not unlike in a pure hybrid, that captures electric energy and recharges the battery during slowing. This reduces the net amount of time the alternator must regenerate charge, cutting engine drag and improving fuel efficiency. You can actually feel the regenerative feature engaging during gradual braking. Nice.
The BMW 5 Series is dramatically updated and improved for 2011. If you've held back because you've heard complaints about some of BMWs' cockpit controls, the waiting is over. The 5 is unquestionably one of the premier performance sedans in the world.
Ted West filed this NewCarTestDrive.com report after his test drive of the BMW 5 Series at New Jersey Motorsports Park and around greater Philadelphia.
BMW 528i ($44,550); 535i ($49,600); 550i ($59,700).
Options As Tested
Active Ventilated Seat Package ($1,950) includes front ventilated seats, active front seats, multi-contour seats, heated front seats; Cold Weather Package ($650) includes heated steering wheel, heated rear seats, retractable headlight washers; Premium Package ($2,400) includes rearview camera, power rear sunshade, satellite radio with one-year subscription, premium audio, iPod and USB adaptor; Sport Package ($2,200) includes leather wrapped steering wheel, 19-inch alloy sport wheels with performance run-flat tires, Shadowline exterior trim, upgraded 150-mph top speed limiter.
BMW 550i ($66,900).
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