2011 BMW 550 Expert Review:Autoblog
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Photos copyright ©2010 Michael Harley / AOL
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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