Review: 2010 BMW 550i Gran Turismo is the Ultimate Passenger Machine

2010 BMW 550i Gran Turismo - Click above for high-res image gallery

BMW recently launched a new marketing campaign titled "BMW is Joy." The new tag line is explained as, "Part of a big-media strategy the company is doing to raise its profile worldwide with a more emotional, optimistic voice." Raising a company's profile is never a bad thing, however, we question if anything is more high-minded than "The Ultimate Driving Machine," one of the very best auto-related taglines ever concocted. BMW says it isn't moving away from its TUDM slogan, but we can't help but wonder, is BMW is trying to tell us something? What if instead of appealing to those who actually might value the ultimate driving machine, they're looking instead for other customers?

Our man Paukert sampled the 535i Gran Turismo last September and came away impressed by the combination of packaging and driving dynamics offered up by BMW's curious new kinda-wagon. The party piece of the cynically-named Gran Turismo is a slick, trick two-way tailgate that opens either as a tiny trunk or as a cavernous hatch. Or maybe it's not such a stretch, name-wise. After all, translated the moniker simply means "grand touring," and after a hard day of driving, being able to easily unload your luggage and get checked into your hotel is its own kind of luxury. Is it possible that the even more potent BMW 550i Gran Turismo is an even better proposition than its slightly weaker sibling? What about compared to a 5 Series Wagon or even an X5? And what about competition from other brands? Given its unconventional form and unique packaging, is there any competition to speak of? More importantly, is it joyful, the ultimate driving anything or a bird of an entirely different feather?

Make the jump to find out.

Photos by Drew Phillips / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.

We suppose it's downright impossible to discuss the 550i GT without first mentioning its shape. In a word, awkward. To add one more word, really awkward. The front end happily employs BMW's latest design direction, with mega-nostrils dwarfing the Roundel and the newest version of their patented angel eyes. The only thing is, the angel eyes are mounted within clear covers that stretch across three different surfaces (nose, fender and hood). The car looks like it's wearing goggles and the usual aggressive effect is greatly lessened as a result. The real story, of course, is what's going on out back with that clever functioning hatch. Long story short, that added functionality has resulted in something of an aesthetic mess. Our other man, photographer Drew Phillips, tried his very best to photograph the 550i GT in the best light possible, but that rear end simply lacks beauty. And grace. And elegance. And it looks weird, too. Moving on...

Thankfully, the inside is a completely different story. Unlike the divisive exterior, BMW has done a first rate job designing and appointing the 550i GT's interior. We enjoyed what we saw and sat on immensely. The Gran Turismo's haptic habitat might be the final nail in the coffin of BMW interiors of yore – you know, dark pits that resembled Lord Vader's meditation chamber. We're overjoyed by the non-varnished wood paneling and are still smiling because of the excellent orange leather. We even dug the glowing orange mood lighting that shows up at night – perhaps BMW's not totally ready to let go of Darth just yet.

There's lots more to love. The steering wheel is nice and fat and happily (mostly) button-free. The radio preset buttons have a slick touch preview feature where you just lightly run your finger across their surface and the screen displays what station they're set to. Speaking of the screen, what a knockout. At 10.2 inches across, it's one of the biggest in the biz. The very high-res nav screen is also much wider than it is tall and makes the latest generation iDrive pretty easy to figure out. Yes, even for the technophobes among you. We've sampled the third-generation iDrive software on other vehicles, and maybe we're just getting old older, but the always controversial software was much easier to use in the big-screened 550i GT than in a recently-driven X6, which features a smaller viewing area.

More interior goodness abounds. The seats are plush and comfy, the huge, two-pane sunroof is, well, huge and the telephone integration rivals Ford's SYNC system (in our book, that's very high praise). We'd be derelict in our duties if we didn't mention the cavernous rear quarters. As you may or may not know, the 550i GT is more 7 Series than 5 Series. In fact, the new Gran Turismo's wheelbase is identical (121-inches) to the short wheelbase 750i, which helps make the 550i GT one of the few vehicles with more room in the back seat than the front. The rear seats even recline, and the back of the front seat headrests can be stuffed with DVD screens with wireless headphones. There's so much good about the interior that we even jotted down nonsense like, "nice HVAC controls" and "spacious center compartment" in our notes. We never do that.

Maybe BMW has a point. Again, returning to the notion of grand touring, if you're really going to travel in style, shouldn't everyone be having a high time? In the GTs of yore, the driver and front seat passenger were ensconced in leather-lined, wood-trimmed magnificence, while those unfortunate to find themselves in the back choked on cigarette ash and fumes, along with having their knees and spines tortured for however many miles the journey required. But in the 2010 Gran Turismo, all four passengers (five in a more-comfortable-than-average pinch) have the distinct possibility of touring about in grand style.

Sadly, it's not all smiles and sunshine inside the 550i GT. The air conditioning is pretty underwhelming and the only transmission choice is an automatic. No manual, no dual-clutch or SMG – there's not a paddle shifter to be found. There's just BMW's useless new gear selector, a button-festooned phallus that does little but take up space and infuriate you in parking lots. Sure, you can pull it to the side and pretend to row your own by pushing and pulling. Though the second you wig yourself out because you can't get the car into reverse (see, the lever is still slotted over to the left) you'll really wish you had paddle shifters. And don't even get us started about the trigger you have to hold down to engage drive and/or reverse. At least the gearbox is a decisive and fast-acting thing.

Speaking of infuriation, this Bimmer's euro-style turn signals have got to go. If you haven't had the misfortune to encounter these yet, BMW (and Audi, and Mercedes) have found ways – they think – to build a better mousetrap. Never mind the fact that in all our years of reading car reviews and talking to people about cars, we've never heard a single complaint regarding how turn signals work – the Germans have a better way. Only instead of better, it's severely worse. If you halfway flick the turn signal without pushing it all the way into its detent, the ambers flash three times, seemingly perfect for passing duties on the freeway. Push all the way until it locks into place and the turn signal is on. In theory, brilliant. In practice, Yours Truly hates it like poison, as the simple act of signaling that you want to turn has been rendered more difficult. More often than not, you'll find yourself inadvertently signaling the wrong direction. Thankfully, this feature is defeatable. Also, as you might imagine, the backup camera-free version we drove was quite the chore to park. But hey, minor annoyances, right? Well...

Obviously, the hopped up twin-turbo, direct-injection, double VANOS 4.4-liter V8 with its 400 horsepower and 450 pound-feet of all-day torque is a peach. Leading you to think such an engine coupled to BMW's new eight-speed automatic transmission would make for a very quick car. Under certain conditions, it is exactly that. Lots of buff books have clocked it at taking just 5.3 seconds to hit 60 mph. But for the most part, the 550i GT tends to feel heavy, ponderous and out of tune. And here's why: All that aforementioned good stuff in the cabin is massively distracting while you're driving. For instance, if it suddenly gets cloudy outside, the nav screen fills up with clouds. Pretty, but ultimately little more than a piece of look-at-me flair. Then you have iDrive, which even in its better, simplified manifestation still has dozens and dozens of ways to take your eyes off the road. Of course, these are issues present in essentially all new BMWs spec'd with nav, and increasingly, most new luxury cars, but BMWs have always been about driving first and coddling later, and the 5GT reminds us that Bavaria's priority list is beginning to flip-flop.

But here's the real problem: No matter what you're doing, no matter which mode you have the 550i GT in, you're always aware that there's a layer of electronic interference between you the driver and what you want the car to do. Even with the standard Dynamic Drive Control rocker set to Sport or Sport + mode, the throttle, suspension and steering are busy doing something else. It feels as if they're double-checking your inputs to make sure they're appropriate. Actually, that is what's happening, but it feels somewhat slow and artificial. Weight is also an issue (4,938 pounds of fun) especially when it comes to braking. The 550i will stop short, but you really have to stand on the pedal. But we've experienced this same engine in other big BMWs and they (the aforementioned X6, 750i) simply drive better. Weighing four hundred pounds more than the 750i does the 550i GT no favors. We're also not fans of the $2,000 optional Integral Active Steering, which like everything else we've mentioned, feels inaccurate and soft. Would the 5GT drive better with the normal steering in place? Likely, but not that much better. The problems are more fundamental, as if BMW just dropped a bunch of random parts in under the body and then walked away.

We still remember when we first "got" BMWs. It was years ago when we had to take an inebriated friend home in her E34 540i. It was the throttle response that hooked us. Also known as tip-in, the moment our toe inched the pedal towards the firewall, the engine was screaming as if its hand got slammed in a door. The experience was fantastic – we'd go so far as to call it revelatory. This thing was The Ultimate Driving Machine, at least as far as tip-in was concerned. It handled pretty well, too. But the 550i GT? The throttle response is abysmal when you've got it in normal mode and just pretty terrible in Sport and Sport Plus. The throttle is fully electronic (obviously), which means that an engineer somewhere near Dingolfing decided that five degrees (or whatever) of pedal movement before the big motor starts really spinning is optimal. Given that this is a lux'd up family cruiser, the dilatory throttle response is perhaps a practical concession so as not to send kit and kin sloshing around, but it's a deeply disappointing development in a driver's car.

Speaking of choosing, is there another vehicle out there that competes with this new niche BMW has cooked up? You know, the almost a crossover, not quite a minivan, kinda looks like an SUV family-wagon demo? Perhaps the Mercedes-Benz R-Class, but that car's quite long-in-the-tooth and we haven't driven the 2011 refresh yet. However, if it were our money and we needed a vehicle to move four adults luxuriously around the town while simultaneously hauling all their belongings, we'd honestly opt for the Lincoln MKT. They're both weird looking crossovers, though we prefer the Battlestar Galactica stylings of the big Linc better, but admittedly it's a Morton's Fork if there ever was one.

While not quite as powerful, with 355 hp and 350 lb-ft of EcoBoosted power, the MKT has nothing to be ashamed of. Moreover, because it lacks most of the BMW's electronic choke points, it feels faster. And while they're remarkably cheap and tacky (and of the wrong, push/pull variety), the MKT has paddle shifters. Meaning you can drive it more quickly with confidence on winding roads. Having experienced both cars, the Lincoln's also the more willing five-thousand pound dance partner. Plus, the MKT comes with all-wheel drive, whereas the 550i GT is rear-drive only – at least for the moment. At 2.5 tons, AWD could only help. Also, the Lincoln gets about 20 miles per gallon in the real world compared to the thirsty BMW's observed 17 mpg, all while toting around a third row. And do we even need to mention the price difference?

The point is, we should love – absolutely and totally 100 percent love – a 400-horsepower twin-turbo V8 hatchback from BMW. But we don't – at least not from the drivers seat. The 550i GT should be exactly what it looks like – a Saab 9000 that's been hanging out with Ronnie Coleman. But it isn't, and we shouldn't walk away from seven days with it dreaming about a Lincoln. But here we are. In trying to be all things to all people (or, at an as-tested price of $76,775, all wealthy people) the 550i GT isn't really anything. You can't in good faith have a utilitarian, high-riding, hyper-gizmo'd hatchback also be a credible, driver-focused GT. There will always be a compromise, and in the case of the 550i "Gran Turismo," a fatal driver's compromise. BMW has built a car that doesn't drive like a BMW – or at least, what used to pass for a BMW. Yes, for three-out-of-four occupants, the 550i GT is every inch the grand tourer. But for the person behind the wheel, it's closer to a modern day Family Truckster. Only we doubt that today's version of Christie Brinkley would give this thing a second look. Where's the joy in that?

Photos by Drew Phillips / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.

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