2006 BMW 530i
The 530i is the Goldilocks BMW for people with a family. Like the 3, 6, or Z Series, it's not too small, and like the 7 Series or X Series, it's not big and bulky. It's the car that 3 Series owners often graduate to, and as a result, it needs to be like the 3--just more so. That's exactly what the 2006 BMW 530i delivers. It's important to point out that our test car is a lot like the 530i you might actually buy: not necessarily loaded but with all the pricey options. In fact, the only real tech gadget in our car was Sirius satellite radio. This helped keep the price at $51,540.
First impressions are important, and we just can't get around the car's sheet-metal styling. The high belt line that rises toward the rear is common in cars today, but the low side sills, large expanses that make up the car's flanks, and a prominent feature line high on those sides all conspire to make the 530i look portly from many angles.
Inside, the 2006 BMW 530i is a civilized yet athletic people-hauler with an outstanding quality of materials and a clean, solid look that will age well. BMW really leads the pack in stripping down the busy array of buttons and knobs that plague many cars today. The way the company does this is by moving controls into the iDrive knob and screen interface, which seems heavy-handed to us in a car that doesn't have any really complicated systems to control.Our test car was rather sparsely equipped in the optional-technology department, lacking a GPS navigation system ($1,800), Active Cruise Control ($2,200), a Logic7 DSP audio system ($1,800), and a heads-up display ($1,000). Aside from the standard Bluetooth hands-free system, this car was basic in terms of technology options yet still burdened with the iDrive system, which uses an LCD and a multifunction knob. For the relatively basic technology systems found on this particular 2006 BMW 530i, we felt the iDrive control wheel and LCD were overkill and a hindrance. Just adding a new radio station preset takes up to five nonintuitive clicks and toggles.
Since the iDrive display didn't have much to do in a car equipped like ours, we usually turned it off to get rid of the visual distraction. Unfortunately, the display never really turns off--it just gets blacked out. If you read our LCD reviews, you know that LCDs don't really show black well, translating it instead to a deep gray. The same goes for this BMW display; even when it's off, it shines brightly in a deep gray with brightish edges, and there is no way to get rid of that distraction.
The standard sound system in our car was something of a disappointment. We couldn't coax great sound out of it; it was merely good. It seemed to have limited dynamic range, and the AM radio--again, important to this car's 40-to-50-year-old demographic--applied a hollowness to voice frequencies. The optional Logic7 audio system adds more processing, more speakers, and more power--just get it. Regardless of which BMW sound system you select, you'll be on your own interfacing an MP3 player to it, since the new 530i, at least at the time of this writing, offers neither the famous BMW integrated iPod adapter nor the more pedestrian auxiliary input jack.
The car's climate system, happily, can still be dealt with in the traditional way by fiddling with dedicated knobs and buttons. When a 2006 BMW 530i is ordered with a rich array of technology options, iDrive is warranted, but all 5 Series cars have it standard. Make sure you take a good, long test-drive so that you know what you're marrying into.
It may seem like a small thing, but the placement of the remote trunk-release button down low by the dead pedal is just plain rude. Reaching it tests your lower vertebrae in a way that no car aimed at 40- and 50-somethings should. BMW did such a good job of stripping out all extraneous buttons on the dashboard that there is ample space for a conveniently placed trunk release.We'd normally start this part of a CNET car review with the engine, but the clutch on our 2006 BMW 530i proved to be so annoying that it moved to the top of the page. Pedal actuation on our car had a very uneven resistance curve; it seemed to push back much harder right around the point where the clutch plates start to connect, making smooth engagement a chore. It also doesn't help that the six-speed manual transmission has a very pronounced detent getting in and out of each gear. We're sure that's by design, and we would even look forward to it mellowing with a few thousand miles, but this is a 2006 BMW--so well built that something like that might not wear away for 100,000 miles. Between the lumpy clutch pedal and the notchy shifter, our 530i was a handful in everyday urban driving.