2006 BMW 550i review: 2006 BMW 550i

BMW's credentials in the sport-sedan realm are familiar to the point of cliché, and the 2006 BMW 550i is a worthy claimant to the line. While saying it doesn't give much up to its bulging big brother the M5 is probably not giving that V-10 beast enough credit, few drivers will find the 550i wanting in any regard. The feel from behind the wheel was of confidence-inspiring solidity and precision, especially with our test car's Sport Package.

The 2006 BMW 550i's $2,300 Sport Package consists of 18-inch Star Spoke alloy wheels with performance run-flat tires; sport seats with 12-way power adjustment, including thigh support; sport-suspension calibration; special exterior trim; and most important, active roll stabilization (ARS). This feature, which we also encountered in the 750Li we recently tested, applies countertwisting forces to the front and rear antiroll bars to keep the car flat during cornering. Totally transparent in operation, it provides a feel of unflappability without sacrificing ride comfort during straight-line driving. The sport suspension and tires themselves did occasionally prove jarring over rough city streets; ARS on the standard suspension might be a nice compromise.

Four valves per cylinder and BMW's VANOS valve-control system make this an incredibly advanced V-8.

The 4.8-liter V-8 in the 2006 BMW 550i (BMW's model nomenclature is no longer accurately indicative of engine displacement) produces a healthy 360 horsepower and 360 pound-feet of torque using BMW's Valvetronic lift control and VANOS variable-valve timing to steplessly optimize breathing through its 32 valves. These technologies help maintain respectable EPA fuel-economy ratings of 17mpg in the city and 25mpg on the highway. Power is plentiful and doled out through the dynamic stability-control (DSC) system to keep things in check during aggressive driving. A six-speed manual transmission is standard, with our car's six-speed Steptronic automatic a no-cost option. The six-speed sequential manual gearbox is also a no-cost option, although it requires the Sport Package.

On the road, all the technology pays off in spades. Our car wasn't equipped with the active steering option, making do with the standard system, which still incorporates speed-sensitive variable assist and variable-ratio features. This, taken with the active antiroll system and all the tech both producing and tempering the considerable grunt available underfoot, seems to allow for at least the possibility that direct road feel would be compromised. As with other BMWs, this is not the case in practice. The 550i is a pleasure to drive, with excellent steering feel (often described as telepathic) and limits of adhesion that few drivers will approach anywhere but on a track.

While the glamour side of the 2006 BMW 550i is certainly in the performance and cabin electronics, at least as much attention has been paid to protecting the car's occupants both preventively and directly. DSC includes a traction-control aspect, which helps keep the 550i moving in the right direction on slippery roads. The ABS brakes offer a tech features list of their own, including comfort stop (dive reduction under heavy braking); brake-fade compensation; adaptive brake lights, which also illuminate the taillights under heavy braking; hill-start assistance; brake standby to prepressurize the system if the driver lifts off the accelerator suddenly; and a brake-drying function that applies periodic, light pad pressure to the discs in wet weather. This last feature uses the sensors of the automatic wiper system, which we found surprisingly effective while driving around on one of San Francisco's patented misty afternoons.

We again liked using BMW's park-distance control, which, while not offering the infallibility of a camera-and-monitor system, does use a from-above image of the car and shows objects nearing both bumpers as color-coded zones, making judging distances easy.

The 2006 BMW 550i's adaptive Xenon headlights offer dynamic autoleveling to flood the road ahead (or around a curve) with a bright-white light. A flat-tire monitor warns of low pressure, a key feature in a car with run-flats. A full complement of air bags is standard, including side-impact bags in both front doors and dual-threshold two-stage front driver and passenger bags. Rear-seat side-impact air bags are optional.

Both front and rear seats of the 2006 BMW 550i offer a head-protection system. An interlocking door-anchoring feature helps protect against intrusion from side impacts. In the event of a serious collision, the Intelligent Safety and Information System (ISIS) handles all air-bag deployments, seat-belt pretensioning, and if necessary, activation of the battery-safety terminal to disconnect the alternator, the fuel pump, and the starter, as well as unlocking the doors and turning on the interior and hazard lights.

All of this safety tech would be pure fluff without a solid structure underpinning it all, and the BMW 5 Series was rated a Best Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety based on the frontal-offset crash test (a 40mph driver's-side-only impact).

BMW Assist is an emergency system using GPS for automatic-collision notification, roadside services, and stolen-vehicle recoveries. It's standard on the 2006 BMW 550i and other cars in the 5 Series. BMW's new-vehicle warranty is for 4 years/50,000 miles and includes routine maintenance and roadside assistance during that period. Rust-perforation protection is good for 12 years.

What you'll pay

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