We tried the voice command system as an alternative to iDrive, but were initially frustrated when the system wouldn't recognize any of our commands. We eventually got it to work, however. It worked for changing CD tracks, but we could never enter a complete destination into the navigation system. Instead, it worked better if we gave it top-level commands to get to the function we wanted to use, and then used the iDrive knob to fine tune.
We talked extensively about the live traffic system above. We liked some things about this navigation system, but not everything. Its map resolution is great, and we like how it shows many street names. But we didn't think much of its route guidance graphics. Destination entry was also harder to use than on other systems; it only lets you enter destinations through an address, from the map, or with a point-of-interest location. Other systems we've seen have more options, such as finding a freeway entrance. Its point-of-interest database, while fairly complete, wasn't easy to use as it had too few top-level categories.
As for the stereo, we were very impressed with its audio quality--which isn't surprising as we had the optional Logic7 system, which uses 11 speakers and two subwoofers. This is sound that you can feel. The bass is strong and the overall quality is rich, with decent clarity. Among the audio settings is a 7-band graphic equalizer, along with basic treble, mid, and bass levels. There are also two digital sound processor settings. Concert Hall puts the music in front of you, while Theater enhances the surround effect.
BMW offers all the audio sources you could want, from an auxiliary audio input (strangely mounted behind the console), to satellite radio, to a 6-disc, in-dash changer which reads MP3 CDs. There is also an optional iPod connector and an HD radio tuner, which we had on our test car. We found that the HD radio enhances the audio quality a little bit, but it doesn't increase range or get rid of static. With this high-tech system, we were surprised that it didn't display ID3 tagging information from our MP3 CDs, but only showed folder and file names.
The Bluetooth hands-free cell phone system is top notch--and it's standard. We particularly like this system, because it displays your cell phone's phone book plus recent calls. Its call quality is also very good.
For some extra tech features, the 535i has park distance control, which displays front and aft obstructions in a graphic on the LCD. There is also an optional lane departure warning, which we haven't tested since it wasn't included with our review car.
Under the hood
The 535i's cabin electronics impressed us, but the tech under the hood got us excited. The 535i uses the twin-turbocharged, 3-liter, straight 6-cylinder introduced in the 3-series last year. This power plant is every bit as capable in the 5-series, putting out 300 horsepower at 5,800rpm and 300 feet per pound of torque at 1,400rpm. BMW's specs show that 535i, with an automatic transmission, can go from 0 to 60mph in 5.7 seconds. It felt a lot faster than that, but we didn't get a chance to do our own measurements. We found the car clocking close to 90mph on the freeway before we realized it. The 535i moves effortlessly, and when called on for a burst of speed, it doesn't let down. With this power train, we can't imagine why anyone would buy the 550i.
Using the 6-speed automatic transmission shifter requires a progressive mindset. You can't be stuck in the past to accept this weird, science fiction-styled hunk of metal as a shifter. And you really have to be able to give up your old ways to use it. The shifter has a button on top, which puts the car in park. Push the shifter up for reverse, or down for drive, and you're on your way. Slip it to the side for Sport mode, and you can also push it up and down to go through the gears sequentially (we appreciate that you do push forward to downshift). The shifter doesn't feel mechanical--BMW doesn't try to disguise that each movement activates an electronic gear shift.
Although we had a lot of fun pushing this car around hard corners on mountain roads, the steering has a somewhat suburban feel. It's not particularly tight, and there is noticeable understeer. But it kept its grip around the corners, at least until we pushed it hard enough to get the tail to kick out. At that point, traction control kicks in, and the whole driving experience becomes very satisfying, as the car lets you have fun without getting too dangerous.
We would have liked to get better fuel economy with this car. The EPA rates it at 17mpg in the city, and 26mpg on the highway. We had it stuck at 19.7mpg in our mixed city and freeway driving, even when we tried some easy freeway cruises to pump up the average. Emissions ratings aren't yet available for this car.
As for design, the 535i is a classically European-looking luxury sports sedan. BMW Designer Chris Bangle's influence is apparent in the car's liquid-smooth surfaces. The front of the car is particularly intriguing, with flattened fenders to either side of a hood bulge that contours up from the grille. The rear of the car is ugly, with a diagonal line that runs down the sides of the trunk lid then along the bottom of the tail lights. That line makes it look like the back was sliced off, then hastily reattached with superglue.
We found few strikes against the 535i, but price is one--the 2008 BMW 535i has a base price of $49,400. Our test car also came with the Cold Weather package ($750), the Premium package ($2,100), the Sport package ($2,800), a smart key ($1,000), Park Distance control ($700), navigation ($1,900), HD radio ($500), and the premium stereo ($1,200). With its $775 destination charge, the total came to a hefty $61,125.
It seems like a lot of money to pay, but this car drives like a dream. You can drive reasonably or you can drive hard, and the car responds well. Beyond some of the issues we found with the navigation system and the iDrive interface, the electronics in the 535i are excellent. For almost exactly the same money, however, you can get an Audi A6 powered by a 4.2-liter V-8. Although the A6 gets 50 more horsepower and has all-wheel drive, the 535i feels more agile and smooth.