The new-for-2011 BMW 5 Series is no mere visual refresh. This updated model is physically larger, yet visually smaller. It features updated drive-train tech and an overhauled infotainment system, but has the 5 Series lost some of the fabled BMW driving dynamic with this revision? We got behind the wheel of 3.0-liter TwinPower turbocharged 535i variant to put it to the test.
Beneath the BMW's hood breathes a 300-horsepower, TwinPower turbocharged three-liter inline six-cylinder engine. However, this isn't exactly the same mill that can be found in the previous model year. For 2011, BMW has moved from a true twin-turbo setup to a twin-scroll single turbo for the 3.0-liter engine's forced induction. This configuration retains the quick spooling characteristics of the twin-turbo, reducing turbo lag, and maintains identical power ratings and the same 300 foot-pounds of torque as the previous model had--although peak torque now comes on 200rpm earlier.
Power delivery is smooth, with a flat torque curve that makes the inline six-cylinder feel more like a small displacement V-8. However, though the 535i isn't wanting for grunt, its power delivery is not overwhelming. There's an adequate amount of torque to motivate the car, but not enough to bend the laws of physics and mask the fact that you're behind the wheel of heavy sedan.
Two automatic transmission options are available on the 5 Series, a no cost optional eight-speed and a $500 sport automatic with paddle shifters, but we were happy to find a six-speed manual shifter gracing our tester's center console. Shifts are chunky, with deliberate engagement, and the heavy clutch pedal will give your left leg a workout, but there is little that's more satisfying than rowing through your own gears.
Between the sedan's unibody and where the rubber meets the road there's a good deal of adaptive chassis tech available to the 5 Series owner. By checking the box next to the $2,700 Dynamic Handling Package, the 535i gains electronic damping control, which varies the stiffness of the sedan's suspension for a more comfortable or sporty ride, and Active Roll Stabilization (ARS), which uses adjustable antiroll bars at the front and rear of the vehicle to help keep the sedan flat when cornering. Tying these systems together is BMW's Adaptive Drive system, which gives you the choice of Comfort, Normal, Sport, and Sport+ presets.
Choosing the Dynamic Handling Package requires you to also choose the Sport Package, adding 19-inch wheels with performance tires, swapping in sportier seats and steering wheel, and raising the top speed limiter--all for an additional $2,200.
Even with the Adaptive Drive set to Sport, the BMW feels heavy through twisty mountain roads. Body roll was evident and noticeable, despite the ARS system, and the 535i feels as though it's relying too heavily on its gadgets to offset the increased mass. Thankfully, although the BMW rolls, it doesn't feel like it's floating or is disconnected from the road, and the increased low-end grunt meant that we were almost never caught without enough torque to power the sedan out of turns.
After unsuccessfully trying to make a canyon carver out of this Ultimate Driving Machine, we switched modes and tackled a few wider roads with sweeping high speed turns and found the 5 Series to be an excellent grand-touring machine. Its long wheelbase and compliant suspension made the sedan quite comfortable for relaxed blasts through the countryside, but its communicative steering never lets you forget that you're driving rather than merely transporting.
Also available on the 5 Series is a feature called Integral Active Steering, which adds up to 2.5 degrees of rear wheel steering. It steers against the front wheels at low speeds to reduce turning radius, and steers with the front wheels to add stability for highway speed lane changes. Our vehicle was not equipped with this $1,750 option.
The 5 Series' cabin tech package checks all of the right boxes, but only if you make sure to check the those boxes when making your purchase, as nearly all of the Beemer's gee-whiz gadgets are optional.
Starting at the top of the center console, the BMW's wide-screen hard-drive-based navigation system features 3D terrain data and satellite imagery when zoomed far enough out and, in major metropolitan areas, 3D building data when zoomed far enough in. The wide screen allows users to split the screen to display secondary data (audio source, trip computers, and turn-by-turn directions) alongside the map, or fill the entire screen with the beautifully rendered maps. The navigation system also features traffic data.
Bluetooth connectivity with BMW Assist is standard on the 535i. BMW Assist is the automaker's connected-telematics system that integrates GPS positioning, cellular connectivity, and something of a concierge service to give you access to a live operator who will assist the driver with locating destinations (and queuing up the vehicle's turn-by-turn directions) or alerting first responder services in the event of an emergency. The system also enables hands-free calling with voice activated dialing and supports Bluetooth PBAP, allowing it to automatically import contacts from a paired handset that also supports this profile. A2DP audio streaming is not supported, so smartphone users wanting to get their Internet streaming-radio fix will need to use the BMW's analog auxiliary input.
iPod-, iPhone-, and USB drive-toting users are also out of luck unless their 5 Series is equipped with the optional iPod/USB connectivity kit, a $400 option. Fortunately, ours was thusly equipped, but a vehicle in the 535i's price range really should include this feature as standard. Browsing our connected media was fairly easy and the iDrive controller allowed us to quickly spin through long lists of artists or songs. Voice command for song selection would be nice, of course, and faster, but it is not available.