2006 BMW 550i
The 2006 BMW 550i is the latest in a long line of midsize performance sedans from the venerable Bavarian concern. Not quite the handful that the 500-horsepower M5 represents, the 550i nonetheless leaves little to be desired in the performance department with its 360-horsepower V-8. The driving experience is enhanced by the 550i's long list of electronic chassis systems and interior tech features, many of the latter responding to voice control.
Our car's sport package included 18-inch wheels, hardened suspension settings, and shadowline exterior trim to give it presence and a stance to match its grunt. In Monaco Blue Metallic paint, the 2006 BMW 550i looks confidently understated, an effect also rendered inside, with light-gray leather and darker-gray wood trim.
The 2006 BMW 550i's technology features successfully enhance the aura of total vehicle control both over the road and in the cabin, even if the main iDrive controller still requires more study than seems necessary. The options filling out our test car's features list brought the total price to a hefty $66,790. It's quite a sum, but cars this advanced and refined don't come cheap.
Surrounded with high-quality materials, no-nonsense gauges, crisp digital displays, and a generally clean design, the driver of the 2006 BMW 550i feels welcomed immediately. The dashboard's pleasantly rolling shape forms a hood for the main control screen. When optioned with the navigation system ($1,800), as our car was, this display actually consists of two screens with the ability to show a smaller route map alongside main vehicle controls once a destination is selected. This dual display lets the driver keep track of location and the current music selection.
The BMW 550i's wide dual screen lets the driver monitor location and current music playing.
Also aiding route following in the 2006 BMW 550i is the optional heads-up display ($1,000), which uses a projector at the interior base of the windshield to produce a bright-orange image hovering above the dashboard. Information shown includes current speed; the next route instruction when using navigation; settings for the active cruise control, which is one of the few options our car lacked; and any vehicle warnings. We found it worked well, remaining unobtrusive and allowing for greater attention to the road. Drivers who find it distracting can turn it off easily with a dedicated switch to the left of the wheel. Drivers wearing polarized sunglasses or using the extremes of seat travel might not be able to see it at all.
The 2006 BMW 550i's premium sound package ($1,800) impressed us with its rich sound from all sources, including Sirius Satellite Radio, which is a $595 option. Logic7 surround-sound processing makes the most of the 13-speaker, two-subwoofer system. A slot in the dash accepts a single CD, with the premium package adding a six-CD changer in the glove compartment. For all its prowess, the stereo does not offer any way to play from an iPod, nor do its physical properties make customizing easy; the CD slot and the navigation DVD slot are in close proximity on the dashboard. Aftermarket MP3 systems with separate controls and displays are available, but spoiling the otherwise excellent interior for such a simple requirement shouldn't be necessary in a car this expensive.
The optional heads-up display shows speed and route guidance, keeping the driver's eyes on the road.
BMW's navigation system is among the industry's smoothest in terms of acquisition, route plotting, and changes to zoom or view settings. Route selection using street names can be a tad cumbersome via the iDrive knob, but using the point-to-point method from the map is an effective alternative. Voice control and feedback are part of the navigation package and worked effectively enough, although commands were frequently misinterpreted while driving with the windows down in the city.
The only major feature of our 2006 BMW 550i that we were unable to explore was its Bluetooth phone integration. Failing to pair with the system were three phones we tested: the Motorola V551 and the , both of which are on BMW's list of compatible candidates, and the , not on the list but willing to team up with many other cars we've tested. For certain phones, a cradle hidden in the armrest is available to ensure seamless operation, and the system is capable of keeping up to four phones paired in memory.
The stubbornly ubiquitous iDrive control system remains the only way to access many of the tech features and settings of the 2006 BMW 550i. While we continue to long for a few contextual buttons, such as those used with Audi's MMI interface, our reservations with iDrive have diminished following a week's fiddling in the 550i. The menus require too much drilling for things such as changing CDs and radio stations, while those for less-frequent settings are found more quickly. The steering-wheel controls are better, especially the two symbol buttons on the right side, which can be customized for one-touch operation of the driver's most-used features.
We want to like the iDrive because it's placed ergonomically, but it never feels quite right.
Almost requirements in this class of car now, the expected memory key fob and separate engine start/stop button are present in the 2006 BMW 550i. Seat, steering-wheel, and side-mirror positions are retained for each fob. Remote trunk release is useful when holding two armfuls of cargo to load. A programmable universal garage-door opener is standard, as are a glass moonroof and an autodimming rearview mirror.
BMW's credentials in the sport-sedan realm are familiar to the point of clichÃ©, 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 thewe 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.