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.
The standard audio rig is a 12-speaker system, two of which are subwoofers mounted beneath the front seats, that outputs a combined 205 watts of power. HD Radio is standard, as is a single-slot CD player with MP3 capabilities.
Our vehicle was also equipped with a Premium package that upgrades the cabin materials to higher-quality leather, adds ambient lighting and an autodimming function to the windows, and integrating BMW's universal garage door opener for $1,800.
We were also able to test the 5 Series' Driver Assistance package. For $1,750, the 535i gains Lane Departure Warning, Blind Spot Detection, automatic high beams, and a feature called Parking Assistant. The lane departure and blind-spot-warning systems alert the driver that the vehicle is drifting out of its lane or that another vehicle is hidden in the 535i's blind spot by vibrating the steering wheel. However, the BMW's direct steering translates so much road feel and vibration already that it can be difficult to discern the warning vibrations.
BMW's Parking Assistant is an automated parallel-parking aid that, much like the similar system in certain Ford vehicles, will scan for available spaces using ultrasonic sensors. When a space of appropriate size is located, the Parking Assistant system will take over steering duties--while the driver maintains control of the shifter, acceleration, and braking--guiding the sedan into the space.
Other driver aid options included the rear-view camera with trajectory lines, a top-view display that shows a bird's-eye-view of the area surrounding the vehicle by stitching together imagery from multiple cameras, and a side-view camera mounted in the nose of the vehicle that is useful for peering around corners while inching out of a garage or alley and into traffic.
Finally, the Convenience package adds soft-close automatic doors, a keyless entry and ignition system, and a power-opening and -closing trunk lid for $1,700.
Economy and value
At the bottom of the 5 Series' tachometer features an inverted, nested gauge labeled EfficientDynamics. Under acceleration, this gauge displays a red bar that marks the vehicle's current fuel efficiency. When braking, however, the bar passes the 40 mpg mark and turns blue to indicate that Brake Energy Regeneration is active. Essentially, the 5 Series' alternator only operates while the driver is slowing the vehicle, reducing power train drag and improving fuel efficiency.
Brake Energy Regeneration, along with the tweaked turbo system and variable intake technology, allow the new 5 Series' power output to remain the same as the previous generation's, whereas fuel economy jumps up from 17 city/26 highway mpg to 19 city/28 highway mpg.
Interestingly, the 535i's base price of $49,600 is $1,650 less than the previous generation, putting the BMW within a $4,000 firing range of the Infiniti M37 and Lexus GS 350 sport sedans--at least, until you start adding the options.
As tested, our 535i gained $14,950 in options: the aforementioned Dynamic Handling, Sport, Driver Assistance, Convenience, and Premium packages. Navigation is part of a Premium 2 package, but ours was chosen a la carte for $1,900. The rearview camera and top/side view cameras are $400 and $800 options, respectively, and park distance control adds $750 to the bottom line. Finally, we added $550 for metallic paint, $400 for an iPod/USB adapter, and an $875 destination charge to reach our as-tested price of $65,425. That's about $15,000 more than the similarly equipped Lexus and $5,000 more than the better equipped Infiniti.
The 2011 BMW 535i is in many ways a much better vehicle than its predecessor. Though it definitely is a better value than the 2010 model, the middle child in the 5 Series lineup faces some stiff competition from the likes of Infiniti and Lexus. Potential owners looking for the best deal possible will definitely find the Lexus GS 350 tempting and technophiles looking for a sporty sedan might find themselves giving the Infiniti M37 a second look. That's not to say that the BMW 535i isn't without its charm. It is easily one of the best vehicles in its class for handling, fit and finish, and prestige.
The 535i earns top marks for comfort thanks to it high level of available infotainment technology and driver aid features. Top-notch fit and finish and the iDrive-based interface boost the design score. Performance is also rated highly, thanks to the sedan's increased efficiency and power delivery over the previous model and high-performing, if not a bit soft-feeling, suspension.