British petrolheads hold that gasoline-fueled cars are for fun, and diesels for economy. BMW turns this notion on its head with the 2014 535d xDrive. This diesel engine 5 Series displayed all of the "ultimate driving machine" fun of a BMW, yet attained a fuel economy average of around 30 mpg.
Slinging it around corner after corner, I was gratified by the ready power delivery, balanced handling, and complete lack of understeer. On city streets the engine whirred along like clockwork, so that I barely heard the rough cough of diesel combustion. After many hours of hard driving, the fuel gauge showed I was only down a quarter of the 18.5-gallon tank's full capacity.
Built on the latest 5 Series platform launched in 2010, designated F10 by BMW, the 535d xDrive sedan shows typically conservative BMW styling. The example I drove was fitted with adaptive LED headlights and the M Sport Line, giving it 19-inch alloys and an aerodynamic body kit. That LED headlights illuminated the road ahead with a well-defined and bright light pattern, and incidentally drew significantly less electricity than standard lamps.
With this generation 5 Series, bodywork sets headlights and traditional kidney grill apart, while a strong contour line runs straight down the side to the rear. The roofline rolls back into a much-emulated strong rake into the trunk lid.
At just over 16 feet long, the 535d xDrive felt easily maneuverable in the city, despite a turning radius that required some backing and filling, with a comfortable and roomy cabin. And while it was nice to find the navigation system, shown on a wide 16.1-inch screen (a standard feature), making a simple rearview camera a $400 option seems a little cheap. The high trunk lid had me creeping ever so slowly backward whenever I had to parallel park the 535d xDrive, trying to get into a space without tapping the car behind. Say what you want about rearview cameras, but they certainly make parallel parking faster for the experienced driver.
And that highlights my main complaint about the 535d xDrive, and BMW's recent product strategy in general. There are an amazing amount of excellent high-tech features, but just about all come as options. From the rear-view camera to adaptive cruise control to the two available premium audio systems, each feature adds significant money to the overall price.
Less painful, the diesel engine 535d xDrive only commands a $1,500 premium over its equivalent on the gasoline side, the 535i xDrive. Drop the xDrive part of the name, BMW's all-wheel-drive system, and shave another $2,500 off the price.
BMW's diesel engine looks remarkably like its gasoline engine on the surface. Both use an inline six-cylinder block with 3 liters of displacement and a twin-scroll turbo. An eight-speed automatic transmission comes as the only gearbox available on both the 535d and 535i.
However, diesels operate a bit differently than gasoline engines, which plays out with lower engine speeds and high torque numbers. In the 535d xDrive, the engine produces 255 horsepower and 413 pound-feet of torque. The engine hits redline at 5,400 rpm. BMW does an excellent job of masking the high torque, making the 535d xDrive easily drivable, preventing tire smoking burn-outs when you tap the accelerator a little too hard.
Unlike so many other cars on the road, the 535d xDrive feels deliberate. When I first put it in drive, the car would not move until I actually pushed the accelerator. The power-steering program keeps a lot of heft at the wheel, requiring actual effort to turn it. The 4,255 pound curb weight comes through in the handling, giving the 535d xDrive a planted, solid feeling.
Plus and Pro
As with other recent BMW models, the 535d xDrive includes a rocker switch on the console taking the car through four different drive modes: Eco Pro, Comfort, Sport, and Sport Plus. In my driving, I found little use for the middle two, so let's talk about the extremes.
Sport Plus builds on the throttle sensitivity program of the Sport mode by adding BMW's Dynamic Traction Control program. Whenever I was faced with a set of tight turns, Sport Plus gave the 535d xDrive the kind of tail-hanging handling I've known and loved in past BMWs.
When really pushed through a turn, I could feel the rear coming out in highly predictable fashion, adding rotation that I could use to get around the apex faster. Adding to this cornering excellence was the near 50:50 weight balance between front and rear axles, giving the 535d xDrive the neutral handling for which past BMWs were known. Given the weight of the car, I was surprised to feel no understeer. The car went where I pointed it. Standard Sport mode, which doesn't engage Dynamic Traction Control, merely kept the car tidy and boring in the turns.
With the driver selector pulled into its Sport position, the car's engine maintained a power sweet spot. It was ready to pull out of a turn as soon as I had the next straight in sight. The eight-speed automatic transmission, the Sport Automatic offered by BMW, shifted well on its own in Sport mode, but also offered manual shifting. Gear changes snapped off quickly when I hit the steering wheel-mounted paddles.
However, this being a diesel with a lower redline than a gasoline engine, I did not have that much rev room to work with for manual shifts. No matter, though, as third gear maintained power through a wide range of speeds, only requiring me to drop down to second for the tighter turns.
With its fixed suspension, the 535d xDrive settled a good amount of load on the outside wheels in a turn. Even with the M Sport suspension, part of the M Sport Line, it didn't stay flat in the turns. As an option, BMW offers its $3,500 Dynamic Handling Package, giving the car an adaptive suspension more suited to cornering antics.
Eco Pro, the opposite number to Sport Plus, combines the diesel engine's already strong fuel economy with a multitude of fuel saving technologies. While some drivers may cringe at the idle-stop feature, I found it worked as smoothly as any I have used in a BMW. At stoplights, the engine shut down, coming back to life relatively quietly when I lifted off the brake. Although not a great feature in stop-and-go traffic, for long stoplights it is a boon to fuel economy.
Along with detuning the throttle for less fuel use under acceleration, BMW implements engine decoupling. When I lifted off the accelerator for a downhill run on the freeway, the tach needle settled down to 650 rpm as the transmission disengaged completely, letting the 535d xDrive freewheel. It was amazing how well the car would hold or even gain speed when running free. A tap on the brakes or accelerator instantly reengaged the driveline.
Regenerative braking, a technology used in a hybrid cars, finds its way into the 535d xDrive. BMW uses it to keep the batteries well-charged so the alternator does not need to load the engine as much. That technology is especially useful when the air conditioning continues running while idle-stop is on.
Most important, the 535d xDrive remained perfectly drivable while in Eco Pro mode, without feeling crippled during merges or passing maneuvers. This mode detunes the air conditioning a bit, so may not be comfortable in extremely hot climates.
The result of all this fuel-saving technology is an EPA rated fuel economy of 26 mpg in the city, and 37 mpg on the highway. Over a course of driving that included slow city cruising and high rpm twisty road driving, this example achieved an average of 30.4 mpg, excellent for such a heavy and powerful sedan.
Eco Pro routes
BMW lets the 535d xDrive's standard navigation system help out with fuel economy, as well. Among the usual route preferences settings of Fast and Short, I found Eco Pro routing. Using navigation in hilly San Francisco, the system chose the flattest routes it could find to get me to my destination. When going from the Golden Gate Bridge to downtown, the navigation system took me along the flat shoreline rather than climbing over Pacific Heights and Nob Hill.
This navigation system showed exceptionally well-rendered and refined-looking maps bringing in topographic features and rendered buildings. I could view it in full screen or BMW's split-screen mode, which devoted the right third of the wide LCD to a variety of user customizable information, such as turn guidance, audio information, or current weather.
I was surprised to find the navigation system losing track of the 535d xDrive when I drove through a dense, tall forest; I had not seen a BMW lose its GPS lock previously.
The 535d xDrive came with the newest version of iDrive, which adds a touchpad to the top of the main control dial. With this feature, I could trace letters and numbers instead of using the tedious method of entering letters with the dial. I was impressed with the system's accuracy, but BMW needs to slow down the input time just a little, as it often tried to guess at my input before I had finished tracing.
The thing that impressed me most about the navigation system was how it integrated voice command with Google destination search. Driving down the road, I had merely to push the talk button, then say "Online search" plus my keywords. It returned search results quickly and accurately, and was the best destination input experience I have ever had in a car.
Apps and apps
Google search comes as part of BMW Online, a standard feature in the 535d xDrive, and shows that the car has a built-in data connection. BMW uses that connection to power a few other features, such as weather, street view imagery, a news feed, and Yelp, a name brand app installed in the car.
Oddly, BMW offers a whole other set of apps integrated with the 535d xDrive through the BMW Connected app, available for iOS and Android. With BMW Connected running on my iPhone and cabled to the car, I was able to access Facebook, Twitter, Pandora, Glympse, Amazon Cloud Player, and a host of other name-brand apps through iDrive.
This kitchen-sink approach lacks elegance -- I would prefer a unified approach with all apps installed in the car -- but the BMW Connected app lets BMW more quickly integrate third-party apps with the car.
Facebook and Twitter don't seem like good candidates for the open road, but BMW integrated them safely. The car read out status updates, and only showed a couple of updates at a time. Likewise, I could post canned updates to my status feeds with my location or destination. In similar fashion, Yelp did not display full user reviews of restaurants, like it does on the website. Instead, it showed a listing of nearby places by category, along with a cumulative rating.
There are an abundance of music apps included as part of the BMW Connected app, including BMW's white label Web Radio app, which let me find online radio stations from all over the world. I particularly liked the Amazon Cloud Player integration, which let me play all the music in my online library.
Those online music apps complement the existing HD radio, satellite radio, onboard storage, USB port, and Bluetooth streaming included in the 535d xDrive. The USB port means integration with USB drives and iOS devices. I was pleased to see that, with my iPhone paired to the car through Bluetooth, I was able to see and select music from the phone using the iDrive interface. I have just begun to see that level of wireless interface integration on a few different models, including the Infiniti Q50 Hybrid.
However, the music library interface for Bluetooth streaming is as bad as that for the car's hard drive and other storage media. My perennial point of complaint for BMW electronics comes from the music library interface, which requires far too many clicks to begin playback of a specific album or artist.
As for audio systems, BMW takes things over the top. The example I drove had the standard 10-speaker system with 180-watt amp, but for a mere $875 it could have been upgraded to the Harman Kardon audio system, with 16 speakers and an 800-watt amp. If that doesn't sound good enough, BMW also offers a Bang & Olufsen system, also using 16 speakers, for $4,500.
The value upgrade would seem to be the Harman Kardon system, but I was very pleased with the standard audio. It produced well-balanced sound with good, solid bass. I liked the clarity of vocals and higher frequency instruments. The stock system will satisfy an easy majority of drivers, but the Harman Kardon upgrade is certainly worth consideration. I do like the Bang & Olufsen systems I have heard in other cars, as they meet audiophile standards, but I wouldn't miss it in the 535d xDrive.
With its high-tech offerings for cabin tech and driver assistance, paired with excellent running gear combining sport driving performance and fuel economy, the 2014 BMW 535d xDrive easily earns a CNET Editors' Choice. I found some minor issues, such as the music library interface and the haphazard app integration, but by and large BMW offers an impressive and satisfying daily driver.
The always on data connection keeps it with the front-runners of the connected car world, and I particularly liked the ease of destination searches. The additional apps available through the Connected app were fun to use. Digging through the various menus and finding new services and features was like finding Easter eggs.
I would have included a number of the driver assistance features, the rear-view camera most of all. Along with that, the head-up display would have been nice to have, along with adaptive cruise control.
The driveline was the most impressive aspect of the 535d xDrive. BMW engineering smoothes over the quirks of a typical diesel, making it perform well at speed but still deliver on the fuel economy.
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|Model||2014 BMW 535d xDrive|
|Powertrain||Turbocharged 3-liter inline six-cylinder diesel engine, eight-speed automatic transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||26 mpg city/37 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||30.4 mpg|
|Navigation||Standard, with live traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Digital audio sources||Internet-based streaming, Bluetooth audio, iOS integration, USB drive, satellite radio, HD radio|
|Audio system||10-speaker, 180-watt system, available Harman Kardon system and available Bang & Olufsen system|
|Driver aids||Standard lane-departure warning, available rearview camera, blind-spot monitor, adaptive cruise control, head-up display, surround view camera|
|Price as tested||$68,725|