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1996 BMW 5-series

  • Driver

VIENNA — Do you remember back in public school, when your best friend moved away? You knew you'd never see him again, and you didn't think that the new kid in town could ever be your friend.

That's how I felt when I learned that the BMW 5-series was being replaced.

That car had it all: it was beautiful, fast, strong as Schwarzenegger's deltoids, and had great road manners. How were they going to make it any better?

The new 5-series is BMW's response. The car was launched at the Frankfurt Auto Show, which is continuing as you read this. I had a chance to drive some examples here in Austria last

weekend. Can I learn to love this car, too?

Visually, the new 5 looks most like, well, the old 5. The biggest changes are at the rear, where the crisp, tall tail has been replaced by a softer, rounder shape. Oddly, this makes the car look considerably smaller from behind than before, despite its being some 69 mm longer in wheelbase, 55 mm longer overall, and 49 mm wider.

The smaller, rounder taillights also reminded me of a Honda Accord.

The slightly bulbous front end retains the trademark twin-kidney grille, with rounder, flatter kidneys, still nestled between two pairs of round headlights behind flat plastic covers. It is in this area where Chris Bangle, the American who took over as BMW's chief designer three years ago, was able to make his mark on this car; the rest of it was pretty much in place when he arrived.

If he'd had more time, I wonder whether Bangle might have pushed the envelope further. I fear BMW is falling into the 1980s Honda Accord trap of being too conservative with its new

models. People love their Bimmers because they're on the leading edge of design. But with cautious remakes of the 7-series two years ago and the 5 this year, BMW's most modern-looking

"volume" car line is now their oldest: the brilliant 3-series.

If the 5's styling isn't a breakthrough, the body engineering may be. The old 5 was already one of the stiffest, strongest cars on the market. Yet the new one is up to 80 per cent more rigid, with attendant benefits in ride and handling, quietness, safety and durability. This has been accomplished with virtually no weight increase, and in a larger body shell. Reports of the demise of steel cars in favor of aluminum have clearly been greatly exaggerated.

In profile, the extra length of the car is most noticeable, with the shorter overhangs front and rear providing an image of greater interior room.

It's not just visual trickery either. There's incrementally more room everywhere, with the greatest improvements being in shoulder room (plus 62 mm front, plus 10 mm in the rear) and rear knee-room, up 17 mm.

About the only substantive complaint one could make about the old 5 was rearseat space; the new one is no stretch limo, but it is better.

I wish I could say the same for the dashboard. The instrument cluster stays with BMW's traditions, which date back to the mid-70s: perfect instruments, perfect steering column stalks,

perfect driving position. In Europe anyway, you can even order a heated steering wheel. But the controls for the heating and air conditioning, radio and so forth are a massive array of push

buttons, rather like the new 7-series.

I know there are too many functions that have to be operated from this location, and the only way to get them all in is by multiplexing the controls, meaning have one control do more than

one thing. For example, the fastforward key for the tape deck might be the scan key for the radio. Right now, the only technology we seem to have to do that is pushbuttons. We're looking for an ergonomic breakthrough here, and while we can usually count on BMW for this sort of thing, the new 5-series doesn't yet have it.

Another detail I found bothersome in the interior is the wood trim used on upscale models. Like Mercedes, BMW has perfected the art of making wood look like plastic. On my test cars, it

was far too shiny, and caused irritating reflections in certain kinds of ambient light.

The seat cushions are a trifle short for optimum thigh support, but otherwise the car is spacious and comfortable.

All 5-series will come with dual air bags plus side bags in the doors. In 1997, they will be joined by "sausage" bags, which drop down from above the doors, to provide extra head protection

in side impacts.

Mechanically, the new 5 has an all-new platform and suspension systems, with much-modified powertrains.

Initially in Europe, only six-cylinder engines are being introduced, in 2.0, 2.5 and 2.8 litre guises, as well as a 2.5-litre turbo diesel. All have new aluminum blocks. (The V8s will follow early next year.)

When the cars reach Canada in spring of 1996, we will get the 528i, with the 2.8 litre inline six-cylinder that will also see service in the smaller 3series, and the 540i the designation will continue, even though the four-cam 32valve V8 will displace 4.4 litres.

Unlike Europe, however, North American six-cylinder engines will continue to use the cast iron block, similar to the current 3-series six. It seems that some types of Venezuelan crude oil

(much of which is exported to North America) have high sulfur content, which at certain operating temperatures can lead to the formation of sulfuric acid in the combustion chambers, which has a disastrous effect on the cylinder wall surfaces on aluminum block engines.

BMW has a solution for the V8, but until it can be implemented for the sixes, we will continue to get iron blocks.

This adds some 20 kg to the engine, but a bit of that is recovered in sound deadening materials; iron absorbs noise better than aluminum, so the iron blocks are inherently quieter.

The new six has been enlarged in stroke and retuned, not so much for more horsepower — at 193 in Eurospec, it's nearly identical to before — but for greater torque. Acceleration time for the 0-to-100 km/h benchmark is given as 7.5 seconds, quick by any standard but especially for a midsize six-cylinder car.

More impressive is throttle response. Just a light touch of the loud pedal, at younamethespeed, and the car reacts instantly and in a most satisfying manner. This is a wonderful engine.

BMW is also very proud of the new engine's fuel efficiency, which should be even better than before, despite superior performance. If we were paying a bucksixty a litre for gas, we'd care more about this too.

My test-wagens were both 528s, one with a delectible five-speed manual transmission, the other with the adaptive five-speed automatic that we've seen in Canada in the old 540, plus the

7and 8-series cars.

North America's automatic option on the 528 will, however, continue to be the four-speed Turbo-Hydramatic, built by General Motors in France.

BMW has chosen not to use aluminum in the body either, but light alloy is used extensively in the new car's suspension, where its lightness also contributes to reduced unsprung weight,

which translates into better ride and handling.

The typical BMW "twinjoint" MacPherson strut is continued at the front, with a fivelink axle at the rear. Both ends are rubber-mounted to aluminum subframes, for improved ride isolation.

And boy, does it work. The former 5series was perhaps the first German car to prove that you didn't need a rock-hard ride to get good handling. The new 5 can rightfully boast that it has

taken ride comfort to a new level. No harshness at all — we're talking Austrian roads here, not the better-maintained German bundesstrasses.

There is some body roll in cornering, but it doesn't seem to affect handling. The car can take corners at what seems to be very high speeds with no tire squeal; indicative of excellent

wheel geometry.

Rack and pinion variable-ratio power steering will be used on all six-cylinder 5s, with recirculating ball continued on the V8s, largely for packaging reasons. Contrary to popular opinion, BMW believes recirculating ball systems can in fact be more precise than rack and pinion, but they are bulkier and more costly, so only the topline cars get them.

My manual-equipped test car's steering felt very light. I'm sort-of used to that from my old 3-series, but I prefer more road feel. The automatic car had firmer steering, but I wasn't able to determine why. Perhaps it was equipped with the variable-effort Servo-tronic steering, which is optional in Europe but which won't be available in Canada.

So: can the new BMW 5-series be my friend? My first impression is cautiously positive. Its looks fit right in, it likes the same sorts of activities as my old friend, and certainly, its comfort is greatly improved, at the possible expense of a bit of the sharp edge that always makes BMWs so entertaining to drive.

The new 5-series won't make me quickly forget the old 5. But as soon as the new one moves to Canada permanently, I'll be happy to invite it over to my house to play.

*

Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie, among a group of auto writers invited to a test site, prepared this report based on sessions arranged and paid for by the automaker.

BMW Bayerische Motoren Werke AG

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