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1997 BMW 5-series

  • Choosing a car at dealership. Thoughtful grey hair man in formalwear leaning at the car and looking away

VICTORIA B.C. — BMW describes its new 5 series sedans as the

"heart" of its lineup.

Is the company talking physically? It's midway in size between

the 3 series and 7 series. Financially? The model's not its

biggest volume seller, but may be their largest revenue

generator. Or spiritually? Is this the ultimate expression of

what the company stands for?

We had an early preview of some European Funfers ("funf" is

"five" in German) last fall ( Wheels, Sept. 23, 1995). A full

day in and around the gorgeous southern tip of Vancouver Island

last week provided further insight into this important new car.

There will be two versions of the 1997 5 series four-door

sedan arriving in Canadian dealerships next month. The $54,900

528i shares the 2.8 litre inline six with the 1996 BMW 328

model. Horsepower is up from the previous 2.5 litre six by a

count of only one, to 190, but torque is up substantially, from

a peak of 184 poundfeet at 4200 r.p.m. to 207 at 3950. In fact,

the new engine develops as much torque at 2000 r.p.m. as the old

one did at 4200 r.p.m.

We loved this remarkable motor in the 3 series ( Wheels, March

16, 1996) and were equally impressed with how it coped with the

larger 5-series body during the European preview. But we were

anxious to re-evaluate it under closer-to-home conditions.

The new 540i, starting at $68,900, receives an enlarged and

revised V8 engine, now displacing 4.4 litres (up from 4.0 last

year). As with the six, the emphasis is on torque, 310

poundfeet at 3900 r.p.m. versus 295 at 4500.

We have no clue why BMW has gone all wobbly with its formerly

strict nomenclature system, whereby the last two digits

represent engine size. Why does it make sense for the 525 to

become the 528, while the 540 doesn't become the 544? Do they

think someone will confuse the new Bimmer with a 44-year-old

Volvo?

It would be easy to dismiss the differences between the two

models simply as "engine". There's certainly not much visual

variation: different wheels; flatblack kidney grille slats on

the six, chrome on the eight; badging, of course. You'll have to

look closely.

And when you do, you may think you're looking at a new

3 series. While the new 5 is slightly larger than the old,

inside and out, it looks smaller on the road, thanks to the more

rounded contours.

As it did with its latest 7 series, BMW has taken a decidedly

conservative route on styling. The 3 series is still the most

modern-looking car, yet it's the company's oldest mainstream

car. The new 5 turned absolutely no heads during our test. It's

handsome and all, but no breakthrough. Maybe it's what BMW's

aging clientele wants to buy, but I worry that BMW is resting on

its laurels, at least from a styling perspective.

The body-in-white — the car without the paint — represents yet

another advance in rigidity. The old 5 was already a paragon in

this regard, but the new one is stiffer, both in bending and

twisting. The natural frequency of the body has been tuned so it

does not "sympathize" with the frequency of the engines at idle,

to ensure as quiet an experience as possible.

The interior remains well crafted, if somewhat sombre, in

BMW's tradition. Frontdoor side air bags are standard; like the

dual frontal bags, they deploy differentially. Only the bag on

the side of the car that's hit pops open. Neither of the

passenger-side bags nor the seatbelt tensioner deploys if

no one's sitting in that seat. BMW's unique tubular lateral head

protectors, which pop out of the roof headliner, join the safety

parade next year.

Inside, the 528i and 540i differ only in equipment levels;

most of what's standard on the V8 is optional on the six. BMW's

push-button mania is, unfortunately, still in full flower. You

are confronted with a truly staggering array of identical

buttons, some hidden by a hinged panel. Their LED labels change

as you switch functions from radio to telephone to CD to trip

computer. The satellite navigation system isn't here yet.

There's a grand total of one, (count it, one) ergonomically

perfect knob, for sound system volume. For the rest of it, you'd

better bring along a navigator.

Even the steering wheel can be outfitted with as many as 11

buttons, and that doesn't include the horn. Yikes. There has to

be a better way, and we used to count on BMW to find it. At

least (unlike the new 328) you can see all the climate control

push buttons from the driver's seat of the 5, without having to

peer around the steering wheel.

Underneath, there are significant variations between the

six- and eight-cylinder cars. Both front suspensions are double-pivot

MacPherson struts, but differ widely in detail, as demanded by

the V8's greater weight and bulk.

The 540's is a further development of the 7series. The

subframe is still tubular steel, but most of the other

components — steering knuckles, suspension arms, strut tubes,

steering gear housing — are aluminum, for unsprung weight

reduction. The longitudinal locating member is a

rearward-leading compression link, and steering is by recirculating ball.

The 528 also utilizes aluminum throughout, but has a trailing

link for longitudinal location, and variable-ratio rack and

pinion steering.

The less powerful six has aluminum brake calipers front and

rear; the 540 retains cast iron front calipers, and has larger

discs than the six. Four channel ABS is standard on both.

The rear suspension is the same on the two, and is effectively

the 7-series' four-link design except, again, executed in

aluminum.

Both models will be available with either manual or automatic

transmissions — a total of four different gearboxes. The 528i

comes standard with a five-speed manual, and is available with a

French-built General Motors four-speed automatic, which they've

used on other models for some time.

New for the 528's automatic is BMW's adaptive electronic

control, which modifies shift strategy depending on how you're

driving. If you're just stroking along, shifts are

comfort-oriented. Stomp on it, and they will be executed more

quickly, and at higher revs. (A similaracting sport program is

invoked if you move the lever into "D3".)

The 540i will initially be offered only with BMW's five-speed

adaptive automatic. Later in the year, a six-speed manual will

be available, combined with a lowered sport suspension. This

will be as close to an M5 as we'll get, at least for a while.

The overall philosophy for the new 5 series was to improve

comfort and quietness, partially to modify the perception of the

5 as a man's car. Does this compromise the image of the Ultimate

Driving Machine? It shouldn't. There's no reason women wouldn't

want to "drive ultimately". And BMW says handling is also

improved in the new car.

The new 5 is notably quieter than the old, with even less

harshness (the old one was pretty good). Ride quality is

outstanding, and cornering power of a very high order. Wet

pavement it sure does rain a lot out here didn't trip the

car up.

Of course, I had to switch off the dreaded traction control,

which I'll grudgingly accept in winter, but it's a huge pain in

the neck when you're trying to drive briskly.

There are marked differences between the ways the 528i and

540i behave, and it's not all what you might think. Frankly,

there's not a great deal to choose between the engines,

certainly not an equipment-justed $10,000 worth. Zero-to-100

km/h sprints are between one and two seconds quicker with the

eight, depending on transmission.

But the six's outstanding bottom-end torque, combined with a

notable surge in the V8's acceleration around 3500 r.p.m.,

conspire to make the six feel just about as quick by the

seat-of-the-pants, sole-of-the-driving shoe standard.

The six's automatic has a conventional shift quality, a slight

hesitation, a gradual drop in engine revs, pick the next ratio,

away we go. Have no fears about the performance of the six's

speed auto — again, the torque is the big deal, and this is a

very satisfying car to drive.

The eight's automatic has BMW's weird shut-the-motor-off-while-we-change-gears sensation: it feels like a manual gearbox

being shifted automatically. Throttle-induced kickdown could,

and should, be faster.

No manual eights were available to test. But if you're a

longtime BMW fancier, you'll enjoy the six-speed manual. The

shifter is just about the best there is; the car feels light and

beautifully balanced; the entire powertrain is a delight.

There's a marked difference in steering feel too. The 540's

recirculating ball is quicker oncentre; the eight turns in more

crisply than the six. Forget your bias towards rack and pinion

steering; it's not supported in this case. If we could get a

528i with 540i steering gear and the lowered suspension from the

manual 540, we'd really be talking.

The new 5 series is hard to criticize by any objective

measure. It's a response to Lexus's raised comfort and quality

bars, and Mercedes Benz's brilliant new Eclass, which is

coming from Benz's stodgy, comfortandsafety pedestal towards

BMW's driving enjoyment position.

But something's missing in the new 5. Some of the edge, the

we're-in-this-together-and-the-rest-of-the-world-doesn't-understand feel of the old car, has been sanded away.

Will members of the BMW Car Club buy this car? Will they

collect it, cherish it, fall in love with it?

If they don't, would it matter?

From BMW's commercial perspective, it's hard to argue with the

5 series' evolution. The sad fact is, more people buy records by

Phil Collins or, god forbid, Michael Bolton, than Muddy Waters.

But BMW made its mark by engineering cars that no one else

could even conceive of, cars that became legends, cars that

created the image the company now enjoys. Maybe that time is

past; maybe it can't be done anymore.

If a 528i or 540i is the first BMW you ever buy, you'll

probably enjoy it.

But long after it has died, will it still be sitting outside

your house, like my long-since-deceased 2002, because you really

don't want to send it to the junk yard? Will the new 5 series

engender this sort of emotion?

You can guess where I've placed my bet.

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.

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