2011 BMW 535: Carmaker perfects fun out of 5-series

The 2011 535 has been so refined that any surprises or feelings for the sport sedan seem to have been excised, says Dan Neil.

  • Driver

CASCAIS, PORTUGAL–The one thing you can be sure of when you walk out of a BMW news conference is that you’ll have plenty of information. Your head aches from it. Your ears ring with it. Your jaws are sore from swallowing it whole like a snake.

I fairly staggered out of the press briefing at a hotel here laden with facts about the company’s latest personal executive sedan, the 2011 BMW 5-series.

But here’s a number that absolutely fascinated me. According to BMW execs, the 5-series — the company’s second-best-selling model after the multifarious 3-series — represents 50 per cent of the company’s total profit. Buyers typically heap pricey luxury, technology and sport packages on top of the $65,000 to $70,000 (Canadian) base price, resulting in a tidy windfall for BMW, if not an F5 tornado of money.

In other words, these are people who want everything in BMW’s larder, and want it in a leaner, more lithe package. With the new 5-series, they’ll get it.

Active roll stabilization; electronic damper control; four-wheel steering; eight-speed transmission; a new twin-scroll, single-turbo 3.0 L inline six putting out 300 hp and 300 lb.-ft. of torque (or a twin-turbo 4.4 L V8 with 400 hp, in the 550i); new robotic parking assistance; head-up display; night vision; stop-and-go adaptive cruise control, which will maintain a following distance in traffic and slow to a stop, then start rolling again, just like traffic on the 401; and roughly 8 million other acronymic systems, gadgets, gizmos and flight surfaces loomed to the car’s high-speed cerebellum.

But as a strange little rock goblin with big lips once reminded us, you can’t always get what you want. With the 5-series you get everything you want — except fun.

Let’s start with styling. The new 5-series — the insider designation is the F10 model — is a good, solid, conservative, casually lovely effort but about as emotional as a Prussian wet nurse.

Design-directed by BMW’s Adrian Van Hooydonk (best name ever?), the new 5 takes on something of the proportions of the 7-series, with the cabin moved back along the fuselage, creating a longer hood and a more coupe-like roofline. The broader twin-kidney grille is moved lower on the nose of the car and canted slightly forward, and the hood itself features a diverging V-shape, as if the BMW badge were a boat motoring across a steel lake. Parallel accent lines strafe the fuselage at the belt line and sill and the whole is bejeweled with exotic lighting instruments, including Xenon adaptive headlamps and L-shaped light-bar tail lamps (these burn extra bright when the driver engages the anti-lock braking system).

But do I want to have this car’s baby? No. My chastity is all too secure.

Inside, the car is just about perfect. I’d have to say BMW currently offers the best interior design of any German car company. The instrument panel comprises a “black panel” electronic display — only the four key gauges are illuminated unless the car needs to throw you a warning light of some kind. My test car had the brilliant 10-inch navigation display in the centre console, which is spectacular. And the whole cabin was wrapped in premium materials — aluminum, wood and leather — in a great gestural flourish.

The incumbent engine is the single-turbo inline six, replacing the twin-turbo six of the same size (3.0 litres) and output (300 hp). This motor offers significantly better fuel economy and engine response — not “throttle” response, because BMW’s turbocharged engines and Valvetronic eliminate the need for throttle bodies. For more information, take a plate of cookies to your local BMW dealership service bay.

The so-called N55 engine produces nominal torque (300 lb.-ft.) at a mere 1,200 rpm and doesn’t stop until north of 5,000 rpm. Stitched to the new eight-speed automatic, the engine delivers utterly seamless, nearly hydraulic thrust in any gear and at any rpm. Indeed, the engineers have hammered the torque curve so marvelously level, and poured tranquilizing syrup over every gear change, that the car actually feels a little remote and unfamiliar.

This is one of those moments that makes engineers want to throw grenades into news conferences, when people actually complain about refinement and smoothness. But, honestly, this car has just a dram more Novocain in it than I’d prefer.

By the numbers and by the stopwatch, you can’t really fault the BMW’s handling and road-holding. The big car is well stabilized by the active anti-roll bar, so the car’s body stays relatively flat in corners. At speeds under 55 km/h, the Integral Active Steering turns the rear wheels 2.5 degrees opposite of the turn, for a tighter turning radius. Above that speed, the wheels turn in sync with the front wheels, giving the car more authority in cornering.

If owners should ever take the 5-series on the track, they’ll find them benign, easy, capable, progressive and slightly boring. And numb as a well digger’s … let’s just say numb, okay? What with the electric power steering, the active this and that, the four-wheel thingy, the car has been sapped of anything approaching vividness and tactility.

If you want to fiddle at the margins with the car’s ride and handling, you can, via the Driving Dynamics Control, a system that progressively dials up the adaptive suspension, transmission sharpness, rev limit, steering response and the thresholds of the stability control system.

The settings include Comfort, Normal, Sport and Sport+, the last of which finally puts some whalebone in the car’s corset. It feels tighter and firmer, corners flatter — of course, with an active anti-roll bar in the rear, it ought to — and bites harder. But still, the steering feel is uncommunicative and artificial and just plain over-assisted.

Enthusiasts should definitely wait for the inevitable M5 performance version to arrive.

Can’t wait to drive that one.

Dan Neil is the Pulitzer-Prize winning auto critic for the Los Angeles Times.

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