BMW 5 Series: A high-tech masterpiece

Drive it hard like a sports car, or let it drive you in luxurious comfort. The new 5 Series can do it all, says Michael Ryan.

Technically, the new BMW 5 Series is a bunch of automotive contradictions.

It’s a five passenger four-door sedan with sporting performance and handling, but which also carries you in stately comfort like a luxury saloon. It’s a car that wants to be driven hard, yet will drive you, thanks to its astonishing array of autonomous driving tech.

BMW calls the new 5 Series its “business athlete”, an apt description for a machine equally at ease in the executive car park (where it will park itself) or on Aussie autobahns storming to the Yarra or Hunter Valley.

The new 5 Series is made possible by BMW’s application of the latest state-of-the-art engineering, materials and electronics across every aspect of the car. In a sense, the 5 Series is a showcase of just what carmakers are really capable of today, if you can afford the $108,900 starting price.

By making the sedan 100kg lighter than the previous model, with the use of aluminium and high tech materials, and by fitting lighter but more powerful engines, BMW has imbued the newest 5 Series with an even stronger sporting character.

The sedan we tested was surprisingly light, nimble and fast, with super-responsive steering, excellent roadholding and a lightning quick throttle response. And this was just in the 530i model, which comes with just a 2 litre twin turbo engine. Move on up to the 540i, which can do 0 to 100km/h in 5.2 seconds (with its 3 litre six-cylinder motor), and you start to whip muscle cars at the lights.

Sporting performance is all very well and good, but what really makes the new 5 Series sedans so spectacular is that they’re also luxury cars. This melding of athleticism and comfort is what BMW does really well in comparison to just about any other carmaker. It’s burned into its DNA, and with its latest machines, BMW has taken it to a new level.

Normally cars with sporting pretensions don’t carry you in comfort — they’re harder on your rear, louder and have less passenger room — yet the BMW still gives you that feeling of being clinically isolated from the imperfections of the road, the unpleasantries of the countryside and other drivers.

As an example of this, even the 530i sedan’s engine idle stop/start system is barely noticeable, which makes sitting in traffic a less stop/start experience than in most cars.

Driving the 530i around town was a delight, particularly after having reviewed several SUVs in previous mags. SUVs don’t have that combo of sharp handling and sophisticated ride and it was a reminder of why some of us still buy sedans.

The 5 Series’ most direct competitor, the Mercedes E-Class, might be a match on luxury, but reviewers say the
5 Series may have the edge in athleticism and driving fun.

The other contradiction is that while this is a driver’s car — in other words, one whose dynamics make driving really enjoyable — it’s also one that lets you go into lazy mode while it does some of the driving for you.

There is so much driver assist technology in the 5 Series that we essentially let the 530i drive itself from Sydney to Canberra on one of our test days. As insane as that sounds (given it’s not one of those self-driving Google cars) you should know that carmakers like BMW are quietly adding surprisingly advanced autonomous technology to their cars.

To have it reach Canberra largely on autopilot via the M5 and Hume Highway, we switched on just three electronic features that come as standard in the new 5 Series.

First was the Active Cruise Control with Stop & Go Function, which is just like regular cruise control but also adapts the car’s speed to that of the vehicle in front, even braking to a complete stop if necessary.

Then we switched on Speed Limit Assist which, astonishingly, recognises roadside speed signs with onboard cameras. It not only compares your speed to the legal speed on a head-up display, it also then limits it to be in sync with the road speed limit (if you so choose).

And last we switched on the Lane Keeping Assistant. This is BMW’s boring title for what’s essentially a super cool self-steering feature. The car’s sensors recognise the lane markings and keep the car in the lane, which manifests via the eerie spectacle of the steering wheel turning by itself on bends.

With all three going, we let the BMW mostly drive the 320km from Sydney to the nation’s capital by itself. It wasn’t complete self-steering because the system expects you to keep your hands on the wheel most of the time, and disengages the self-steering if a hand doesn’t touch the wheel at least once every 30 seconds. But on a long highway with clear lane markings and a finger occasionally tapping the steering wheel, the car did most of the driving, sitting happily in the middle lane and keeping up with traffic.

The only exception came when we changed lanes to pass slow trucks and when we chickened out on some long bends,  in which the self-steering swung the car from one edge of the lane to the other (which for anyone behind us, would have been disconcerting, like they were following a drunk driver).

But the point is that this car lets you well and truly sample the kind of autonomous driving that carmakers say will start taking over the piloting of our cars in a decade’s time.

Once you get to your destination, the 5 Series unleashes another surprise: it’s able to park automatically in a carpark, as opposed to only parallel parking on the street, which most new cars can do now. In a carpark (or a street in which the cars are parked rear to curb) the BMW is able to automatically back itself into the parking spot. If you hate squeezing into tight parking spaces, the new 5 Series is for you. With a bunch of sensors and algorithms doing the work, it will park more accurately than you ever will.

But if you want to park the car yourself, it provides another wow feature: Surround View. Here, cameras and parking sensors create an undistorted top-down 3D view of the car and the space around it, so that it feels like you’re watching it from a camera hovering 5 metres above the car. You can use Surround View to navigate into a tight spot more precisely than looking out the windows. And if you’re away from the car, you can login with your smartphone and check what’s around it with a click of a button.

But wait, there’s more. If the garage is particularly tight and you won’t be able to open the doors to get out, you can hop out of the car beforehand and use a special second set of keys, called the Display Keys, to make the car drive itself into the parking spot remotely.

One final contradiction of the new 5 Series is in the styling. This is a premium sports luxury machine that should scream “look at me” because it’s so good, yet its styling is so understated that only a few people will notice that it’s a dramatic evolution from the previous model.

For the purists, the main visual changes include new creases down the sides, a more sloping roof line and a flatter stance at the back end which makes it look sportier. And if you ever wondered whether you’d live to see this, yes, it’s the first BMW in which the corners of the headlights touch the sides of the kidney grilles.

The 5 Series is an understated masterpiece — a showcase of what carmakers can do in 2017. It’s a car that combines features that have been historically difficult to bring together, in effect, letting you have your cake and eat it too. You get a sports car and luxury saloon that also lets you sample the autonomous future.

BMW 530e: Plug this one in

This version of the 5 Series runs off electricity as well as petrol.

What if you were to take a 5 Series sedan and push it just a little bit further towards the future? BMW has done this with the 530e, which is powered by a hybrid unit consisting of a 2 litre turbo petrol engine and an electric motor.

This is a car you can plug into your mains and drive purely on electricity, the petrol engine taking over only when you’ve travelled up to 40km and the battery charge has run out (covering most people’s commutes) or when you need extra power while accelerating.

What’s unusual about the 530e is that BMW has priced it exactly the same as the petrol-only 530i, as if trying to encourage people to start the big shift to hybrid cars by removing the sticker shock that comes with most electrics or hybrids.

Priced from $108,900 the 530e mirrors the base price and performance specs of the 530i in every detail except fuel consumption. Both cars have identical acceleration figures and power outputs, almost as if BMW is trying to say you have nothing to lose if you choose the hybrid.

So if you get yourself the 530e instead of the 530i what can you expect? Well, just a massive saving on petrol. The 530e’s consumption is almost three times lower than the 530i’s, with a claimed fuel usage figure of 2.3L/100km. This, of course, is offset by the fact that you have the additional bother of having to plug it in to a power point to recharge the battery when you want to make the most of its hybrid features.

This is not so much about the difficulty of finding a power point at home, but on the road. If you don’t, then it will be your petrol engine that has to charge the batteries, which sort of defeats the purpose. If you’re going shopping at least, BMW has placed charging stations in Westfield shopping centre carparks (right). Plug it in (below), go shopping and come back to find your 530e fully charged.

Although the 530e doesn’t deliver Tesla-like acceleration figures, when it moves from a standing start it’s like
all electric or hybrid cars: delightfully smooth, thanks to the instant torque. In fact, torque is one thing the car needed more of than the 530i, because it has to make up for the additional 230kg of weight from the battery pack and electric motors. However the weight was barely noticeable on our short test drive of the car.

The other difference to the 530i is that the 530e has slightly less boot space, as BMW had to fit a massive lithium-ion battery pack in the back, forcing the fuel tank to protrude slightly — but it’s not a big intrusion.