Oubaai, Southern Cape - All jokes about ‘evolutionary design’ aside, while the seventh-generation BMW 5 Series bears a strong family resemblance to its predecessor, a second glance will show you that the new Five is very much its own car.
The signature kidney grille is bigger and more upright (a big improvement in my eyes) while the new headlight clusters, each containing two hexagonal, rather than round, LED projectors, stretch all the way from the grille trim to within a hand-span of the wheel arch.
The car’s profile looks distinctly ‘stretched’, thanks to a more steeply raked rear window - it’s almost a fastback – but it’s actually only marginally larger than its predecessor.
At 4935mm overall it’s 36mm longer than the outgoing 5 Series, on a 2975mm wheelbase (7mm longer than before). It is 6mm wider at 1868mm and just two millimetres taller (1466mm), but the maker claims it’s as much as 100kg lighter (depending on the drivetrain) than the previous model, due to more extensive use of aluminium and high-strength alloy steel components in the body-shell and suspension.
Next-generation electronics suite
But it’s the car’s electronics that have really evolved, starting with the head-up display, which is 70 percent larger and noticeably clearer, but projected slightly lower down so you don’t see it at all when you’re concentrating on the road ahead. It can show you traffic signs, telephone listings, radio stations and music tracks but it’s most legible – and most usable - when set up to display just road speed and the distance to the next change of direction on the navigation system.
The infotainment system is built around a wide, 26cm touchscreen; it shows its main menu as a row of tiles that can be re-arranged to suit how you use them, and can be controlled by means of the i-Drive knob, voice commands, hand gestures or by touching the screen – all of which sounds very complicated but is in fact surprisingly intuitive.
The new 5 Series gets another step closer to driving itself with active side collision protection, which not only reads lane markings and nudges you back on line if you wander but also senses looming collisions and automatically steers away from them if the road on the other side is clear.
The system can also steer the car in slow-moving traffic (while the active cruise control keeps station with the car ahead) and on long stretches of open road. In effect, it’s about as intelligent as a 10-year-old sitting on Daddy’s lap and ‘driving’, with adult hands poised to take over whenever the situation call for it – and don’t get me wrong, that’s more intelligent than some human drivers you’ve seen on the roads recently.
There’s another new tweak in the active cruise control that allows it to adjust itself automatically when the speed limit changes – and lets you preset it to cruise at up to 15km/h above or below the ‘ambient’ speed limit. Even the idle-stop function has been given a measure of intelligence, in response to complaints from owners that the car’s engine switches off automatically in situations where it shouldn’t, such as an intersection where a rapid pull-away into flowing traffic may be needed.
The resulting hesitation while the car’s engine re-starts and revs up can be dangerous, they said, so now the 5 Series will check the route on the satnav and consult its Internet of Things buddies at RTTI (real-time traffic information) about prevailing traffic conditions before shutting down the engine.
It’s also the first Five that can park and unpark itself remotely, and the first available with optional rear-wheel steering, which turns the rear wheels in the opposite direction to the fronts, to make the car more manoeuvrable at low speeds, and in the same direction at over 80km/h, to make it more stable.
The new 5 Series is available at launch in a four-strong line-up – two diesels and two petrols, each driving the rear wheels via an eight-speed paddle shift Steptronic - with an entry-level petrol variant and a plug-in hybrid to follow later this year.
BMW’s two-litre turbodiesel four soldiers on, its rated outputs unchanged at 140kW and 400Nm; 0-100km/h is quoted at 7.7 seconds and top speed at 238km/h.
BMW’s long-serving three-litre straight six turbodiesel has been uprated by 5kW to 195kW and 60Nm to 620Nm, giving it a claimed 0-100 sprint time of 5.7 seconds; top speed is an electronically limited 250km/h.
This new version of BMW’s two-litre modular turbopetrol four, which replaces the outgoing 528i, is rated at 185kW (up 5kW on its predecessor) from 5200-6500rpm, and 350Nm from 1450-4800rpm. Launch to 100km/h is quoted at 6.2 seconds and terminal velocity is capped at 250km/h.
This is your classic BMW prime mover - a three-litre petrol-powered straight six - but endowed in this application with every flute and gong Munich’s whitecoats have in their arsenal, including a twin-scroll turbocharger, fully variable valve lift and timing on both camshafts, and direct fuel-injection, for an impressive rating of 250kW from 5500-6500rpm, and 450Nm from just off idle at 1380rpm all the way to 5200. Take-off from 0-100 is quoted at 5.1 seconds - impressive for a 1670kg luxury sedan weighing 1670kg - while top speed is, as usual, an electronically limited 250km/h.
On the road
I was able to drive both petrol models at the launch on the Garden Route, starting with the 530i, and was immediately struck by its unruffled competence and composure, even when pushed hard on tight, bumpy back roads.
BMW has tagged the seventh-generation 5 Series the ‘Business Athlete’ and it lives up to that with sports-seat bolsters that move in to hug your short ribs as you start the engine, beautifully weighted, pinpoint-accurate steering - a huge improvement on some earlier BMW models - and firm but supple suspension, with never a bump or a thump even on the worst of roads.
It is possible to induce a suggestion of front-end push at silly speeds on tight back-roads, but the car’s torque vectoring set-up takes care of it almost imperceptibly - in fact all the new Five’s safety systems do their jobs quietly in the background without calling attention to themselves.
The new two-litre turbofour is happy to rev its nuts off whenever you want, with almost imperceptible turbo lag. It sounds a little gruff when pushed hard, but never strained or raucous. It’s quiet and refined around town, but anytime you ask it to pick up its heels and get moving, you’re conscious that this is a downsized engine, punching above its weight in a big car.
The same comment cannot, however, be levelled at the muscular 540i; this is the real deal, redefining the term ‘effortless’ with its rolling flow of torque and, later, butter-smooth power, accompanied by a glorious, no-faking, straight-six sound track.
Laying down the law
The 540i doesn’t accelerate as much as gather momentum, but it does so at such a rate that 0-100 in five seconds flat doesn’t feel like an exaggeration; the way it lays down the law makes it feel even more planted on the road.
This is not one of those performance sedans that ‘shrinks around you’ when you start pushing the envelope; you are always aware that it is a big, heavy and very luxurious gentleman’s express, but that just adds extra gravitas to this superbly competent chassis, even if it does require serious concentration to keep up a high point-to-point average speed on narrow, twisty country roads.
The cabin has all the BMW signature styling cues but, because the car does more for you with less supervision, the controls are simpler, more intuitive, the layout classic (with the exception of the big wide touchscreen, which stands out above the line of the fascia and is exactly where is should be for optimum usability) and the finish is less busy, more tailored than on previous iterations of the 5 Series.
Some who equate a complex layout of knobs and buttons with luxury may find it understated; I think it’s classy - and that goes for almost everything about this car.
520d - R770 956
530i - R841 094
530d - R954 096
540i - R990 316
Audi A6 2.0 TDI SE - R695 500
Audi A6 3.0 TDI SE - R733 500
Jaguar XF 20d Prestige - R765 900
Mercedes-Benz E220d - R766 700
Mercedes-Benz E350d - R970 636
Volvo S90 D4 Momentum - R698 500