Johannesburg - About half a normal sized ruler. Or, to be exact, 162 millimetres. That’s the difference in overall length between BMW’s 5 and (regular wheelbase) 7 Series models. Not a whole lot.

Having experienced both, I’m struggling to ascertain the difference in buyers between the two sedans. Sure, you can use the whole back seat businessman argument with the Seven, but come on, unless we count those equipped with blue lights, how many of the roughly 70 units sold in the past year are actually chauffeur driven? Hardly any.

The price difference between the most equivalent 5s and 7s is around half a million bucks, but I can’t imagine many customers ready to drop a million plus on their next luxury cruise ship couldn’t stretch to get the bigger, more swanky 7 Series if they wanted to. Especially if luxury is the ultimate factor in the decision making process.

It’s impossible to not notice the new 5 Series is a slightly shorter twin to the bigger 7. Besides shared components the eyes can’t see (gearbox, brakes, some engines, and basic floorpan), they’re virtual Xerox copies of each other with nearly identical dashboards, seats, display screens and optional features. 

Go bananas with a smorgasbord of pay-ins, and both cars offer the same self-driving gizmos, four-wheel steering systems, twirly finger gesture control and touch interfaces, multi-fragrance air fresheners and Las Vegas-rivalling interior mood light packages. They even get the same R3600 touchscreen display key and R7900 remote control parking aid, which is really all that matters when impressing colleagues at the country club.

Off the top of my head, the only things a 7 Series has in hand over the 5 is a smidgen of rear legroom, a removable back seat Samsung tablet, and some carbonfibre weaved into its chassis structure. Oh, and the fact it can be had in long wheelbase guise with a 448kW 6.6-litre turbo V12 but that’s a story for another day.

And then I figured it out. We recently took a relatively stripped-down 530d on test, and it only took me a few hundred metres at the wheel to discover the fundamental difference between Seven and Five. At 4.9 metres-long, the 5 Series is quite large and in charge, but it’s much better at disguising its size than big brother. Where the 7 floats along in regal plushness, the 5 does the whole “shrinks around you” trick. That’s an automotive cliche I hate, but one that rings true here.

Granted, the 7 Series comes with floaty air springs (another item not possible in the 5), and our car rolled on stiffer (again optional) M Sport steel spring suspension with low profile 19-inch tyres. The 5 is bound to be a sharper, more wieldy handler in this spec, and though it’s only marginally smaller in overall size, it’s far better at delivering BMW’s treasured “driver’s car” promise. It might be even better with the R23 400 four-wheel steer setup, which our car didn’t have.

The 530d’s 195kW/620Nm 3-litre turbodiesel is a gem of an engine. Its in-line six cylinders are more vocal than some competitor diesels, but in a nice husky way befitting a muscular cruiser like this.

There’s torque for Africa, and in any given gear it can dig deep into reserves for effortless gushes of power. Beemer’s quoted 0-100km/* figure of 5.7 seconds is very believable.

Our car returned a real world fuel consumption of 8.2 litres per 100km, which is quite good considering its thumping outputs, but quite far from BMW’s claimed 4.9l/100km mark.

With all the previous comparisons to the 7 Series, comfort goes without saying. The 5’s cabin is a hermetically sealed passenger capsule, with top drawer build quality and soft-touch everything. Our car’s R7800 Sports Seats are must haves for anyone willing to test the aforementioned handling abilities, or for those who just like that sunken-in feeling of beautifully bolstered buckets.

Likewise the R4600 Ambient Air package with eight interchangeable perfume cartridges (two can be used at a time). These can be activated in three intensity levels, each gently spritzing sweet aromas into the aircon system. My favourite was Green Suite No.2 and its “naturalness of fresh grasses”.

My only criticism of the new 5 Series is the complexity of its numerous systems. Just like a pilot before flight, you almost need a pre-drive checklist to avoid unnecessary distraction once on the road.

Nav destination - check. Map view - check. Drive mode - check. Internet connection - check. Fragrance - check. Intensity - check.

You get the idea. It’s a lot to process, and the plethora of preferences might alienate some tech-challenged customers.

I can’t imagine grandpa programming the two-fingered Gesture Control prod to skip music tracks or mute calls, let alone using it. Though I did, and enjoyed it.

VERDICT

Here you get almost all the fancy gadgets and over-the-top luxury features of the flagship 7 Series, but wrapped up in a slightly smaller package. The 5 Series is a well balanced rear-wheel drive executive sedan, and in 530d guise comes with stonking power. 

FACTS: BMW 530d 

Engine: 3-litre, 6-cylinder turbodiesel
Gearbox: 8-speed automatic
Power: 195kW @ 4000rpm
Torque: 620Nm @ 2000-2500rpm
0-100km/h (Claimed): 5.7 seconds
Top speed (Claimed): 250km/h
Price: R954 096
Warranty: 2-year/unlimited km
Maintenance plan: 5-year/100 000km

ALTERNATIVES

Audi A6 3.0 TDI SE160kW/400NmR733 500
Mercedes-Benz E350d190kW/620NmR970 636
Volvo S90 D5173kW/480NmR786 198