Lisbon, Portugal - We are taught not to judge books by their covers, and gazing at the new 5 Series there’s little to tell you that much has changed under the skin of BMW’s business sedan.
The slight visual realignment - let’s call it a dose of botox - involves a widened kidney grille that now extends into lengthened headlamps, which are now standard LEDs. Along with its slightly slimmer tail lights the car looks a little more planted and athletic than its predecessor even though its exterior dimensions remain essentially the same (it’s 36mm longer, 6mm wider and 2mm taller).
Insert yourself into the cabin and it’s the same well-groomed, business-class neatness we’ve come to know from Bavaria’s executive cars, just teased into a more modern vibe. The infotainment monitor, for instance, now perches on top of the dash as per the trend du jour, and it’s now a touchscreen that accepts fingertip commands. The navigation, telephone and entertainment features can also be controlled by voice commands and air swipes (the latter a feature first introduced in the larger 7 Series), but the dependable iDrive Controller between the front seats remains for those who prefer a more familiar, old-school interface. BMW is not shy to offer choices.
Funny how quickly the exotic can become routine, though. After the air-swipe system initially seemed gimmicky, twirling my finger in the air soon became the preferred method to adjust the audio volume when I drove the car at its recent international launch. Answering or rejecting phone calls is also done by swiping your hand left or right.
Peer beneath that unassuming new cover and more substance is revealed. While the exterior sheetmetal hasn’t changed much in styling, it’s now made of lighter stuff. Using more aluminium and magnesium in the body construction has ditched around 100kg of mass, while body strength and torsional stiffness are improved. Ride and handling are uprated too by making the new Five’s suspension lighter, while the centre of gravity is low and the front to rear weight balance is an optimal 50/50.
Integral Active Steering, which slightly steers the rear wheels to improve high-speed and cornering stability, can be optionally specified. So can all-wheel-drive but only to overseas buyers; the new Five will be rear-wheel-driven only when it’s launched in South Africa in March next year in 520d, 530d, 530i and 540i derivatives.
Crisper, yet more refined
On the narrow mountain passes of Portugal’s Algarve region, the lighter new Five impressively displayed the effects of its diet in the 530d and 540i versions I drove. Those lost kilos are evident in the big car’s generally crisper, more light footed handling, all channelled through effortless but communicative steering. Overall the new Five feels less bloated; like it’s been through a Tim Noakes diet and come out leaner and fitter.
Sheer driving pleasure? Yes, the tagline holds truer than ever, but the car’s also become more refined. BMW’s sound-deadening gurus have gone to town in their efforts to eliminate unwanted wind, road or mechanical noise, and the cabin’s so quiet you could hear a flatulent flea.
Gelling with the overall refinement is the car’s luxurious progress over roads both smooth and scarred. At the world media launch I was given the chance to drive a first-generation 5 Series from 1975, a pristine low-mileage 528 that made an interesting counterpoint to its ultra-modern descendant.
The original Five wafted on cotton wool on its high-profile tyres, but the new-generation car, despite its much sportier low-profile rubber, still had the comfier ride. A demonstration of the wonders of modern suspension.
Dynamic Damper Control (or optionally a more advanced Adaptive Drive system) varies the suspension stiffness according to the driving situation. Carried over from the outgoing 5 Series is a Driving Experience Control switch that allows drivers to select between sport, comfort or fuel efficiency vehicle settings.
Pick of the bunch?
The 530d’s likely to be the pick of the range with its mix of smooth muscle and economy. Power and torque in the uprated 3-litre turbodiesel are up to 195kW (+5kW) and 620Nm (+60Nm) for factory-claimed figures of 0-100km/h in 5.7 seconds, a 250km/h top speed and 4.5 litres per 100km.
For brute strength the 540i is still a compelling petrol flagship before the new M5 comes along. Replacing the 535i, it’s shunted along by a 3-litre turbo engine with 250kW and 450Nm for figures of 5.1 secs, 250km/h and 6.5l/100km. You can believe the performance numbers, but as usual disregard the wildly optimistic fuel figures.
Where the new 5 Series seems to have taken a wrong turn is in its semi-autonomous driving ability. The lane-change assist and lane-keeping assist of the two cars I drove at the launch worked intermittently, like they were in a beta testing phase - worlds apart from the much more effective semi-autopilot of the rival Mercedes E-Class.
Hopefully this technological glitch will be fixed before the new Five goes on worldwide sale early next year. Apart from that, Beemer’s new exec sedan has become even more refined and athletic. An ultra sophisticated car that’s still imbued with the brand’s quintessential driver appeal. Think of it as Usain Bolt in a business suit.