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2011 BMW 550i Two out of Five The BMW 550i (top) has a very different personality to the 535d (below left)
 Jack Yan
2011 BMW 535d
 Tanya Sooksombatisatian

Five’s flip sides

Jack Yan tests both the BMW 550i and 535d and discovers two very different beasts—but can both be the best executive saloon in the world?
PHOTOGRAPHED BY TANYA SOOKSOMBATISATIAN

 

ITS THE BEST WAY to stir the soul. Instead of putting me into a more lowly model, my introduction to the new BMW 5er-Reihe was in the V8-powered 550i. There’s something hard-wired into the male mind that enjoys the purr of a bent eight, overcoming the rationality that tells us that such cars emit more carbon dioxide per kilometre.

But, even then, you begin rationalizing it. You tell yourself that BMW has managed to get its average carbon dioxide emissions down considerably, and that it’s lower than its rivals over at Ingolstadt, Stuttgart and Toyota City.

No matter how green-aware we get, there will be a group of buyers who’ll opt for this class of saloon. The question then becomes: which combines the emotive side of the brain with the responsible one?

The 550i might just tick all the boxes. The emotive side loves the V8. It’s not huge on cubic centimetres: BMW has put its 4·4-litre eight and added twin turbochargers to it. (The days of the last two digits denoting cubic capacity have long passed.) There are 407 PS on tap. The engine goes wonderfully smoothly, with the 550i easily the most refined saloon in its class. The ride is sublime, the sort of behaviour that you would expect from the class above. If the 5 doesn’t wind up poaching 7er sales as well as those from the competition, we’d be surprised.

We didn’t test the chassis at its very limit, though a drive over the Rimutaka Hill Road north of Wellington shows the 550i to be particularly composed. In fact, the steering is so direct that in one of the downhill hairpins, you’d swear you were cornering a hot hatch, not a saloon that measures 4·9 m head to tail. It’s really that good.


Above Elegance in detail.

And, the looks. When we first covered the Fünfer on its launch in November 2009, we felt that BMW had recaptured its elegance. We said, ‘on looks alone, this looks to reestablish the BMW Fünfer as the most elegant executive-class model on the roads.’ After living with it for a week, there’s nothing to dim that judgement. This shape won’t date quickly, and if you look at the model two generations before (the E39)—one that still measures up dynamically to a lot of cars today—you get the idea. Elegance is something that transcends the generations, and someone with a very good eye in München was in charge this time. All hail Adrian van Hooydonk, head of BMW Group Design.

The responsible side says it’s one of the safest bets there are. You can see BMW’s Efficient Dynamics work: each time you brake or go downhill in gear, the little graphic beneath the speedometer shows a battery being charged, as the car recaptures the energy. It’s got the usual array of airbags, including side curtain ones. The sat-nav helps plan a good route. Combined carbon dioxide emissions range from 129 to 257 g/km—not bad for this size of car. There’s an eight-speed automatic box that seems well geared between performance and economy, although we only managed to get 19·3 mpg (14·63 l/100 km) on our test drive. The safety kit is neatly laid out, and erecting the reflective hazard triangle is simple (putting it back takes a little longer).


Above The BMW’s cameras help draw a three-dimensional picture of what is around the car.

Then there are those things that straddle both logic and wonder. The small cameras to the side of the car help draw a three-dimensional image of what surrounds the car, making it particularly easy to park. It works better than the conventional rear-view cameras (which are still there), as you’re able to judge the positioning that much better.

Not everything works that well, mind. The adaptive cruise control leaves something to be desired versus the same feature on the Audi A7 and Mercedes-Benz E-Klasse (we’ll reserve judgement on the next A6 till we test it). It gets more easily confused by vehicles in neighbouring lanes, slowing down unnecessarily. It’s a small penalty in an otherwise very convincing 2010s package.

BMW has a history of delivering the best car in the world with its 5er. The design, inside and out, is more pleasing than its Swabian rival. Dynamically, it’s the best drive you can get in this market. It’s more environmentally friendly than the equivalent Mercedes-Benz E500, according to our colleagues at Auto, Motor und Sport.

But with the car’s thirst (not against its rivals, but against other cars in general), your emotional side is still going to make the judgement, just because of a sublime engine and its sheer elegance. Will emotion trump sense?

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The engine goes wonderfully smoothly, with the 550i easily the most refined saloon in its class. The ride is sublime, the sort of behaviour that you would expect from the class above. If the 5 doesn’t wind up poaching 7er sales as well as those from the competition, we’d be surprised

 

 




 

 

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