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Motoring: BMW 5-series top of luxury class

Nauman Farooq | Interrobang | Sports | November 19th, 2007

In the world of cool automotive slogans (Dodge = “Grab life by the horns”, Porsche = “There is no substitute”), BMW has perhaps the coolest slogan of “The Ultimate Driving Machine.”

I have been distant from BMW's for some time, and now I finally got to try out not one, but two models on the same platform. I am talking about the BMW 535i and the 550i.

The current 5-series might not be new itself, this generation has been on sale for nearly three years now, but over the years there have been a few mechanical changes.

Last year BMW upgraded its V8, so instead of a 545i model, now you get a 550i (even the name sounds cooler doesn't it). The most significant change comes with the introduction of the 535i.

This model replaces the old 530i with an interesting twist. This is essentially the same engine as last years three-litre, inline six-cylinder engine but now bolted with two-turbo chargers. That makes things a bit more interesting now.

The advantage of the turbo is added performance as you now get 300 hp and 300 lb/ft of torque. That means you can overtake slower traffic much more easily. Plus with the twin turbo layout, you don't seem to get any turbo-lag, it just works very seamlessly, maybe too seamlessly for my taste because it doesn't have that sudden snap power surge normally associated with turbo-charged engines. Thanks to the way this engine is tuned, it gives great mileage. I averaged about 11.5-litres/100km with this car, which is fantastic for a car in this category.

The fuel economy on the 550i wasn't as good though, it averaged 14-litres/100km, but you know what, I just don't care. This five-litre, V8 is one gem of an engine. It really is too good an engine to be wasted on our roads with our speed limits. This V8 is like a heavyweight boxer, calm while relaxing, but you provoke it and it punches very hard indeed. How hard, how about 360 hp and an even 360 lb/ft of torque, and that enables this to launch from 0-100km/h in 5.6 seconds (535i takes about 5.9 seconds). By the way, not only does this car speed like a bullet, it can also stop like it has hit the wall. This car washes off speed better than any sedan I have come across, but that has a side-effect too, as in stop and go traffic the brakes feel very snappy. So unless you are surgically precise on the pedal, you will likely strain your neck with the brakes pushing your head forward abruptly, BMW needs some tweaking is still needed there.

No complaints about the handling though, as it is great. This car just grips and grips and is a joy on twisty roads, and I can't say that about many sedans.

Both the 535i and 550i come with brilliant six-speed automatic gearboxes with manual shift modes. Six-speed autos might not be anything new these days, but the gear shifter on these BMW's is something new. It looks like a joystick. You press a black button with your thumb and move the lever an inch forward and you engage reverse, move it back and it engages drive, simple. This stuff is very clever, but I feel this item is more show than actually solving a solution. I mean, it takes up about the same space in the centre console as any other automatic gear selector, and because of the complexity of this system, I'd hate to imagine the repair bills on such an item once the warranty runs out.

The same can be said about the i-Drive system. Sure it is very cool to use, and not even close to as hard to operate as some people make it out to be, but it is not a necessity. However, at this end of the market, it is the gadgets that make a big difference.

Me, I rather concentrate on things like performance and luxury. I mentioned the performance about the car before, so we'll talk about luxury. In this area this BMW is much better than I expected and certainly much better than the Mercedes-Benz E-class I tested last year. The seats are better and offer much more adjustments than its competition. There is also its clever use of space. The 5-series doesn't look very roomy in the back, yet is quite comfortable even there. On top of that is its practicality, it has one of the biggest trunks I have seen on a car this size, so you can certainly carry lots of stuff.

So it sounds like a great car, and to my surprise, it's not overly expensive either. You can get a 535i from $68,900 (the all-wheel drive 535xi starts at $71,500) and my favourite 550i (no all-wheel drive option with this engine) starts at $82,900. Yes, for some that is still a lot of money to spend on a car, but if you are to spend this sort of money on a luxury sedan, walk past the Lexus showroom, speed walk past Mercedes-Benz, pause and look at Jaguar and stop and take a hard look at the Audi A6 and the BMW 5-series, these two are the best in the business.
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