Towards autonomy: Driving the new BMW 5 Series
In addition to the luxurious layout and pure driving experience we've come to expect, the new BMW 5 Series ushers in a raft of innovative features that bring self-driving cars a step closer to reality. So how does this mix of tradition and technology play out on the road? We got behind the wheel to find out.
The new 5 Series takes several cues from the company's flagship 7 Series. Long gone is the boxy design that debuted 45 years ago, replaced by sinuous curves and sculpted lines. On the inside is where you really notice the influence of its bigger sibling's high-end luxury finish. The cabin is polished and comfortable, but everything is subtly oriented towards the person behind the wheel. You still get the feeling that this car is meant to be driven.
The Australian launch of the 5 Series gave us the opportunity to sample both petrol and diesel variants on a variety of road conditions in and around the beautiful wine growing region of South Australia's Barossa Valley. Afterwards we tasted one or two reds, too, but that's a review for another day.
In terms of the basic driving experience, what you see on the spec sheet for the four different variants is pretty much what you get on the road. The 4-cylinder diesel 520d (140 kW/187 hp and 400 Nm/295 lb ft) is torquey, slightly sluggish when you put the foot down and silky smooth on the road thanks to a near seamless 8-speed automatic transmission and adaptive damping that soaks up the bumps like a sponge. You tend to forgive the (relative) lack of punch when you see the fuel economy figures of 4.3 l/100 km (55 mpg).
When you switch to the 4-cylinder 530i, which produces 185 kW (248 hp) and 350 Nm (258 lb ft) of torque,"slightly sluggish" becomes "effortless." Jump to the top-of-the-line 540i with the M-Sport package and "effortless" becomes "ahhhh." The 540 i packs the new 6-cylinder turbo B58 engine producing 250 kW (335 hp) and 450 Nm (332 lb ft) and it's a blast to drive; quick, responsive and incredibly flat through corners courtesy of active anti-roll bars that are part of the adaptive suspension system. The 540i hits 100 km/h (62 mph) from a standing start in 5.1 seconds, can get you to 250 km/h (155 mph) on the autobahn and also delivers the most refined interior finish of all the variants. Not surprisingly, this feels like a driver's car among driver's cars on the back of this sort of performance and handling.
The 5 Series line-up is rounded out by the 6-cylinder diesel 530d, which produces an impressive 195 kW (261 hp) and 620 Nm (457 lb ft) of torque, along with a 5.7 second 0-100 km/h time and fuel economy of 5.7 l/100 km (41 mpg) ... but once you're smitten by the 540i, it's a little hard to concentrate.
There's some very clever innovations behind these figures. A Cd of just 0.24 is helped by active flaps in the familiar kidney grille that close to improve aerodynamics, as well as helping the engine warm up faster on a wintry morning. A new chassis underpinning the 5 Series strips 95 kg (210 lb) off the weight compared to the outgoing model, despite being slightly bigger.
The superb intelligent suspension system sees an Adaptive mode added to the Eco Pro, Comfort and Sport modes. Adaptive mode uses the car's sensors and navigation information to predict the road ahead and adjust the feel accordingly – though we were pressed to find a reason to switch out of the tight, responsive Sport Mode. There's also Integral Active Steering, which turns the rear wheels in the same direction as the front wheels above 60 km/h for improved cornering, or in the opposite direction at slower speeds to make navigating tight spots in the city easier. A Stop/Start function that's so quiet you hardly notice it also helps when getting around town.
In a way it's no surprise that this is an awesome car to drive, but the most lasting impression it leaves on you after a few hours behind the wheel is on the technology front. This is a look at the autonomous future to come.
There's a mind-boggling array of smarts at work here. Some if it – like the active suspension – is seamless, while some takes a little more getting used to. All of the buttons and other input methods available (scroll wheel, touch screen, gesture and voice control) can be a little overwhelming. This seems like be a case of not quite wanting to let go of the old while ushering in the new, in contrast to taking the leap to an almost touchscreen-only interface like that found in Tesla's Model-S. On the other hand, it's good to have options, but our guess is that the control panel will become a little less busy in future models.
BMW is at pains to point out that its driver assist technology is designed as a "personal co-pilot" (Tesla again springs to mind with its perhaps over-ambitiously named "Autopilot" system). Features include "Stop & Go" Adaptive Cruise control, which takes a lot of pain out of city traffic jams, and Speed Limit Assist, where the car reads roadsigns – yep it reads roadsigns – and sets the speed accordingly.
The headline act is the Steering and Lane Control assistant, which is designed to keep you on the straight and narrow by controlling the steering for periods of up to 30 seconds, after which the car prompts you to put your hands back on the wheel. This function is specifically for highway driving where the lines are well marked and the roads fairly straight. It doesn't work well on twisty back roads where line markings are faint or non existent, and it's not designed to – it's meant to act as a back up on long monotonous drives where you might lapse in concentration when reaching for your coffee.
As you'd expect, using the Steering and Lane Control assistant is an unnerving experience at first; it wasn't flawless and I was never comfortable enough to do anything but let my hands hover near the wheel. It is definitely a glimpse of the future, but at this stage it seems like a case of potentially useful back up rather than killer app. Head of Product and Market Planning at BMW Australia, Shawn Ticehurst, put it nicely by describing this functionality as an evolution of cruise control – first we gained the ability to take our feet off the accelerator under the right conditions, then came the automatic braking offered by adaptive cruise; the logical next step is the ability to take our hands off the wheel for short periods of time. At some point down the track the car will take over – we're not quite there yet but this take on automated steering shows that the technology is close, and if nothing else, it might help us get used to the idea of relinquishing control in the meantime.
These functions are controlled by buttons on the steering wheel with information shown on the Head up Display. While we're on the subject, I'd argue that the HUD is one of the most useful tech innovations to hit cars in the past few years, and it's something BMW does very well. The HUD in the 5 Series is 70 percent bigger than the previous generation and provides key info clearly in your field of view without being a distraction. Along with current speed, relevant driver information pops up on the display as you activate it.
It's a sign of how far we've come when an automated parking-assist feature hardly even rates much of a mention, but the 5 Series has that too, along with the option of remote-controlled parking that debuted on the 7 Series, which makes for a nice party trick. The 3D virtual walkaround parking function is also brilliant, providing a detailed view of the car's surroundings that you can navigate via the 10.25-inch touchscreen.
As mentioned, there's no shortage of ways to interact with your car, the most novel being gesture control. This initially struck me as a bit of a gimmick, but after trying it I'm not so sure. The idea is that you can control volume and some other aspects of the infotainment system with fairly subtle gestures; a small circular wave of the hand while your elbow is resting on the central armrest winds back the volume, a movement forward skips the track or goes to the next station on the dial. It was a little hit and miss, but I'd put that down to beginner's ineptitude – you could get used to it, and it could become an easy and intuitive method of control. Still, the fact that I found myself using the trusty old scroll wheel to navigate through the infotainment system probably sums it up.
Apple Car Play with wireless phone connection is optional on top of BMW's new iDrive 6 infotainment system. This seems more about giving Apple fans familiarity than adding functionality, as BMW's in-house system does pretty much everything Car Play does. There's also a touch of irony here – the 5 Series offers wireless phone charging as standard, but iPhones don't support that without a special sleeve, while Android phones do. We suspect your BMW dealer might throw in one of those sleeves if you ask nicely.
Elsewhere in the cabin there's no shortage of luxurious comfort on offer with options like active seat ventilation, four-zone air-conditioning and, for the 540i, generous lashings of Nappa leather, electric sunblinds in the rear and ionized air with your choice of eight scents. The 540i also packs a Bowers & Wilkins Diamond surround sound system, but this was one of the very few areas in which we were a bit underwhelmed – while solid through the bass and mid-ranges, the system didn't seem to cope too well with higher ranges when we jacked up the volume.
All in all, this is an impressive vehicle in every respect, one that will undoubtedly give the Mercedes E-Class a run for its money in the segment. BMW calls the 5 Series the "perfect embodiment of a premium business sedan." It's very hard to argue.
Pricing for the BMW 5 Series in Australia starts at AU$93,900 for the 520d, AU$108,900 for the 530i (which is expected to be the sweet spot for buyers) and AU$119,900 for the 530d, while the flagship 540i set at AU$136,900.
In the United States, the BMW 530i sedan is priced from US$51,300.