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Tested: BMW 535i

2010-06-24 07:50

It looks like a 3 Series from the rear and a 7 Series in your rear-view mirror. Is the new 5 Series the best executive sedan BMW has ever built? Or a car with a serious identity crisis?

Vehicle Specs
Manufacturer BMW
Model 535I
Engine 3l, in-line six, turbo
Power 225kW @ 5 800r/min
Torque 400Nm @ 1 200-5 000r/min
Transmission Eight-speed ZF Steptronic
Zero To Hundred 5.78 sec
Top Speed 250km/h
Fuel Tank 70l
Weight 1 700kg
Tyres 245/45 R18
Front Suspension Double wishbone
Rear Suspension Multi-link
Price R646 000

Lance Branquinho

When a car is as successful – and iconic – as the 5 Series, continuous improvement is a dismally challenging prospect for the design team. It’s akin to eking out those last few milliseconds from a qualifying lap in F1, seemingly achievable yet perpetually beyond grasp.

Considering more than 50% of BMW’s profits are generated by the 5 Series, one can understand how severe any ill-judgment by its product planners would be for the Munich manufacturer.

The fourth (E39) and fifth (E60) generation 5 Series models were peerless, which puts the sixth generation car (F10) in an unenviable position, following on from its brilliant, yet controversial, predecessor.

Introducing active steering and the most adventurous styling ever seen on a 5 Series, the E60 was respected instead of cherished by brand traditionalists.

The new 5 Series is Adrian von Hooydonk’s most important burden of responsibility to date, since replacing Chris Bangle as head of design.

After a week with the new 535i, I was conflicted as to whether this latest 5 Series was still worthy of its mantle as the world’s best driver’s car in the executive sedan segment.


In terms of styling, the von Hooydonk design is a lot safer and more accessible than any of the Bangle works.

Dimensionally the car is bigger, yet the clever surfacing leaves one grappling with whether to class it as ¾ 7 Series or a ballooned 3 Series instead. The rear styling draws strongly from the current 3 Series, whilst the lower nose and larger kidney grille has 7 Series overtures.

Take in the details and it’s not as striking a car as the E60 was, primarily due to its less ornate headlights and pedestrian crash safety paranoia dictating much of the car’s front-third surfacing and proportions. There is a very neat shoulder line running true along the flanks, and from a front three-quarter view the new Five looks strangely like a Bavarian Maserati Quattroporte…

Overall the styling doesn’t harmonise or create any definitive element of the new 535i being quintessentially a 5 Series. I found a number of onlookers mistaking it for a facelifted 3 Series.

Take up position behind the new 535i’s helm and you’re cocooned in a cabin environment at odds with the average exterior styling.

Although the interior retains familiar BMW fare in terms of architecture, it is neater and less stark than the E60, whilst sporting a staggering level of digital convergence.

Subtle mood lighting and expertly judged ergonomic placement of even the most peripheral functions ensure time spent behind the wheel majors on the driving experience, not fumbling about attempting to control the car’s vast array of digital functions.

Happy place

Despite the 5 Series not débuting any significant new technology, the manner in which the car’s infotainment and digitally enhanced visual driver safety systems resolve themselves is staggering.

The rear- and side-view cameras render image quality that would shame first generation flat-screen televisions, whilst the current generation iDrive is as helpful as the original one was obstinate.

I loved the analogue/digital balance of the 535i cabin, where night-vision (R25 800) and wondrous 3D SatNav (R21 300) partner with classically simple analogue engine- and road-speed dials.

Featuring four USB input slots (for all manner of external devices) the F10’s infotainment system made sense of even the most haphazardly filed external hard drives I connected it with – something a few of its rivals simply refuse to do.

There were only two debit points with regards to the 535i’s cabin environment. Firstly, the voice recognition technology still tests one’s patience (and self-confidence in your pronunciation) severely. Secondly, fold-out door pockets (as found on the 3 Series) would be nice, enabling easier access to items stowed along the sides of the cabin.

Beyond these fractional issues the 535i is spacious, eerily insulated and features the diffuse texturing that was missing on the Darth Vader-themed E60 interior.

Makes a wish

In terms of strict engineering analysis the F10 5-Series boasts 55% better torsional rigidity than its predecessor and now has double-wishbone suspension up front.

The new front wheel attachments replace the tested McPherson struts and remain the choice way to control wheel castor and camber behaviour. Able to isolate oscillation far better than a McPherson strut system, the double-wishbone set-up is admittedly more complex  - and therefore also dearer to produce – yet well worth the price of admission.

In combination with the latest bound and rebound adjustable damping technology (migrated from the current 7 Series), the double-wishbone front suspension opens up a stunning range of driver engagement and passenger comfort, especially when you consider the 535i’s 1.7t mass.

Purists will scoff at the new car's electric power steering system, much like they did when the E60 introduced Servotronic steering.  The F10's steering casually cancels assistance when deemed surfeit to requirements – even through long sweeping corners – to save energy. Doesn't sound too promising, now does it?

In reality though, buoyed by the optional (R19 500) active steer package (which counter steers the rear wheels at parking speeds, and enacts unidirectional convergence with the front axle posture at high speed), the 535i tracks and reacts with classic E39 levels of tactility.

Navigate through the iDrive’s DDC functionality and you can customise the harmonisation of the 535i's throttle, steering, damping and intervention systems . I can’t imagine why you’d bother though, as BMW’s four default settings (comfort, normal, sport and sport+) are expertly tailored to provide a range of driving solutions ranging from limousine quality ride comfort to tyre-chirping turn-in keenness.

Driving or dreaming?

Dwelling on the 535i’s drivetrain specifics, the big news is the slimming down of its number of turbos. It’s powered by the N55 in-line six (featuring a single turbo, as opposed to its N54 predecessor's twin-turbo configuration).

The latest 5 Series also adds a five-clutch stacked eight-speed ZF transmission, aimed at reducing consumption.

Functionally, it is a revelation; you hardly notice it operating the dizzying number of gears. Select the Sport+ driving mode and the benevolence of the car's stability systems become more generous towards hooliganism, although I can’t imagine how you’d get a car as deftly balanced as the 535i out of shape.

In traffic the 535i is cosseting in comfort mode, wafting over even the most indifferently-surfaced roads with aplomb. When I remembered it rolls runflats (which depreciate ride quality and add noise) my regard for the level of genius at work in BMW’s chassis and suspension department was simply beyond the semantic value of mere superlatives.

I cannot recall any car (perhaps Jaguar’s XF, unburdened by runflats) that manages to ride with such resolve and turn-in so faithfully when driven with an urgency bordering on mannered hooliganism.

The powetrain is quiet, yet the in-line six emits its signature turbine acoustics when hurried about. With peak rotational force of 400Nm staying true from 1 200-5 000r/min performance is effortlessly swift. Statistically the 535i is good for a 5.78 sec 0-100km/h sprint (which is not far off the E39 M5's athleticism) and returned very neat economy figures of 9.6l/100km whilst on test.

An unexpected boon, when driving the 535i with verve, was finding that BMW has finally reconfigured the steering wheel gear selectors to a "left-down" and "right-up" set-up, instead of the infuriatingly symmetrical "push-pull" functionality of the company’s DCT equipped cars. As a driver’s car it now sets the class standard – by quite some margin.  


Staid looks lack a credible differentiating element from the rest of the BMW sedan range. The design's contemporary aesthetic accessibility means it will probably date quickly.


Digital convergence is outstanding, driving position fantastic and sporting the most generous wheelbase in class - it’s hugely spacious too.


As a Five, anything less than dynamic excellence would be considered a disaster. Despite on-paper reservations, the synergy between traditional mechanical engineering fundamentals and precision digital control only serve to enhance the driving experience.


Does the 5 Series remain the best pound-for-pound car in the world? Well, the styling doesn’t really do it any favours. The efficient yet powerful drivetrain, junior 7 Series cabin trim and inexplicable balance of dynamics and ride comfort tip the argument back in the 535i’s favour again.

On a late afternoon run between two of the Western Cape’s choice mountain passes, with Nessum Dorma resonating in the cabin, I can guarantee you the 535i is as religious an automotive experience as you’re likely to be privileged to.

Unfortunately the lack of fold-out door pockets is an ergonomic oversight and if you simply must have those, well then the 535i won’t really appeal to you. Which is rather unfortunate, as it’s plainly the best car executive sedan to drive (and be driven in).

Overall the new 5 Series makes the company's limousine 7 Series range appear a trifle superfluous. BMW now sets the standard in the premium executive class with its 5 Series offering - and it does so rather effortlessly.

Do you think the new 5 Series has an identity crisis or is it the best premium executive sedan around? Share your thoughts here...


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