Seth Davey was a farmer near where I grew up. His son was called Seth Davey. So was his father, and his grandson. Four living souls in the same family, all Seths. Seven generations of this car have been called BMW 5-Series, so you’ll forgive me if I use manufacturer’s code. Here’s the G30. But first, let’s meet an ancestor.
Back in 2003 BMW launched the E60, its most radical, risky, non-evolutionary 5-Series ever. Its slab sides, unbending bone lines and angular irregular-shaped headlights were styled in Chris Bangle’s polemical mid-period pomp. The E60 didn’t really care what you thought of it. Under the skin, many of its innovations were terrific. Some were half-baked. It had active front steering, which wasn’t nice at all, and a vexatious early i Drive.
That kind of risk-taking is entirely absent from the new 5-Series. The G30 is all about evolution, and almost wholly without surprise. So it’s hard to write compelling things about, for which, apologies. But honestly, that’s what makes it a very ownable car indeed. It has to be, in the face of terrific new opposition from Mercedes, Volvo and Jaguar.
Risk-free evolution means you mightn’t spot the new one at all, unless you see it right alongside the outgoing F10. The running lights now trace a hexagonal border around the headlights. The grille itself no longer has a body-colour surround – it runs right out to the headlight units and up to the bonnet. In side view, a new air breather lives low down behind the front wheel. The roof is longer and the tail lower than before so the whole thing is sleeker.
Finally, a subtle extra crease runs from above the front wheel, rising steadily along the doors and then flicking up behind the Hofmeister kink. You don’t notice that line at first read. But when you know it’s there you keep looking for it precisely because it’s so artfully subtle and resolved.
Unlike the new 7-Series, the 5-Series has no carbon fibre in its structure. But the Five does borrow the Seven’s weight-saving suspension, seats, brakes and more. Overall it drops 100kg versus the old F10 5-Series. And it eases its way through the air with a mere 0.22Cd. Engines are BMW’s latest, most efficient modular family.
My first crack is in a 530d xDrive. It’s a fine engine, making 265bhp and a growl that speaks more of its six cylinders than its diesel fuelling. Out of roundabouts in the wet you’re using every bit of traction the four driven wheels can provide, once the full 457lb ft torque kicks in down at 2,00Orpm.
After that I drive a 540i, another 3.0-litre turbo six but fuelled by petrol. This really is some engine. Civilised, responsive and lag-free in the mid ranges, it swings into the classic BMW straight-six tunes as it races for the red. As in the diesel, its dialogue with the eight-speed auto never falters.
Turn the wheel, and the 5-Series feels like you’d expect: a fleeter, tighter version of the 7-Series. Or a bigger, softer brother to the 3-Series. But you’ve got to qualify any detailed impression with a list of the particular car’s options.
First the 530d, which in our example runs four-wheel drive, four-wheel steering (counter-phase for low-speed agility, same-phase for high-speed stability – and far nicer than that old F1O active front system). Also, it has adaptive damping, but not the adaptive anti-roll. It’s on 18-inch conventional tyres. Not much is going to upset your serenity in this car. It gets along in huge security, gripping gamely and imperiously.
Under full power, the balance is towards the mildest oversteer. The steering makes it easy to be smooth in your inputs, and if you aren’t, well, it doesn’t get upset. The ride’s supple most of the time too, though over big bumps at slow speed things gets a mite lumpy and it’s a little harsh on high-frequency ridges. An adaptive button for powertrain and chassis sets things up according to your driving style but also interrogates the navigation to set itself up for corners. It works brilliantly, so you can forget the Comfort/Sport button.
Then I switch to the 540i, this time RWD but again with adaptive dampers and four-wheel steer. Ooh, this one’s nicer in subtle but definite ways: the steering has a little more crispness, and the ride is even more fluent, which surprises me given it’s on 19in run-flats.
But the chassis engineer reckons it’s because the diesel has a heavier engine that shakes more in its mounts. This powerful rear-driver obviously doles out elegant rear-end skids when you inhibit the electronics and boot the pedal. Only when you choose, though. The powertrain is so biddable, traction so strong, and the chassis controls so well calibrated, you can make blistering progress without drama.
Even so, it’s a little hard to fall in love with. It makes all the right moves but doesn’t quite look you in the eye, doesn’t relinquish its last layer of coyness.
Oh, and in the UK, the straight-six petrol engine can’t be had with RWD, only xDrive. The 530i is RWD. That’s a four-cylinder car, though, so won’t be able to paint a particularly colourful sonic picture. It shouldn’t be a slug, as it has 252bhp and weighs 1,540kg – 150kg down on the 530d xDrive.
The weight-watching also stems from keeping overall size in check. Usually cars get bigger with everygeneration just so the sales department can drearily claim a bit more rear room or a few litres extra boot capacity. The 5-Series hasn’t grown outside (good) or within (no problem). Its a stylish and well-finished cabin. The big central screen sits on the dash as a tablet, which might not look completely tidy but it means the dash moulding isn’t so bulky.
Around the steering wheel are buttons for whatever semi-autonomous driving features you’ve specced. If so, it’s meant to follow lanes, and radar-adapt its speed to the traffic in front or road signs, whether in a multi-lane town queue or up to autobahn pace. Hmm. In my testing, it keeps losing the white lines even on a new and well-defined motorway.
Another new function happens when you hold the indicator stalk on and it looks out for a gap in the traffic before autonomously changing lanes. Like a Tesla or an E-Class. I really object to this protocol. Image you’re in the outside lane in your existing car, overtaking a new BMW.
Its driver wants his car to move into your lane. So he suddenly indicates. But the indication doesn’t mean he’s about to move, it means he’s waiting for a space. Or does it?
Are you looking at a semi-autonomous BMW that will wait until you’ve passed, or just a regular one whose driver hasn’t seen you and is about to swerve into your path? It’s mirror-signal-manoeuvre for a reason.
“The 5-Series has always been the saloon that’s made for drivers”
Forget autonomous electronics, the 5-Series has always been the big saloon that’s made for drivers. This one is hard to fault in that regard, yet it doesn’t quite get under your skin. In the face of the Jag XF, that’s an issue. But it has little else to worry about. It shows where evolution can get you. The new 5-Series is, above all else, a new 5-Series.
2993cc, turbodiesel six, eight-speed auto, 4WD, 265bhp, 457lb ft
53.2mpg, 138g/km CO2
0-62mph in 5.4secs, 155mph
Just a little aloof, but shows super-fine polish in everything bar the self-driving.