For more than four decades, the BMW 5 Series has been fighting it out at the top of the competitive executive car class. Yet in recent years, the current model has been overtaken by newer rivals from Audi, Jaguar and Mercedes.
However, BMW is not taking these defeats lying down – and it has just pulled the covers off an all-new, seventh- generation version of its desirable saloon.
Not only is it faster, lighter and more efficient than before, it’s crammed with cutting-edge kit and promises to rival luxury limousines for comfort, refinement and quality. And that’s not all, as bosses claim the combination of a thorough weight-loss programme and sophisticated chassis additions makes the 5 Series almost as agile as the smaller 3 Series.
So, BMW has clearly set some ambitious targets for the newcomer – but does it have what it takes to top its class? To find out, we got behind the wheel of one of the first examples and gave it a thorough workout on some challenging Portuguese roads.
The 520d is expected to the big seller in the UK, but the only diesel available on this early launch was the bigger, six-cylinder 530d. Still, no matter which version you go for, it’s clear BMW has taken no risks with the newcomer’s design. In such a conservative sector evidently the design mantra was ‘evolution not revolution’. It’s handsome and beautifully proportioned, but many of the visual cues have been carried from the previous car.
There are some neat details, though.
As with the 3 Series, the distinctive LED headlamps now flow into the large double kidney grille, plus the sheet metal features more eye-catching curves and creases. These additions help hide the car’s built, and despite being 36mm longer and 6mm wider than before, the 5 Series looks no bigger than its predecessor.
Our Luxury trim test car won’t be available in the UK, but visually and mechanically it’s virtually identical to the SE. Buyers wanting an injection of racy appeal can choose the M Sport model, which will be the big seller over here. This adds deeper front and rear bumpers, subtle side skirts and larger 19-inch alloys.
Yet while the exterior of the 5 Series is fairly conventional, under the skin there have been big changes. The basic platform is shared with the flagship 7 Series, but without that model’s expensive carbon fibre core. However, extensive use of aluminium for the structure, body panels and suspension means the newcomer weighs around 100kg less than the old car.
These weight savings combine with the double-wishbone front suspension and five-link rear axle to give the 5 Series more alert and agile responses than both its predecessor and its immediate rivals. The BMW’s diet also helps boost performance.
Our test car was fitted with the heavily reworked 3.0-litre six-cylinder diesel, which features an uprated version of the brand’s Twin Power variable geometry turbo technology. It pumps out 261 bhp and a thumping 620Nm of torque, which is available from just 2,000rpm. In combination with our car’s grippy all- wheel-drive system, it allows the 530d to rocket from 0-62mph in 5.4 seconds.
Yet it’s the engine’s muscular mid-range that impresses most. Simply squeeze the throttle and the 5 Series lunges forward as if fired from a giant elastic band. The impression of speed is heightened by the standard eight-speed gearbox, which smoothly slurs ratios in auto mode yet delivers rapid fire shifts via the steering wheel paddles when you’re in the mood for fun.
Eight-speed auto changes smoothly. And at speeds of up to 130mph 5 Series can take control of steering, acceleration and braking inputs when called on, due to a raft of new assistance systems.
Turn into a corner and the BMW responds quickly to the light and accurate steering, while strong front-end grip allows you to confidently lock on to your chosen line. This nimble nature means that before long you’ve forgotten about the 5 Series’ imposing dimensions and are throwing the car through bends with the sort of enthusiasm normally reserved for much smaller machines.
Our car’s acrobatic agility was further enhanced by its £995 optional Integral Active Steering, which is available with xDrive four-wheel drive for the first time. This electronically controlled set-up turns the rear wheels in the opposite direction to the fronts and significantly boosts manoeuvrability. At higher speeds the rears point the same way, sharpening turn-in and enhancing stability.
All cars get the familiar Driving Experience Control that gives access to Comfort, Sport and ECO PRO modes, each tailoring the steering and throttle response to suit the conditions and your mood.
Sat-nav is standard and can be adjusted via the touchscreen or the familiar iDrive dial. Plus, the 5 Series comes with clever new gesture control technology for other cabin functions.
Our car was also fitted with £985 optional adaptive dampers, which tense up or soften off depending on your chosen setting. Add this upgrade with the enhanced Professional infotainment system and you’ll also unlock the Adaptive mode. This clever set-up monitors your inputs to deliver appropriate responses, plus it uses the sat-nav to prime the car for upcoming hazards, such as sharp bends or junctions.
It works so smoothly that you’re barely aware it’s pulling strings behind the scenes.
Of course, the 5 Series is as likely to be cruising up and down motorways or crawling along on the daily commute as it is blasting down back roads, so refinement is as important as razor-sharp response.
With optional adaptive dampers the car takes most bumps in its stride. In Comfort mode the suspension is supple, while even the firmer Sport setting does a fine job of smothering imperfections. Yet while BMW has worked hard to reduce unsprung mass, the 5 Series’ large wheels occasionally crash violently into potholes.
In all other respects, the BMW is impressively quiet, and in most situations there’s little to choose between it and the range-topping 7 Series. Part of this hushed character can be attributed to the brand’s SYNTAK technology, which essentially encases the engine compartment in soundproof material. At idle the 3.0-litre diesel is virtually silent, and even when worked hard it emits little more than a muted growl. Wind noise is also almost absent, thanks to both the impressively slippery aerodynamics and the special acoustic glass. In fact, only coarse road surfaces disrupt the air of calm, with some road roar filtering into the cabin.
The car’s upper-class ambience is further boosted by its exquisite finish inside, which oozes premium appeal. Top-notch materials are used throughout and the build quality is easily a match for Audi and Mercedes. A wide array of trim inserts and leather seat finishes allows you to create a bespoke feel.
Quality and finish is excellent, and on par with new Mercedes E-Class. Multifunction steering wheel gives access to raft of functions.
As in all BMW saloons, the driver sits low, while the 7 Series-in spired wraparound dashboard and TFT dials place you firmly at the centre of the action. As you’d expect from BMW, the layout of the controls is spot on, plus the switchgear operates with crisp precision. Highlights include the latest infotainment system that uses a large 10.25-inch screen mounted on top of the dash. As before you can use the trademark rotary controller to access all the functions, but the set-up also gets an upgrade of the gesture control first seen on the 7 Series.
By simply waving your fingers and hands in front of the centre console you can adjust the stereo volume, access various menus, accept phone calls and much more besides. However, we’d expect Apple CarPlay to be standard, and not a £235 extra.
Other hi-tech additions include BMW’s most advanced autonomous driving set-up yet, which has the ability to accelerate, brake and steer the car at speeds of up to 130mph. It works well, but it does require you to keep reminding it that you’re paying attention. The 7mm stretch in wheelbase means the 5 Series is now on par with the class leaders for rear seat legroom, while boot capacity has increased by 10 litres to 530 litres – although the load bay is hampered by some awkward intrusions.
A large majority of 5 Series sales will go to business users, who demand low emissions for reduced Benefit in Kind bills. The newcomer isn’t quite as clean as the Mercedes E-Class, but the 520d emits just 108g/km of C02 and promises 68.8mpg at the pumps. Even the rapid, four-wheel- drive 530d driven here claims 132g/km emissions and an impressive 56.5mpg.
Price: £ 45,965
Engine: 3.0-litre 6cyl turbodiesel
Transmission: Eight-speed auto, four-wheel drive
Top speed: 155mph
On sale: February 2017
With more than 40years of development under its belt, the 5 Series just gets better. This latest model is a technical tour de force, plus it delivers class-leading refinement. Yet like all BMW models, it’s surprisingly efficient and great to drive, too. We’ll have to wait until we get the car in the UK and up against its closest rivals from Audi and Mercedes for our definitive verdict, but on this showing the executive car class has a new king.