Rapid, radical change is not the way.
The last time we saw an all-new was nearly 10 years ago. Of course, there have been refreshes along the way including quite a few styling changes, some say to excess.
This latest generation of the iconic 5 dials back on the filigree and borrows quite a bit of its underskin structure from the new . Critics believe something has been lost as the car has grown larger and heavier, but this mission creep, moving up the size and luxury scale, seems inevitable as the 7 Series has also grown larger, more expensive and exclusive. Meanwhile at the other end of the scale, the has expanded its performance envelope into territory previously occupied by earlier 5 Series models.
From a design perspective, you can clearly see that the 5 borrows more than its mechanicals from the 7. BMW design in the post-Chris Bangle era under Adrian Von Hooydonk is going back to an earlier time where the cars shared a cleaner, more unified look across the range. Crisp, muscular character lines define the flanks of the 5, while a lower, more aggressive nose replaces the softer, more rounded twin-kidney grille and headlamps with large eyebrows.
Inside, there's much to the cabin that echoes the new 7. The sweeping dash features a main instrument cluster with analog gauges flanked on the right by a center control screen with the functions accessed through the iDrive knob on the center console. BMW has made great strides in improving its use not only through simpler menus, but also with redundant controls for the audio system and climate controls. Adding to the ease of use was our test car's 6-speed manual—this conventional shifter is much more user-friendly than the shift-by-wire automatic that takes some getting used to, especially when finding reverse.
For fans of previous 5 models, the high cowl, multiple interfaces and luxurious appointments make the car feel as if it's a 7 Series Lite. However, when you look at the nearly $60,000 base price of the 550i, the cabin is spot-on for the expectations one would have for a car in this price class.
This is also the impetus behind its new, larger package. The 5 Series now rides on a 116.9-in. wheelbase, up 3.2 in. over the previous car. Overall length increased 2.0 in. to 193.1 overall and the car is about a half-inch wider. This translates to a slightly larger footprint with most of the benefit coming in a roomier cabin. Weight is also up significantly, about 400 lb. or so. Much of this added girth comes from more equipment and a more complex powerplant. The twin-turbo 4.4-liter V-8 replaces the previous car's normally aspirated 4.8-liter unit and makes 400 bhp (a 40-bhp gain) peaking from 5500 to 6400 rpm. Torque is also a healthy 450 lb.-ft. from 1750 to 4500 rpm.
This output equates to some quick numbers: 0–60 mph comes up in 5.0 sec., 100 mph in 11.4 sec. and the quarter mile was covered in 13.4 sec. at 106.8 mph. While it's larger and heavier, the new 5 generates numbers nearly identical to those of the previous 550i we tested in July of 2006. That car also posted 0–60-mph acceleration of 5 sec. flat and was a tenth of a second slower through the quarter.
The extra heft of the new car is one of the reasons why there's no demonstrable improvement in either lateral g's or braking. We measured 0.88g on the skidpad (the previous 550i pulled 0.92) and braking was 125 ft. from 60 mph and 218 ft. from 80 mph, respective gains of 8 and 6 ft. over the previous generation. While the new 550i doesn't possess the same grip on the skidpad as the previous car, it was quicker through the slalom at 66.0 versus 65.3 mph.
While the numbers may be close, BMW gets there with a totally different approach over the previous car. Dispensing with the MacPherson-strut suspension up front, the new 5 boasts a multilink setup with double track control arms there and BMW's Integral-V rear axle with a swing arm and three track arms, all made from aluminum. This suspension approach is similar to that used on the 7. Also, BMW has shifted to electric-assist power steering, without much sacrifice in road feel, although in our slalom we could feel the artificial boost in effort.
Our 550i test vehicle was also equipped with the optional Dynamic Handling Package ($2700) and Sport Package ($2200) that includes sport-tuned springs and shocks, and larger 19-in. wheels as opposed to the stock 18-in. alloys. Brakes are also larger on the new car—with front and rear disc diameters of 13.7 and 13.6 in., respectively.
Both on paper and in the flesh, the BMW 550i is a more substantial automobile and therein questions emerge. Is larger, more powerful and more luxuriously appointed the new essence of the 5 Series? Or should it be the lithe sport sedan upon which it built its reputation as the benchmark of its class?
After spending time behind the wheel of the car, I come down in the camp of the former. As cars become more technology laden, they will by necessity become more complex and not the simple sporting machines of a bygone era. And yet, while times and tastes change, the spirited nature of the 5 still manages to come through in the responsive handling and precise action of its 6-speed manual. Perhaps it's the ability to shift manually (not many cars of its ilk allow this) that predisposes me to the 5.
An engineer told me a long time ago that much of the magic built into the BMW wasn't so much from technology—they used everyday components like MacPherson struts and yet nailed the handling every time. It's as if the converse is true today. As its cars become more complicated—especially in the case of the 5 Series, with multilink suspension, electric steering assist and every conceivable manner of electronic suspension settings and stability control—BMW engineers have managed to preserve the spirited nature that makes the 5 Series a driver's car and one that will continue to set the standard in its class.