By Laurance Yap

2006 BMW 530xi
Photo: Jil McIntosh. Click image to enlarge

“Hey, is that the new M5?”

Uh, no. But you get that a lot when driving a 5-series sedan with the newly-available M Sport package. From far away, it looks nearly identical: an elongated front bumper with bigger, more aggressive air intakes; 18-inch double-spoked wheels; aerodynamic side sills; blacked-out window trim; and a rear bumper with what looks like an integrated splitter. It’s only if you look more closely that you notice there are only two small exhaust pipes sticking out of the bumper instead of four big ones, that those wheels might look identical but are a full inch smaller in diameter, and that the M cars’ trademark side vents are missing.

Is $6,500 a lot to pay for what amounts to a bunch of stuff to dress up your car like it’s a more expensive one? Well, kind of. But to BMW’s credit, the package also includes some very tasty modifications to the interior as well – ones that give it a distinctly more sporting vibe than the regular 5-series sedan. Included along with all the styling bits are sports seats with power-adjustable thigh supports and side bolsters, a thicker, three-spoke steering wheel with tri-colour stitching (the same as the one on the M5), a stubby shifter with the same stitching if you get the manual, and glossy black interior trim that looks so much better than the wood you usually get.

Interestingly, according to the material that BMW provided me with the car, the M Sport package (and indeed, the cheaper sport package) doesn’t include a sportier suspension setup – which would normally make me all cynical, but the 5-series has always done a very competent job of blending excellent ride comfort with handling that verges on the sports-car-like. That was certainly the case with the 530xi that I drove. Fitted with 18-inch Goodyear winter radials, it gripped the road tightly no matter what the weather, but more surprising was how well it rode despite the low-profile tires and enlarged wheels. Even the biggest frost heaves and pavement cracks were mostly heard, rather than felt, and when they were felt, they were quickly damped out, with no secondary bouncing around.

2006 BMW 530xi
Photo: Jil McIntosh. Click image to enlarge

Regular readers may know that, despite the traction advantages afforded by BMW’s all-wheel-drive system, I tend to prefer the rear-drive versions because they feel just a little bit lighter on their feet and a little bit better connected to the road. But the 5 Series setup seems less compromised than other all-wheel BMWs I’ve driven. It still has a slightly raised ride height (and thus a slightly higher centre of gravity), but it seems to steer with the same accuracy and feel as a regular 5, and the ride quality hasn’t gained any of the clumpiness that seems to affect the 3 Series Xi models. Perhaps it’s not a surprise, then, that nearly half of all 5 Series sedans are now sold with XDrive.

Perhaps some of my positive reaction to the 530xi is coloured by its new engine. The last time I drove a 530, it had BMW’s older 3.0-litre six, with 225 hp; the 2006 model’s engine now features Valvetronic technology that not only brings an extra 30 hp to the party, but also improves fuel consumption. Indeed, I managed a stellar 9.8 L/100 km in mostly urban driving, a pretty remarkable figure given this car’s power and size. Credit in part has to go to the 5’s innovative structure, whose front end is formed almost entirely of aluminum to save weight, as well as a carefully-sculpted body.

Other changes to the 5 Series have been limited to some minor trim bits in the interior, which means it’s pretty much the same car it used to be inside. Same high quality plastics and trim, same surprising amount of space in the back, but also the same dashboard design, which is a bit of a mish-mash of intersecting surfaces. While I’ve never actually minded the central iDrive controller, some of the secondary ergonomics aren’t great: the window switches are mounted on an almost vertical plane on the doors and the cruise control lever is mounted down low on the steering column (you have to operate it by feel, because it hides behind the steering wheel). Storage space isn’t great, either: the glovebox is small, barely big enough to fit the owner’s manual, and almost the entire console bin is taken up by a cradle for a cell phone that most people will never use. At least the trunk is big, with a low lift-over and a useable shape.

Like all BMWs, the base price for the 530xi is actually pretty good value when stacked against its closest competitors. But like all BMWs, that price inflates very quickly once you start adding options. My tester, with the M Sport package and a Premium package which included some extra interior equipment and nothing else, already soared beyond $80,000 – and didn’t, for instance, include a CD changer, navigation system, or other tasty bits from BMW’s tempting catalogue.

Still, a 5 Series sedan comes pretty well equipped as is, and the way that it drives goes a long way towards helping justify the cost. And if you can’t quite stretch to the 500-hp M5, but want a taste of its aggressive styling and sporty interior, the M Sport package might just do it for you.

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