Photo: Laurance Yap. Click image to enlarge
by Paul Williams
photos by Paul Williams & Laurance Yap
One of the first things you notice about the 2004 BMW 530i is that the new design is not such a departure from the model it replaces. If anything, the overall bearing of the car is just as substantial and formidable as its predecessor, although it’s the treatment of the corners, especially the front lights, that seems a little fussier than the previous model.
Reserving judgement on the lights for a moment, the second thing you notice about this car is the simple act of opening and closing the driver’s door, which is accomplished with a resounding and satisfying thunk. That impression of solidity and quality is repeated in every part of the car, from the finish of the steering wheel, to the sculpted 18″ alloy wheels, to the attention to detail in the stitching on the seats and the chunky, aluminum gearshift that fits perfectly in your hand. The 530i is a vehicle that looks and feels its base price of $66,500, and from that perspective alone, will satisfy its owner.
Settling into the front seat, you face an instrument cluster of functional simplicity and a facia that sweeps dramatically from one side of the car to the other, connecting the wood, leather and aluminum panels of the doors. This is a wonderful environment, and one of the nicest cabins, in design and execution, in any car. It’s practical, executive, modern and stylish. Buyers choose from eight interiors at no extra charge.
Although there are a few rotary controls on the dash, most of the usual array of switches and knobs is bundled into the I-Drive system, the stubby control for which is located on the centre console, between the front seats. Using this knob, you manage the climate control, entertainment, trip computer and, if specified, the navigation system. I’ll reserve judgement on that for a while, too.
Under the hood of the 530i is the same 3.0 litre, straight-six cylinder engine found in the Z4 roadster and the X3 sports activity vehicle. While 225-horsepower may not seem particularly generous in these days of hemi-V8s, turbochargers and superchargers, this is an extremely refined engine that delivers instant power through the six-speed manual transmission (six-speed automatic or sequential manual gearbox are also available). The 1,575 kg car reaches 100 km/h in seven seconds flat.
You must specify the dynamic handling package, with which our tester was equipped, to get BMW’s new active steering technology in the 530i. This is an interesting innovation that makes the car more stable on the highway, and nimble in town (see Jim Kerr’s informative article on active steering elsewhere in Autos). But BMW’s dynamic stability control (DSC) is standard and is designed to provide a margin of safety when conditions become slippery enough to upset the car. The 530i also comes with traction control, ABS, and a range of other electronic assists to enhance vehicle control.
Of course, even with electronic aids, it’s in winter when a rear-wheel drive car like the BMW can use all the help it can get to maintain drivability. Ours wore low profile Michelin Arctic Alpin run-flat winter tires, and these (or any winter tire, really) are a must if yours is a rear-drive car and you live in an area with severe winter weather.
Regrettably (I can’t believe I said that), temperatures reached 15�C at the end of December while I was testing this vehicle, and I wasn’t able to give it a good workout in the snow, ice and slush that characterize a normal southern Ontario winter.
Only on the last day of my test did the weather return to normal and I found that the traction control intervened frequently, even with the winter tires. The combination of brakes and tires, however, was excellent at stopping the big car, and cornering was stable and controlled on slippery surfaces when driving at appropriate speeds. Go into a corner too fast, however, and the DSC would reduce power to the wheels that were losing traction in an attempt to regain stability. If you’re not used to this, it can come as a surprise. You can turn it off if you prefer.
Our tester was equipped with an electronic park distance control that I found annoying. It seemed to be beeping all the time, until I became beeping tired of it. You can turn this off as well.
Now, about the judgement I reserved. The redesign of BMW 5-Series cars is a particular challenge, because this is an iconic car. Many people consider the previous version is just about perfect (same goes for the 3-Series), so messing with it can (and does) provoke considerable response from BMW enthusiasts and owners alike. In an informal survey held on Autos in 2002, the then-current 5-Series was voted the most desirable car to own (the 3-Series came second). However, what’s perfect in one time-frame becomes dated in another, and as BMW Canada boss Hendrik von Kuenheim has said, “We don’t want to wake up one day and find that our cars look old-fashioned and out of style.”
So BMW is becoming the Law & Order of car companies. Tune into the new season, and surprise, the actor who plays your favourite character has been replaced. You’re willing to give him, or her, the benefit of the doubt because you’re a fan, but you’re not immediately convinced. First impressions are that the new guy has potential, but is not obviously superior. Maybe some of his mannerisms seem a bit affected; maybe these will be refined over time. Predictably, though, you watch a few episodes and memory of the previous actor recedes, as your affection for the new one grows.
The second area of reserved judgement has to do with the I-Drive system. BMW has received criticism about this, especially as it was initially introduced in the 7-Series. Like many current cars, information related to climate control, entertainment, navigation and in-car data is displayed using an information screen. Unlike other manufacturers, BMW is using this screen, in conjunction with a console-mounted knob mentioned above, to replace the switches and buttons typically used to control corresponding functions. The idea is to tidy up the dashboard, but sometimes the result is a system that requires more steps to achieve a given task than it should.
However, there are actual knobs and buttons on the dash and steering wheel, and I found that using these for ongoing climate control and entertainment adjustments was easy and effective. Using the I-Drive was better left to setting personal preferences and making adjustments to features that are typically done once-in-a-while, rather than repetitively. I do think, however, that rotary dials are so familiar to people that they will usually prefer them to a cursor and software. I should point out that the screen on our tester failed when it became very cold. This was a known issue, and service personnel had a fix for it.
The BMW 530i really doesn’t come alive until you push it through some corners and experience its superb handling and near 50/50 weight distribution front to rear. It’s then that you realize this car has far more performance potential than just about anything else on the road. There aren’t many big sedans that feel so much like a sports car, and it’s that dual personality that’s so intriguing about BMW’s 5-Series cars in general. With a six-speed manual transmission, excellent throttle response and a terrific chassis, this luxury sports sedan can be a thrilling ride in an executive package, or you can simply drive it around conservatively and look successful.
The fact that the 5-Series has changed in appearance is inevitable. What hasn’t changed is BMW’s ability to build practicality, excitement and desirability into an automobile that should remain at the top of many “most desirable” lists into the future.
Technical Data: 2004 BMW 530i
|Options||Dynamic Handling Package ($3,500), Sports Package ($2,500) Premium Package ($3,700), adaptive headlights ($490), lumbar support ($500), headlamp washers ($450)|
|Price as tested||$79,135|
|Type||Luxury sports sedan|
|Layout||Longitudinal engine, rear wheel drive|
|Horsepower||225 hp @ 5,900 rpm|
|Torque||214 lb.-ft. @ 3,500 rpm|
|Transmission||Six-speed manual (six-speed automatic or sequential manual available)|
|Tires||Michelin Arctic Alpin 245/40R/18|
|Curb weight||1,575 kg (3,472 lbs)|
|Wheelbase||2,888 mm (113.7 in.)|
|Length||4,854 mm (191.1 in.)|
|Width||1,846 mm (72.7 in.)|
|Height||1,468 mm (57.8 in.)|
|Trunk space||520 litres (18.4 cu. ft.)|
|Fuel consumption||City 11.7 litres/100 km(24 mpg)|
|7.2 litres/100 km (39 mpg)|
|Warranty||4 years/80,000 km|