Review and photos by Jil McIntosh
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In North America, the general consensus is often “bigger is better”. We like our steaks the size of dinner plates and our stereos cranked to eleven, and the most successful guy on the block usually owns the biggest house. Likewise, when choices are available, most people run for the V8 version of a given model.
I like extra horsepower as much as the next person, but there are times when an engine’s attributes outweigh the extra muscle, and for me, it’s in BMW’s 5 Series. I’ve driven the 360 hp 550i, with its 5.0-litre V8, and I won’t deny that it’s a rush of adrenaline when foot and floor meet, and the car pushes you back into the trunk.
But BMW is an undisputed master of the inline six-cylinder, and the proof is in the 3.0-litre that goes into the 530i, and my all-wheel-drive 530xi tester. Dead-smooth at idle, quiet and effortless on acceleration, and with more than enough power to move this heavy sedan around, it’s an excellent choice in the series. And while buyers in this price range don’t usually put budgetary restrictions first, there is a considerable price break: $10,800 less in the rear-wheel 530i configuration, while the all-wheel 530xi’s base $70,700 tag is $7,900 under the rear-wheel-only 550i. Of course, the price difference includes several other features, not just the engine, and you’ll need to weigh your desire against them; my point is that there is no hardship in taking the smaller engine.
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Both the 525 and 530 models use a 3.0-litre engine, but there’s a horsepower difference, with 215 hp in the 525 and 255 hp in the 530. A six-speed automatic transmission with Steptronic manual mode is available, but my tester came with a six-speed manual. The gates are well-defined and it’s a pleasure to control this vehicle manually, but the 5 Series is built with taller drivers in mind, and my 5-foot-4 frame proved a little too compact when it came to finding a comfortable driving position where I could fully compress all three pedals without constantly shifting my butt on the seat. To call the 5 Series a “man’s car” sounds a bit too frontier-style for my liking, but it’s an appropriate description.
The manual version is also enhanced with a hill-hold function, which keeps the brakes engaged for a few seconds until the accelerator pedal is pressed, to prevent the car rolling backwards while you’re getting your foot from brake to throttle. It’s a very handy function when, as another manufacturer’s witty commercial illustrated with a similar system, the guy whose motorcycle is an inch off your bumper is wearing a Hell’s Angels jacket.
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The “x” designation indicates xDrive, which not only sends power continuously to all four wheels – 40 per cent front and 60 per cent rear under normal circumstances – but constantly monitors such factors as steering angle and wheel speeds, to react proactively if it detects the risk of over- or understeer. The system can send 100 per cent torque to either axle if required. Most of my driving was on dry roads, so I didn’t get to test the car’s ability in nasty weather, but I have tried xDrive on other vehicles under less favourable conditions and found it does an excellent job of keeping nose and tail lined up. Active Steering, a planetary gear set in the steering column which increases or decreases the front wheels’ steering angle depending on vehicle speed, is not available on all-wheel models.
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The 5 Series strikes a deft balance between the sporty nature of the 3 Series, and the old-money luxury of the 7 Series: it’s not quite as nimble as the 3, but it’s far from stodgy. As with all BMWs, you feel its heft; this car is firmly planted on the road, rather than running on its toes. Its width and weight tend to trick novices into expecting it to plough around corners like a truck. In reality, it enters and exits them accurately, with steering input relayed immediately, and power to all four wheels adding stability if you take a turn a little too quickly. Like all 5 Series models, the 530xi includes stability and traction control; the all-wheel system includes hill descent control and Automatic Differential Brake, which acts as a differential lock by braking wheels if they spin. (An excellent Web site for deciphering all of BMW’s terms and technologies can be found at www.bmw.ca/technologyguide.)
Standard features on the 530xi include adaptive Xenon headlamps with high-pressure washers, rain-sensing wipers, tire pressure monitoring system, side and curtain airbags, alarm system with interior motion sensor, heated steering wheel (which is lovely on frosty mornings), dual-zone automatic climate control, ten-way power heated front seats, sunroof, Dakota leather upholstery and CD/MP3 player with ten speakers.
My tester had an optional Premium Package, which included auto-dimming interior and exterior mirrors, rear seat pass-through with ski bag, heated rear seats, park distance control and Harman/Kardon Logic 7 sound system.
It also included an optional M Sport package, which adds an M Aerodynamic Package (special front air dam, rear apron and side skirts and M Sport suspension), M multi-function leather sport steering wheel, sport seats, anthracite headliner, 18-inch M double-spoke alloy wheels, and high-gloss shadow line (window trim). The M logo appears in several places, including the wheels, steering wheel, shifter knob and sill plates. All the extras are nice enough, but I’m not comfortable with it; as far as I’m concerned, if a 5 Series has an M on it, it should have the 500 hp V10 under the hood. I felt like a poseur in it. By all means, offer a sport package, but call it something else. That M should be sacred.
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Inside, the 530xi sports a luscious interior, with seats that coddle and rear legroom that will keep passengers happy. The engine start/stop button makes sense with the optional Comfort Access, where the proximity key means you just get in and, providing the key’s in your pocket, push the button to start the engine; without it, it just adds an extra step after the brick-shaped key is inserted in the steering column. The iDrive control screen is manipulated by a round, flat controller on the console, and by going to specific menus and scrolling through options, you can adjust many of the car’s functions, from infrequently-used ones such as the stereo equalizer, to more common ones that really should be handier. Having taken the time to learn all its functions, I’ve come to a tentative truce with iDrive (at least, with the four-section one in the 5 Series; the more complicated eight-direction one in the 7 Series is another matter). Moving the lesser-used functions into the system means fewer buttons on the dash – its uncluttered surface is very attractive – but some should still be manually controlled, such as the vent selection system. I shouldn’t have to page through computer screens if I want more warm air on my feet.
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The minimalist design, plus the iDrive controller’s place on the console, left the designers with no place to put cupholders, and so they slide out of the passenger side of the dash. They do a good job of holding cups firmly, but it’s not a satisfactory compromise for the passenger, who sits with two cups of liquid dangling over the knees. Rear-seat passengers pull down a full-length armrest, which contains a cubby and fold-out cupholders.
There’s full backlighting when the headlights are on, and the electric trunk release is always lit, since it’s set into a dark recess under the dash. Should you have to wait for someone, you can turn off the engine and, providing it was at full operating temperature, hit a residual heat button that blows warm air into the cabin. My complaints are map pockets that are too narrow to be useful, and inside door handles that are very awkward: the grab handle is at the front of the door, and you end up pulling the release handle and using your elbow to push the heavy door open.
When released, the trunk lid opens fully by itself, a very useful feature when your hands are full. The rear seats don’t fold, but my tester’s pass-through with ski bag can be added as a stand-alone option, or as part of a package.
Other available options include navigation system, rear-seat side airbags, Comfort Access, ventilated seats, active cruise control, head-up display, six-disc CD changer and electric rear sunshade with manual rear side sunshades.
The 5 Series is perfectly suited to its placement as BMW’s intermediate sedan; its larger interior means full comfort for all passengers, as opposed to the 3 Series’ cramped rear seat, but it’s not limousine-large as the 7 Series is, and starts well under the 7’s base $100,500 price. Horsepower fans will flock to the 550i, but do yourself a favour and try the buttery-smooth inline six; one drive will convince you that bigger isn’t necessarily better.
Technical Data: 2006 BMW 530xi
|Options||$10,000 (Premium Package $3,500; M Sport Package $6,500)|
|Price as tested||$82,100 Click here for options, dealer invoice prices and factory incentives|
|Type||4-door, 5-passenger full-size sedan|
|Layout||Longitudinal front engine/all-wheel drive|
|Engine||3.0-litre inline 6, DOHC, 24 valves|
|Horsepower||255 @ 6600 rpm|
|Torque||220 lb-ft @ 2750 rpm|
|Tires||P245/40R18 performance run-flat (M option)|
|Curb weight||1660 kg (3659 lbs)|
|Wheelbase||2888 mm (113.7 in.)|
|Length||4854 mm (191.1 in.)|
|Width||1846 mm (72.6 in.)|
|Height||1482 mm (58.3 in.)|
|Cargo capacity||520 litres (18.3 cu ft.)|
|Fuel consumption||City: 12.1 L/100 km (23 mpg Imp)|
|Hwy: 7.8 L/100 km (36 mpg Imp)|
|Fuel type||Premium unleaded|
|Warranty||4 yrs/80,000 km|
|Powertrain Warranty||4 yrs/80,000 km|