May 12, 2008

Photo Gallery: 2008 BMW 550i

Specifications: 2008 BMW 550i

The Guide: 2008 BMW 550i

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Toronto, Ontario – BMW may have painted itself into a corner with the 2008 550i. Now that the $68,900 535i sedan sports BMW’s rip-snorting 300-hp and 300 lb-ft twin-turbo 3.0-litre straight six, it seems almost pointless to pony up an additional $14,000 for more weight, more fuel consumption, 60 additional horses and only a 0.3 second advantage in the dash to 100 km/h (5.7 vs 6.0).

But then again…

Motoring away from BMW headquarters in the Carbon Black Metallic 550i tester, I gently pressed the throttle south and the sedan picked up its skirts and launched towards the horizon in a blaze of Germanic V8 glory. Power delivery is linear and ferocious, and the accompanying sound track is melodious ear candy of the highest order. Tugging the nifty electronic shift “wand” brought forth crisp and seamless upshifts as the engine soared towards its 6500 r.p.m. redline.

Hey, it’s not called Bavarian Motor Works for nothing.

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Doing all that work under hood is a silken DOHC 32-valve 4.8-litre V8 that generates 360 hp at 6300 r.p.m. and 360 lb.-ft. at 3400 r.p.m. Nice. But 14 grand nice?

BMW is positioning the 550i as a dedicated sports machine that lives higher up the food chain – closer to the 500-hp M5. As such, the M Sport Package is standard equipment on 2008 models (it can be deleted at no cost). This adds a stiffened sport suspension, 19-inch wheels with performance tires, M5-like body treatment, sport exhaust, various M-specific interior trim bits and a chunky heated M steering wheel. (For what it’s worth, I nominate the heated steering wheel as the greatest automotive advance since… well, the steering wheel.)

Sadly, my tester was still shod with 17-inch winter wheels that didn’t do justice to the mildly face-lifted 2008 body, appearing somewhat lost in the wheel wells. Nonetheless, this 550i still looked all business with its leering cats-eye headlights, bulldog stance and taughtly sculpted flanks.

Despite the undersized footwear, this 550i showed why BMW is still king in the world of the sports sedan. The balanced, informative and tautly sprung chassis works with the accurate and perfectly weighted Servotronic steering to create a rather special driving experience.

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This rear-wheel drive sedan wants to come out and play, but buyer beware: the suspension set-up is very firm. It gets down right busy over uneven surfaces, and quite frankly, there were a few times when I wanted this V8 luxury sedan to ride like one. And that’s without the 19-inch low profile rubber.

The 550i is available with a manual six-speed gearbox or the no-cost six-speed Servotronic auto that was fitted to my tester. Paddle shifters are also a no-cost option. My car didn’t have them, and I can’t imagine why anyone would say “no thanks” to that.

New for 2008 in the 550i is an electronic console shifter, adapted from the 7 Series. There has been some whining about this gizmo, but like many aspects of BMWs of late, one has to have an open mind and accept the challenge

It operates like a gaming joy-stick. Press the thumb button on the left side and push forward for Reverse (yes, I know… counter-intuitive) or pull back for Drive. A button on top engages Park. Tap the lever to the left and you can toggle through the gears manually, but unlike just about every other manufacturer on this planet, BMW wants you to pull back for upshifts and push ahead for downshifts. Race-car fashion, they tell us.

Nonetheless, it all becomes second nature very quickly. It’s a clever piece of kit that frees up console space and promotes economy of motion.

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Even BMW’s notorious iDrive interface is becoming more user friendly with each new edition. There are now six honest-to-gawd radio/phone preset buttons on the dash. Thank you.

This tester was fitted with the $3,300 Premium Package that added heated rear seats, Park Distance Control, Logic 7 sound and the infinitely adjustable and aptly named Comfort Seats. On start up, the side bolsters snug up against your body in a firm yet gentle embrace. These truly are some of the best seats in the business, and the tan leather in this tester warmed up the 5’s interior nicely, which can feel a tad sterile in its Teutonic efficiency. Ventilation for these chairs is an additional $900.

It seems inconceivable that in an 83 grand car you have to fork out for navigation, but you do. It’s a $2,900 stand-alone option with voice control, or part of the $4,000 Technology Package that also includes Head Up Display and Lane Departure Warning. The latter sends a vibration through the steering wheel when you stray from your lane without signaling. Useful for those business types who are juggling a Blackberry and a double latte I suppose.

Those in the back seat will find the accommodations spacious and comfortable. If more cargo space is needed, said seats fold forward, expanding the already large 520-litre trunk.

You’d think an 1800-kg luxury sedan with this much get-up-and-go would be a gas hog, but conversely, BMW’s throttle-less Valvetronic V8 is quite an efficient unit. I burned 10.8 L/100 km of Premium over a week of mixed driving. And believe me, I missed few opportunities to give this sonorous V8 its legs.

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While the considerable premium for the 550i may not make a lot of sense on paper, there are those for whom the extra thrust, refinement and sporting demeanor will justify the expense.

After all, you don’t want to be slapping yourself on the forehead after buying a six-pot 535i and saying, like in the drink commercial, “I coulda had a V8!”

Pricing: 2008 BMW 550i

Base price: $
Options: $
(Premium Package $3300 (Comfort Seats, Heated Rear Seats, Park Distance Control, LOGIC 7 Sound System), Technology Package $ 4,000.00 (Lane Departure Warning, BMW On-Board Navigation, Head-Up Display, Voice Control, Canada-US Navigation DVD), Electric Rear Sunshade with Manual side ($590))
A/C tax $
Freight: $
Price as tested: $


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