Story and photos by Tony Whitney
Sardinia, Italy – The 5-Series mid-size sedan is a critical product for BMW. Competition from Mercedes-Benz, Audi and other makers is intense in this key luxury segment and manufacturers battle relentlessly for market share. As a result, every new model in this category arrives bristling with technical innovation, style and luxury. Each newcomer is duty-bound to be “King of the hill” until something more advanced comes along – and right now, many will regard
the new 5-Series to be wearing the crown.
The styling differs from anything we’ve seen yet from BMW and is a more successful effort than the new 7-Series, which did spark some controversy. The new “5” will certainly prompt comment because it departs from BMW’s “three box” approach and brings us a sculptured, more dynamic look. Many purists won’t like it at all, but even BMW has to take note of the success of automakers who have made huge market gains thanks to bolder styling (Nissan and associate Infiniti are the key examples here). There’s a bold beltline that starts near the dramatically-styled front lights and runs the length of the car. The rear lighting is no less striking and presents drivers who’ve just been passed with a very identifiable “look.” You’ll certainly
not mistake one of these new BMWs for anything else on the road. The nose, of course, incorporates a modified BMW “kidney” grille – a styling cue that the Bavarian automaker rigidly adheres to.
Interestingly, the car features lightweight steel/aluminum hybrid construction that gives the bodyshell 50/50 weight distribution. Most of the front end is aluminum and it’s riveted to the steel structure that starts at the windshield pillar. The structure is much lighter than that of earlier 5-Series cars and overall weight is down as a consequence. BMW claims this construction method as a “world’s first,” but Acura, Land Rover and others may have something to say about that.
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The new 5-Series comes with a wide range of technical innovations that should keep it ahead of the pack for quite a while. Most novel is what BMW calls its Active Steering system. Basically, this is an electronically controlled steering system with variable transmission and power assistance. The system uses a conventional rack-and-pinion steering arrangement, but adds new technology to take vehicle control one stage further. According to BMW, there’s a “conflict of interest” in any kind of conventional steering system – a compromise between agility, stability and driving comfort. In other words, steering systems suffer from the same compromises as suspension layouts – improve one set of parameters and another set suffers. With conventional steering, the driver’s steering “commands” are transferred from the steering wheel to the front wheels with the same transmission ratio at all times. The fact is that for optimum performance, the steering ratio when the car’s being parked is not necessarily the most desirable one for highway speeds.
BMW’s answer to this steering dilemma is a system that combines the benefits and safety of an all mechanical steering setup with many of the advantages of all-electronic steer-by-wire. Active Steering uses an electric motor and what engineers call a planetary gearing system to provide a variable steering ratio. When driving slowly or parking, the electric motor works in the same direction as the driver turning the steering wheel – moving the front wheels further in the desired direction and reducing the steering angle required. This makes the steering far more direct at low speeds and the car is very easy to maneuver. With a conventional 5-Series model (Active Steering will be an optional extra), it takes three full turns of the steering wheel to move from lock to lock. With Active Steering, it takes just two turns from lock to lock and the effort needed for confined parking situations or a slow 90 deg city corner is much reduced. On a slow, twisty, mountain pass, the driver is able to make tight turns without the “arm crossing” that can be a part of this kind of driving situation.
At high speeds, the motor acts against the driver’s steering input, reducing the steering angle at the front wheels and making the steering ratio more direct. This makes for a relaxed driving
experience on the highway with the increased steering “feel” helping to avoid unwanted drifting due to “nervous” or exaggerated reactions. The entire process is part of a complex electronic system linked to the car’s stability control system and the result for the driver is more precise control at all speeds and a feeling of safety and response.
I tried two 2004 BMW 5-Series cars back-to-back on a tight handling course in Sardinia, one with the new system and one without. There was no doubt that Active Steering made the job of tackling the tight corners and slalom sections far more precise and driving chores were more relaxed too. At highway speeds, steering is well damped and there’s no fear of that “lane change with every cough” feeling you get with some types of power steering.
Other technological highlights include a modified version of BMW’s iDrive cockpit control system that made its debut on the bigger 7-Series car; Dynamic Drive stabilization; runflat tires and adaptive xenon headlights that “see round corners” and have the ability to move with steering motions. Also available is a head up display (HUD) that carries more information than systems I’ve seen from other automakers.
Initially, we’ll get a 231 horsepower powerplant for the 530i and it’s one of those wonderfully smooth BMW in-line sixes that have won so much praise from auto critics over the years. V6 engines may be easier for designers to “package” but there’s nothing like the “turbine feel” of a good straight six – especially if it’s built by BMW. Later, BMW will launch a V8 version – probably as a 540i like the last model – and no doubt a high performance M version will follow too. Wagons are also on the cards at some stage.
The interior of the new 5-Series is very much traditional BMW, with a few modernistic upgrades. The dash is a joy to look at, the seats are large and supportive and the ambiance of luxury and
well-being comes as standard. As one might expect, fit and finish are to the highest standards in the industry.
I drove the new BMW under all kinds of road conditions in Sardinia and found it had sporting capabilities well beyond what the average owner will demand. It can be tossed round corners on mountain passes like a sports car and handling and braking is exceptionally good for
a fairly large car. On the freeway (I was surprised to find such things on the island of Sardinia) the car is very quiet and restful at high speeds and wind noise is commendably low.
Thanks to a very airy cockpit, visibility is excellent and the driver gets a feeling of safety, solidity and dependability. I didn’t drive the car at night, but if this car is anything like its BMW siblings, the lighting will be more than up to the task of high speed driving after
This is a desirable and prestigious automobile which will offer owners far more handling and performance than they’re likely to need for Canadian conditions. No price has been announced yet, but if recent industry trends are anything to go by, it won’t be that more expensive than its less technologically endowed predecessor.