2008 BMW 528i
2008 BMW 528i; photo by Paul Williams. Click image to enlarge

Review and photos by Paul Williams

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Photo Gallery: 2008 BMW 5 Series

Video ride-along: One; Two

Death Valley, California (and beyond) – The wonder of California is its variety. From scorching desert to lush vineyards and orange groves; from snow capped mountains to giant sequoias and ocean vistas, California offers something for everyone. Factor in an abundance of remote, challenging roads, and you have an ideal environment in which to go driving.

BMW is not short of variety, either, a point well made at the North American launch of the company’s latest 5 Series models. Described officially as a “freshening” by BMW America Communications Manager Thomas Plucinsky (as opposed to an all-new vehicle), the 2008 5 Series features models with more power, new model designations, a revised interior and smoother lines front and rear.

According to BMW executives, their intent in California was to showcase the 2008 5 Series models in dramatic landscapes that challenged both driver and car. Indeed, you can’t get much more dramatic than a “rally” from Las Vegas, Nevada, to Monterey, California, with stops at Death Valley and Yosemite National Park. Over a period of three days, we saw it all and drove them all.

2008 BMW M5
2008 BMW M5; photo by Paul Williams. Click image to enlarge

The fleet comprised examples of the rear-wheel drive, $59,900 528i (formerly the 525i), now powered by a 230-hp, 200 lb.-ft torque version of the company’s 3.0-litre, inline six (I-6) engine. Both six-speed manual and six-speed “Steptronic” automatic transmissions were available, and although not present at this event, an all-wheel drive 528xi is also offered at $62,500.

Formerly designated 530i/530xi, the new 535i/535xi priced at $68,900 and $71,500 respectively, receive a big increase in power. Under the hood, you’ll find the twin-turbo I-6 engine from the recently released 335i. Rated at 300-hp and 300 lb.-ft torque (the torque evenly delivered from 1,500-5,000 rpm), power from the 535i surpasses the previous generation, V8-engined 540i. A choice of six-speed manual or six-speed Steptronic automatic transmissions is available, but missing at the event was the all-wheel drive, $73,600 535xi Touring (wagon). It will be offered later in 2007.

The $83,900 550i retains its designation and its 4.8-litre 32-valve V8 engine that makes 360 hp and peak torque of 360 lb.-ft at 3,600 rpm. A new Sport Package is available for the 550i with 19-inch wheels and new body treatments. The rear-wheel-drive 550i is the most powerful 5 Series vehicle without an “M” attached to its designation. It, too, can be purchased with a six-speed manual or Steptronic automatic.

2008 BMW 528i
2008 BMW 528i; photo courtesy BMW. Click image to enlarge

Generating 500 hp from its Formula One inspired V10 engine, the $113,300 M5 is the ultimate 5 Series sedan. A choice of six-speed manual or seven-speed Sequential Manual Gearbox (SMG) transmissions is offered. The M5 is the only 5 Series car for which the SMG transmission is still an option, with BMW conceding that this particular gearbox is not for everyone.

To recap, the 2008 5 Series models include the 528i and 528xi, the 535i, 535xi, 535xi Touring, and the 550i, all with a choice of manual or automatic transmissions. Completing the range is the M5, available with manual or SMG transmission.

Not everyone drove all the model variations on the informal sand-to-surf “rally,” but there was ample seat-time in several models over the three day-period to form opinions of the cars. Many journalists, myself included, tried to sample the 528i, 535i, 550i and M5, in that order.

2008 BMW 528i
2008 BMW 528i; photo courtesy BMW. Click image to enlarge

Officially starting at our hotel in Death Valley, the aptly-named Furnace Creek Inn has provided accommodations over the last 80 years to Hollywood stars, the rich and wish-they-were, and curious travellers from all parts of the world. What they share is the perverse desire to experience 45-50 degrees Celsius under a blazing sun.

Death Valley didn’t disappoint, supplying afternoon temperatures that took your breath away, and landscapes approximating the surface of Mars.

Heading southwest, with air conditioners battling the heat, the 5 Series cars were able to strut their high-speed cruising stuff on the long, straight, almost deserted roads.

What a contrast to see signs warning of ice as altitudes over 2,000 metres greeted drivers in Yosemite National Park. There, the air cooled, and familiar smells of cedar and woodsmoke greeted the Canadians in the group.

2008 BMW 528i
2008 BMW 528i; photo by Paul Williams. Click image to enlarge

Beyond Yosemite, the roads alternated between long, narrow, straights and endless, writhing sections through isolated countryside that challenged both car and driver. Beyond the orange groves and horse ranches, the splendid hilltop mansions of Carmel and the funky beach properties of Monterey signified the conclusion of our journey.

Some observations: The 528i, especially with the manual transmission, is a delight to drive. The car feels nimble and quick, and even though it lacks brute muscle, the engine is so smooth and the car so balanced, that piloting this sedan can be just as rewarding as driving its more powerful stable mates.

The 535i features what many are saying is the best engine in the world. A triumph of engineering, the twin-turbo inline six delivers power down low, and keeps it coming up to the red line. Fuel economy isn’t bad, either. The Steptronic transmission operates well, although selecting “Drive” or “Reverse” from standstill can be fiddly with the new shift lever. And although one of the stated objectives of the shifter is to rescue space on the centre console, this isn’t achieved.

2008 BMW 5 Series
2008 BMW 5 Series; photo by Paul Williams. Click image to enlarge

We drove the 550i equipped with a six-speed manual transmission. This car literally leaps off the line and claws its way around corners at a blistering pace. Balance is impeccable, and the sport seats are unmatched for support and comfort. The high-tech V8 doesn’t possess the burble of an American muscle car, but there’s no shortage of raw power. Check these videos (one and two) for a short ride.

The M5 is not your average family sedan. Actually, none of these cars 5 Series cars are, but the M5 possesses a different order of performance. With 500-hp under foot, the M5’s turbine-like engine can literally shove you back in your seat and pin you there while accelerating, and it tracks around corners like a two-seat sports car. Its quad exhaust is a perfect finishing touch.

More general observations: The BMW i-Drive driver interface is still a pain to use. BMW executives finally admitted in Monterey that it “still needs work” and promise an all-new generation with the release of the next all-new BMW (likely the CS, shown in Shanghai). Maybe they’ll design some decent cupholders as well.

2008 BMW 5 Series
2008 BMW 5 Series; photo courtesy BMW. Click image to enlarge

All the 5 Series cars are exceedingly quiet. Except for tire noise on rough surfaces, there’s virtually no wind noise at speed, even when it’s windy outside.

BMW still makes the most beautiful wheels in the industry.

In a strong crosswind, the 5 Series cars are unaffected. You can see trees being pushed around and the dust swirling, but the cars drive straight and true.

Finally, all the 5 Series cars are superb handling machines. Where many companies market their products on image and hype, BMW’s commitment to performance-oriented vehicles is absolutely supported by the product on the ground.

Like California, I guess, if you’re in the market for this class of car, the 2008 5 Series line-up has something for everyone.

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