Road test: BMW keeps its powder dry with new 520d
New 5 Series is handsome and capable but is that enough in the face of rivals?
Date Reviewed: February 1, 2017
The arrival of a new BMW 5 Series should be something of a dramatic event, not least because each time a new one has hitherto arrived, it has turned the automotive world upside down. The so-called E39 version (BMW has an internal codename for all its cars) which debuted in the mid-1990s is still, two decades on, regarded with near reverence for its handling brilliance.
The Bangle-designed 5 Series of 2002 (codename E60) remains a high watermark in style for BMW, and was an utterly divine car to drive. And the outgoing model (the F10), which entered the market in 2010, added much-needed refinement, comfort and space to the driver-centric character of Bangle’s earlier iteration. Each version of the 5 Series has been a hugely significant car, a landmark of its age, even.
What then of this new 5 Series, the so-called G30? It seems to have arrived with more whimper than fanfare, sticking closely to the style of is forebear and not, on the surface, offering very much that is new. Its structure is closely related to that of the 7 Series, and although it does without that car’s carbon fibre underpinnings, it is lighter than before – a not inconsiderable 100kg lighter depending on the model.
There are a number of new technical highlights including the latest version of iDrive, which combines the little click-wheel controller with a touchscreen, and which incorporates the sort of connectivity and display options which were once the preserve of high-end laptops. There is the option of an automatic speed limiter (surely anathema to most traditional BMW drivers?), active LED headlamps, updated engines and, shortly, the option of a 44g/km plug-in hybrid model.
Parked outside the premises of Prentice BMW of Portadown, just outside Belfast, my test car is still partially covered in swirly, psychedelic wallpaper designed to foil the long lenses of spy photographers. This seems rather a silly thing, not least because the 5 Series has been on public view since before Christmas and goes on sale here momentarily, but there’s an undeniable thrill in being given the keys to a car whose very badges are obscured by disguise tape.
Thankfully, beneath the tape is a near-perfect model for the Irish market. It’s a 520d, so it has the economical and low-emissions 2.0-litre diesel engine which carries over all but unchanged from the last 5 Series. Its muscular M-Sport bodykit (ever a popular option in this market) is partially obscured by the disguise tape, and further disguised still is the fact that it’s an xDrive model, using BMW’s four-wheel drive system. Ideal for muddy Irish back roads and the odd cold snap.
Inside, it’s all very familiar. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I’m not sure yet to be honest – the big all-digital dials look good but they’re much less versatile than Audi’s “Virtual Cockpit” system, while the rest of the cabin just looks too much as if it was borrowed, wholesale, from the old one.
There are some very good points though – space is decent (albeit not exceptional) and the front seats are remarkably comfortable and supportive. The new iDrive system, which now uses tiles rather than a menu list, is also simple and rewarding to use and there are now options to customise its layout and functions to best suit your needs. Quality levels are very high, but the patterned aluminium inlays on the centre console look and feel like a misstep and there’s none of the design brilliance that you’ll find in a rival Volvo S90.
It should drive rings around the Volvo though, and potentially even around the likes of the highly-regarded Mercedes-Benz E-Class and Jaguar XF. After all, the 5 Series has long been the mainstay of BMW’s ultimate driving machine legend, so this one has to be good. Sadly, it’s only good – good enough, certainly, but there’s no sense that the game has been moved on. Indeed in one critical sense, this new 5 is actually a backward step.
That backward step is in the steering department. All 5 Series will come with BMW’s familiar driving mode selector, which allows you to choose between Eco Pro, Comfort and Sport modes, but even in Sport, the steering just never feels right. It feels over-assisted and a touch numb, a sensation not helped by the over-stuffed, thickly padded rim of the three-spoke steering wheel. Get the 5 Series on a really challenging road and you can just about feel that the steering is trying to talk to you, but its messages seem muffled. Previous 5s have had steering that felt almost telepathic. This one feels more like wireless telegraph.
The suspension too is not entirely at ease. As an M-Sport model you expect there to be a little more bump and thump than you would get in a standard car, and that’s present, correct and not entirely unpleasant. You would equally expect that the 5 would therefore be firmly tied down, in terms of its suspension movements, but it’s not.
In fact, it’s prone to revealing an unexpected softness through the corners, especially if you turn in a little too sharply. Then the nose rolls more than you think it will, and there’s too much vertical pitch on undulating roads or on sharp bumps. The upside is that there’s unexpected levels of comfort and compliance, even in Sport mode. The downside is that the 5 is no longer the handling champ it once was.
That needs to be put in context. I’m not saying that the 5 is suddenly a bad car to drive – far, far from it. But there used to be clear water between a 5 Series and almost any competitor. Now I’d say it’s the equal of an E-Class in terms of driver reward and overall composure, and actually behind the Jaguar XF for steering feel and response and chassis balance. It’s a class of crowded talent, the executive saloon car world, and even the tiniest chinks in armour become amplified by the performances of rivals.
The engine is good though – barely changed with its 190hp and 400Nm outputs, it’s a touch loud at times (and emits a characterless drone when revved) but it’s never rough nor harsh, and is whisper-quiet at a main-road cruise.
Overall refinement is actually very good, even on coarse motorway surfaces, and I squeezed 40mpg out of it even with some enthusiastic low-gear back road work, so 50mpg in day-to-day driving seems likely. With the xDrive and the optional 19-inch wheels, Co2 emissions stand at 124g/km, but a standard model on smaller wheels will dip below the 120g/km mark.
The latest 5 Series isn’t a bad car, nor should it be seen as a retrograde step. But it does feel as if BMW, cognisant that an electric and autonomous revolution in motoring is nigh has held back with this new model.
Lighter and more efficient it certainly is, but there seems to be a palpable sense of powder being kept dry in terms of both driver reward and innovation, until the lie of the future land can be more clearly spied out. The cost of trying to match the E-Class for refinement is also clear in the sensation that it’s not the pure drivers’ car that it once was.
Many thanks to Prentice BMW of Portadown for their help with this feature.
The lowdown: BMW 520d xDrive M-Sport
Price: as tested, €60,629.
Range starts at €51,950.
Top speed: 232km/h.
Claimed economy 62mpg (4.5-l/100km).
CO2 emissions: 124g/km.
Motor tax: €270 per annum.
Verdict: Steady as she goes for the 5 Series. Impressive, but some of the fun factor has gone.