Now that we've become accustomed to, or at least tolerant of, the new trends in BMW exterior design, we can turn back to the matter at hand: Is it still the ultimate driving machine? This new one follows up an almost perfect car. Was Munich up to it?

Always a favorite, BMW's middle child is all grown up, but it seems to have lost some of the exuberance that marked its youth. It's still one of the world's most accomplished sports sedans, and it impressed our judges in virtually every aspect of its performance.

However, both the 5er's exterior styling and interior environment came under fire, one for something that's there--the bustle tail--and the other for something that's missing--the feeling of an upscale automobile.

Chris Bangle's new direction for BMW design is no longer jarring to the eye, but neither has it been granted our full aesthetic acceptance. We considered the previous 5 Series to be the almost perfect car, so it's natural we might have felt a bit cold toward this new version, and we're willing to wait a while before making a final judgment on the styling.

The car's interior, however, was an immediate disappointment. Cold, indifferent and plain were just a few of the words our judges used to describe the cabin, which did not match up to the car's high price. "Is this all there is?" asked one judge about the interior, though others found its understated elegance very handsome. No one expressed joy over iDrive, though it has been improved over the original.

Our test vehicle came with a $55,000 base MSRP, augmented by a $3,300 sport package and a few other extras to bring the total to just under $63,000! Curse that dollar/Euro exchange rate. Judged on its claim as an ultimate driving machine, the 545i is extremely adept at covering great distances of road without breaking a sweat. The 4.4-liter V8 is a work of art, delivering its 325 bhp through a six-speed manual (the SMG gearbox found in our 645i test vehicle is also available, as is a six-speed Steptronic automatic), a rare commodity in this segment. However, also rare, for us, is our mixed reactions to the new 5 Series. Will "like" ever turn to "love"?

The Buzz...
"The V8 revs like a machine without limits...what a gem of an engine."

"Not much of a fan of the manual transmission/clutch interaction. It doesn't feel as refined as it could be."

"Cold, indifferent interior; all the warmth of a bank vault, and the exterior styling is more Tokyo than Munich."

"Active steering is really pretty good, but the old way of doing it didn't seem broken. Why was it 'fixed'?"

"The suspension is sporty without being harsh, and the traction control didn't intrude on the fun."

"Much-improved interior over the previous generation. Seats are typical BMW--supportive, comfortable."

"Even though it's improved, I still hate iDrive--though it did do the laundry I left in the trunk."

"Not the improved 5er I wanted."

The Contenders

0408Ec S4 01 S
Audi S4
0408Ec Auditt 01 S
Audi TT 3.2 DSG
0408Ec 545 01 S
BMW 545i
0408Ec 645 01 S
BMW 645Ci
0408Ec Clk 01 S
Mercedes-Benz CLK500 Convertible
0408Ec E500 01 S
Mercedes-Benz E500 Wagon
0408Ec W12 01 S
Volkswagen Phaeton
0408Ec R32 01 S
Volkswagen R32
0408Ec Volvo 01 S
Volvo S40

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