In spite of what you may have heard, the sun does not come out in Portugal. I've been there twice now and I never saw it. Last time was to drive high-powered sports cars at the Circuito do Estoril. You could see the fear in our hosts' eyes as stormclouds continued to boil in from the coast well into the afternoon. The day culminated with something like: "Ve vood very much like you dreifing ze track. Unfortunately, zis is not possible."
This time the rain ceased around lunchtime. Estoril's baby-smooth tarmac was still far from dry, but they sent us out anyway, albeit with a single admonition: "It's your press fleet."
Not that a former F1 circuit is the 5 Series' natural habitat, or that many of these cars will ever even catch a whiff of race pavement. The fact that BMW wanted press to test the car here-in the wet, no less-should say something about the 5's inherent capabilities. Not to mention the company's confidence in its product.
I was but the premonition of a gamete drifting around the paternal waterworks when the BMW 5 Series made its debut in 1972. Nearly 40 years later, its sixth generation consolidates brand-new drivetrain technology with the gamut of modern BMW technical innovation and creature comforts, much of which was first shown in the new 7 Series.
In North America, the 5 Series will be powered by one of three gasoline engines. Until a new M5 rears its head, the range-topper is the 550i with the twin-turbo V8 we know from the X5, X6 and the latest 750i, rated at 402 hp. The entry-level 528i will come with a naturally aspirated inline six-cylinder rated at 255 hp, while the 535i receives an updated version of BMW's turbocharged inline six. Successor to the very popular N54 twin-turbo, this new engine (coded N55) employs a single "twin scroll" compressor serving all cylinders. Combined with BMW High Precision (fuel) Injection, and VALVETRONIC variable valve timing for the first time in a turbocharged BMW engine, this single-turbo unit actually improves overall performance and fuel economy over the outgoing twin-turbo; expect this engine to appear in forthcoming 1, 3, and X Series models.
A manual six-speed transmission is standard on the 528i and 535i. An all-new eight-speed transmission is available as an option on either of those, and standard equipment on the 550i. Why eight forward gears? Seamless automatic operation for silky smooth acceleration and deceleration, along with improved economy, natch. Here, the driver may elect to take gear switching into his or her own hands using the steering column-mounted shift selectors, where the standard push/pull items have been replaced with proper motorsport-style paddles, the left one for downshifting, the right for upshifting.
Complaints with recent BMW interior design assert that it has become overly "passenger inclusive," meaning the traditional arrangement of the dash array has become less driver focused. But the company still touts asymmetrical design, where the center dash is angled 7 degrees toward the driver; all information and controls relevant to piloting the vehicle are grouped around the number-one seat. Displays and controls relating to comfort functions (climate control, audio) are positioned more toward the middle of the dash.
But whatever your dash-angle preference, the new 5 Series still offers the traditional BMW seating feel, meaning the cockpit seems to wrap around the driver in a decidedly intimate way. For my money, the seating position is near perfect.