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.
As noted, bells and whistles debuted in the 7 Series have trickled down to the 5. It too features four-stage Dynamic Drive Control to adjust vehicle driving characteristics from their most comfort-oriented to their most sport-oriented settings (Comfort, Normal, Sport, Sport+). Each progression sharpens steering, throttle, and transmission response, tightens the suspension, and expands DSC stability control intervention thresholds.
The 5 Series can also come with Integral Active Steering at the rear wheels as an option, where at low speeds the rear wheels turn contrary to the fronts at or in the same direction at high speeds, enhancing maneuverability and stability in either situation, respectively.
Active Cruise Control is another option, allowing the driver to automatically maintain a pre-set cruising distance between his car and any foregoing traffic. The 5 Series will actively slow itself if the set distance is compromised. The system also incorporates collision warning that both alerts the driver audibly and independently applies the brakes if it detects that a collision is imminent.
BMW Adaptive Drive is yet another option. Comprising Dynamic Damper Control and Dynamic Drive active anti-roll stability management, it independently adjusts the suspension dampers to the road surface and driving style to preclude any "undesired movement" caused by dips, bumps, or high lateral acceleration.
Other trickle-down options include: lane change and lane departure warnings; Head-up Display to project speed and navigation information on the driver-side windshield; a rear-seat entertainment system with LCD displays and DVD and MP3 playback capability; BMW Night Vision, which displays infrared images on the nav display; Parking Assistant, a system that actively scans for suitable parallel parking spaces and also steers the vehicle into a selected space; Surround View, comprising cameras mounted at the rear, in the side mirrors, and near the wheel well of each front fender to form a virtual "bird's eye view" of the car's surroundings (also shown on the nav display).
Consolidating all that is cutting-edge in Bavarian automobile technology, the new BMW 5 Series might be regarded as the most advanced BMW to date.
Better, it retains the requisite signature BMW driving goodness. Just in case you were worried.
2011 BMW 535i
Longitudinal front engine, rear-wheel drive
3.0-liter I6, dohc, 24-valve, turbocharged
Six-speed manual; optional eight-speed automatic
Double track control arm axle with separate lower track arm level, antidive (f), integral-V multi-arm axle, anti-squat and anti-dive (r)
Single-piston swing caliper with 348mm ventilated rotors (f), single-piston swing caliper with 345mm ventilated rotors (r)
Wheelbase: 116.9 in.
Curb Weight: 3,748 lb
Peak Power: 225 hp @ 5800 rpm
Peak Torque: 295 lb-ft @ 1200 rpm
0-62 mph: 6.0 sec.
Top Speed: 155 mph