Speed, safety and substance.

Base Price $39,470
As Tested $57,640

Where you drive has a lot to do with your impressions of the BMW 5-Series sedans. If there's an autobahn outside your front door, it's only natural to look at speed potential. A narrow, winding road built into the daily commute focuses attention on suspension design, while a stretch of speed-limited smooth freeway brings considerations of silence, comfort and, perhaps, gas mileage to the fore.

Logic suggests that any car capable of standout performance in any one of these environments will be compromised to a notable degree in the others. Fuel efficiency and velocities high enough to allow use of the fast lane on a German superhighway don't often mix; neither do responsive handling and cruising comfort. In most cases, anyway.

But BMW's 5-Series lineup is something special. We've had the opportunity to spend time in these sedans in all of the situations listed above, from foot-to-the-floor hurry-up mode to back-road barnstorming to gentle commuting. The conclusion: competence is always in evidence, and compromise is not.

Less evident, but very welcome, are manifestations of the company's efforts to improve safety. This is the area where the 5-Series cars have received the most attention for 1998. Availability of side airbags, already standard for front-seat occupants, is extended to rear-seat passengers this year. A new Head Protection System joins such expected safety enhancements as standard traction control, ABS and dual-mode airbags. The dual-mode changes the deployment speed of the airbag depending on whether occupants are wearing seat belts; and the front-passenger airbags will not inflate if that seat is unoccupied.

Walkaround

Each of the major players in the mid-luxury class has its own appearance. The new Audi A6 is rounded and chunky, the Lexus GS sedans are swoopy and sporty, the E-Class Mercedes-Benz looks, well, like a Mercedes, the Acura TL is conservative, while the Infiniti J30 is not, and the Cadillac Catera is unobtrusive.

Amid these contenders, the 5-Series manages to stand out by presenting a beautifully proportioned elegant face to the world, one that is recognizably BMW in origin from twin kidney-shaped grille to the large taillight clusters in back. The overall shape of the 5-Series body is a well-done evolution of a handsome basic design that dates back more than two decades.

There's more to the 5-Series than good looks. Its body shell is extremely rigid, a plus in terms of both safety and noise reduction. With its low 0.30 coefficient of drag, the 5-Series is one of the most aerodynamically efficient sedans on the market. Also aiding in keeping unwanted noise at bay are foam-filled body cavities and redesigned door seals.

Two 5-Series models are available. The junior version is the 528i, powered by an in-line six-cylinder engine. Its upscale brother is the V-8-equipped 540i. Aside from their powerplants, the two 5-Series sedans are remarkably similar, differing mainly in amenities, minor detailing and trunk lid badges.

Manual transmissions are standard with either engine; the 528i gets a five-speed unit, the 540i a six-speed. A four-speed automatic transmission is available for the 528i, a five-speed automatic is an option for the 540i.

A sports suspension package is standard on the manual-gearbox 540i, optional on the other models. The sports suspension comes packaged with 17-inch wheels. Otherwise, 15-inch (528i) or 16-inch (540i automatic) rims are supplied. Traction control is standard on all but the 540i manual, which gets the enhanced Dynamic Stability Control system, a computer-controlled unit that uses inputs from a variety of onboard sensors to apply brakes and/or reduce power in extreme situations that might otherwise end in the car going out of control.

The Inside Story

Good looks and luxury fittings mean little if occupants don't feel secure. They will in a 1998 5-Series. If the optional rear-seat side airbags are ordered, the BMW cabin has a total of eight airbags to protect driver and passengers in the event of a crash. Most notable is BMW's new Head Protection System, or HPS.

The system consists of a tubular airbag on each side of the cabin, anchored in front at the base of the windshield pillar, in back on the roof above the rear door. In the event of a side impact, the HPS tube inflates, breaks away from the trim panels that conceal it, and serves as a barrier between heads and hard surfaces that would cause serious injury. Tests have shown the head protection system markedly improves survivability in side impacts.

Safety may be given top billing, but the 5-Series interior isn't lacking in comfort and appearance. Trim is sumptuous, whether leatherette with brushed-aluminum accents (528i) or soft leather with burl walnut panels discreetly applied to center console, dashboard and door panels (540i). Power front seats with 10-way adjustments are standard, as are power tilt-and-telescope steering column and electric windows, mirrors and door locks.

The automatic climate control has separate temperature settings for driver and front-seat passenger, and the standard audio system has 10 speakers (528i) or 12 (540i). A power moonroof comes standard on the 540i, optional on the 528i. About the only option one might want to add are heated front seats. Leather upholstery can be ordered to replace the 528i's leatherette and power-operated rear window sunshades and manual pull-up rear side window shades can be added to any 5-Series. Deeply bolstered manually adjustable sport front seats are available at no cost for the 540i.

Ride and Drive

Freedom from vibration is an inherent trait of straight-six engines, and the 528i's 24-valve powerplant is one of the best of the breed. It delivers plenty of performance (BMW claims a 0-to-60 mph time of 7.7 seconds for the 528i manual, 8.7 with the automatic) and excellent fuel economy.

As expected, the 540i accelerates more rapidly. The 32-valve V-8 is also quiet and unobtrusive in ordinary use, making noise only when pushed hard. It has more of a thirst for premium unleaded fuel than its smaller-engined brother, enough to add a gas-guzzler tax to the price.

Regardless of suspension package and powerplant, 5-Series BMWs offer superb handling. In this respect, they are more like sports cars than sedans, tracking precisely through corners with minimal body roll. Both versions react crisply to steering inputs, with a tiny subjective edge in feel going to the 528i.

For the ultimate in razor-sharp road behavior, the Sport suspension package is the choice. Stiffer springs and shock absorbers result in a slightly harsher ride quality, but a small tradeoff in comfort is more than made up for by driving pleasure.

Naturally, the V-8 engine is the most fun, though the six is not exactly poky. The two manual transmissions require a firm hand on the shift lever, but work with precision and smoothness. The automatics are equipped with adaptive electronics that tailor shift programs to driving style. A sport shift program is followed whenever the 528i's transmission selector is in the third gear position, or the 540's lever is in fourth. The disc brakes with ABS are flawless.

Final Word

BMW restricts maximum speed of the 5-Series cars to a mere 128 mph, but there are no limits to the driving pleasure these exquisitely crafted machines can deliver. Judged by any reasonable standard, be it safety, performance, comfort or appearance, the overachieving sedans from Munich will not disappoint. BMW delivers a lot of car for the money.

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©1998 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

New Car Test Drive

Copyright © 1994-2009 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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