Pros: Outstanding engines; premium ride; high-quality interior; full range of technology offerings; available Hybrid model
Cons: Less athletic than previous 5 Series models; smallish back seat
The 2012 BMW 5 Series might be too good for BMW's own good. Previously, the 5 Series was a model unto itself, a distinct midpoint between the compact 3 Series and the executive 7 Series. But the current 5 Series is actually based on the 7 Series, and the similarities are striking. The 5 Series offers mostly comparable engines, it has a similarly ultra-smooth ride, and even its dashboard is virtually the same. It's essentially a slightly smaller 7 Series at a considerably smaller price.
But enough about internal rivalries at BMW. What about other mid-size luxury cars? It turns out that the 5 Series looks pretty good against them, too. Thanks to those 7 Series bones, the 5 Series has a uniquely substantial feeling in the way it goes down the road. And thanks to the remarkably efficient 528i and the ridiculously powerful 550i, the 5 Series has both ends of the performance spectrum covered. Heck, there's even a new hybrid version this year for those who want to burnish their green credentials.
There's really only one point of concern with the new 5 Series, and it may only be relevant to hard-core BMW devotees. Previous 5 Series models were nimble, sporty, athletic; this one is generally not. It puts up decent testing numbers, but calling the new 5 Series a sport sedan is a stretch.
Still, in virtually every other respect, the 5 Series is a champ. Too good for BMW's own good? Probably not. But certainly too good for its rivals' comfort.
Comfort & Utility
The 2012 BMW 5 Series sedan is offered in four trim levels: four-cylinder 528i, six-cylinder 535i, eight-cylinder 550i and ActiveHybrid 5. The high-performance M5 is reviewed separately.
The 528i sedan comes standard with the turbocharged inline-4 engine with auto stop/start to save fuel, 17-inch alloy wheels, adaptive xenon headlamps, foglamps, an electronic limited-slip differential, keyless entry with push-button ignition, leatherette upholstery, 10-way power front seats with lumbar support and driver memory, a power tilting and telescoping steering wheel, dual-zone automatic climate control, iPod/USB and Bluetooth connectivity, a 10-speaker audio system and the iDrive information and entertainment system with a central display screen.
The 535i sedan adds a turbocharged inline-6, 18-inch wheels, adaptive xenon headlamps, a sunroof and leather upholstery and door trim. The 550i tacks on a twin-turbo V8, front and rear parking sensors, a rear-view camera, 18-way multi-contour power front seats with driver and passenger memory, and a hard-drive-based navigation system. The ActiveHybrid 5 is essentially a 535i with an electric propulsion system added to the turbo inline-6, though it also comes standard with the navigation system and four-zone climate control with individual temperature settings.
Most of the higher-end models' standard features are available as options on the lower trim levels. There are also numerous packages and à la carte options, including various performance enhancements, dual rear video screens and a 16-speaker, 600-watt premium audio system.
Even the plainest 528i has 10-way power front seats that are among the best you'll find at this price. For our money, though, it's absolutely worth stepping up to the 18-way multi-contour seats, which represent BMW's shot at building the world's best automotive chairs. The gauges use BMW's classic white-on-black theme, changing to orange on black at night. Interior materials are uniformly rich, and the restrained dashboard design-including the center stack, which is canted toward the driver-is straight out of the 7 Series playbook. The standard iDrive screen is rather small and square; for the full wide-screen experience, you'll want to ante up for the navigation system, which includes a 10.2-inch rectangular screen with excellent color and clarity.
The 5 Series may be based on the 7 Series, but its back seat is considerably less accommodating. If you're looking for a big difference between the two models, here it is. Don't get us wrong, adults can still fit well in the back row. The bench is on the low side, though, and legroom isn't as ample as you might expect based on the car's substantial dimensions. The trunk officially measures 14 cubic feet, which is a low number for a mid-size sedan, but in our experience the cargo bay is usefully deep.
BMW has made a recent effort to ramp up its standard equipment, and the 528i is a case in point. Seriously, look at all the features we listed above. What more do you need? We'll tell you what: the optional navigation system. It replaces the small standard iDrive display with a beautiful 10.2-inch wide screen. It's more than just a pretty face; iDrive has improved dramatically from its controversial early years, featuring a vastly better menu structure and numerous physical buttons next to the controller knob for direct access to common pathways. Furthermore, iDrive is now hard drive based, which gives you higher processing speeds and the fringe benefit of digital music storage.
Performance & Fuel Economy
The 528i is powered by a turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-4 that's good for 240 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque. An eight-speed automatic is the only transmission. This engine is widely believed to make considerably more power than BMW is letting on, and we can confirm that it feels surprisingly strong. It also gets an impressive 23 mpg city and 34 mpg highway. It definitely sounds like a four-cylinder engine, though, albeit a refined one, so you might be tempted to step up to the 535i, which has a turbocharged inline-6 rated at 300 hp and 300 lb-ft of torque. There's serious acceleration here, and the inline-6 is almost as smooth at the redline as it is at idle. Fuel economy is still strong at 21/31 mpg with the eight-speed automatic, while the standard transmission-a six-speed manual-gets 20/30 mpg.
For true power mongers, the 550i serves up a twin-turbocharged 4.4-liter V8 that cranks out 400 hp and 450 lb-ft of torque. The same engine does duty in the executive-class 750i sedan. Incredible acceleration from any speed is the name of the game; you have to experience it to believe it. Fuel economy plummets to 15/23 mpg with the eight-speed automatic and 15/22 with the six-speed manual (a very rare offering among eight-cylinder luxury sedans).
As for the ActiveHybrid 5, it pairs the turbocharged inline-6 with an electric drive system and the eight-speed automatic transmission for a total system output of 335 hp. A true dual-mode hybrid, the ActiveHybrid 5 can accelerate solely on electric power up to 37 mph, and it will coast in electric-only mode at speeds up to 100 mph. Expect performance on par with the less powerful 535i because of the hybrid's increased weight, as well as a roughly 20 percent improvement in fuel economy over the 535i, for combined fuel economy of about 30 mpg.
All 5 Series models have rear-wheel drive by default, but the non-hybrid models can all be outfitted with all-wheel drive. The eight-speed automatic is the only transmission available with AWD, and fuel economy does drop a little-although not by as much as you might think.
The 2012 BMW 5 Series comes with standard stability control, four-wheel ABS and eight airbags (front, front knee, front side, and full-length side curtain).
In government crash testing, the current 5 Series received a perfect five stars overall, including four stars for frontal impacts and five stars for side impacts. The independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the 5 Series its highest rating of Good in all categories.
There will be those who step into the 2012 5 Series expecting it to be a nimble sport sedan like BMWs of yore. Well, it's not, and people should probably get over it. The 5 Series has evolved into a swift, supple, silent transportation machine, an unflappable highway cruiser that gives the driver a sense of complete confidence and control. It just won't make you want to take the long way home anymore.
Other Cars to Consider
Audi A6: The supercharged 3.0T version of the A6 can give any 5 Series a run for its money, particularly in the fun-to-drive department. There's also the upcoming S6 sedan with its twin-turbocharged V8, a direct 550i competitor.
Mercedes-Benz E-Class: The E350 sedan has a strong normally aspirated V6 that some may prefer to BMW's turbocharged options, while the E550 sports a new twin-turbocharged V8 aimed squarely at the 550i's previously unchallenged engine.
Lexus GS: The new GS reminds us a lot of the previous 5 Series in the sporty way it drives. It's somewhat hamstrung by its limited engine offerings, but the standard V6 is a beauty, and there's an available hybrid model that does battle with BMW's ActiveHybrid 5.
Assuming that shoppers in this segment don't have especially tight budgets, we'd go whole hog and get the 550i. We know the other engines sound plenty capable, but the twin-turbo V8 is something else in the way it picks you up and hurls you down the road. Plus, navigation comes standard with the V8, so you wouldn't have to worry about the wimpy base iDrive screen.