Pros: Excellent engines; outstanding ride/handling balance; sumptuous interior; versatile back seat and cargo area; tons of standard features

Cons: Strange looks; steep price; firm ride with the bigger wheels

The 2012 BMW 5 Series Gran Turismo shows how little stock BMW puts in the theory that Americans don't like hatchbacks. The company doesn't call it a hatchback, of course; in BMW speak, the 5 Series GT is a Sports Activity Vehicle. But come on, just look at the thing. If we didn't know better, we'd say that BMW benchmarked one of the most memorable hatchbacks in automotive history-the much-maligned Pontiac Aztek. The Gran Turismo even has an Aztek-style innovative cargo bay, although BMW adds its own twist with a novel dual-mode liftgate.

But before BMW gets mad at us for comparing the 5 Series GT to Pontiac's rolling punch line, let's talk about how brilliantly it drives. Although it's got "5 Series" in its name, the Gran Turismo's vital measurements-wheelbase, front track, rear track-are identical to those of the executive-class 7 Series sedan. That's no coincidence; the 5 Series GT is basically a 7 Series hatchback, sharing most of the 7er's important mechanical bits. So what we've got here is a hatchback that rides, handles and accelerates like one of the best sedans in the world, combining unflappable high-speed stability with astonishing athleticism.

Being a hatchback, the 5 Series GT also offers an impressive amount of cargo space-up to 63.6 cubic feet, to be exact. And being a 7 Series spinoff, it has a beautifully trimmed interior. In other words, the Gran Turismo, unlike the Aztek, pretty much excels at everything. That's a great place to start if you want to convince Americans that hatchbacks are worth having.

Comfort & Utility

The 2012 BMW 5 Series Gran Turismo is offered in two trim levels: six-cylinder 535i and eight-cylinder 550i.

The 535i comes standard with a turbocharged inline-6 engine, 18-inch alloy wheels, adaptive xenon headlamps, foglamps, an electronic limited-slip differential, a self-leveling rear air suspension, a power tailgate, a panoramic sunroof, keyless entry with push-button ignition, leather upholstery, 10-way power front seats with lumbar support and driver memory, a power tilt/telescopic steering wheel, dual-zone automatic climate control, iPod/USB and Bluetooth connectivity, a 12-speaker audio system with dual subwoofers, and the hard-drive-based iDrive information/entertainment system with a 10.2-inch wide-screen display, 12 GB of digital music storage and a rear-view camera.

The 550i adds a twin-turbocharged V8 engine, but otherwise its standard equipment is comparable to that of the 535i.

Options include wheels up to 20 inches in diameter, 20-way multi-contour front seats with Nappa leather upholstery and two power rear bucket seats in place of the standard three-person bench. There's also a dynamic handling package with adaptive dampers, two Sport packages (which, notably, do not include a sport-tuned suspension) and a cold weather package with heated front and rear seats and a heated steering wheel.

Sliding into the Gran Turismo's driver's seat, the first impression is of unexpected elevation. The GT has more of a crossover-style ride height, so you don't plop down into the seat, because it's already at hip level. Although the standard 10-way power front seats are excellent in their own right, the 20-way multi-contour seats are a no-brainer upgrade, in our opinion-they belong in any conversation about the best automotive seats in the world. The gauges will be familiar to any BMW fan, employing the classic white-on-black numerals that change to orange on black at night. Interior materials are top-notch, and the graceful dashboard design is basically the same one you'll find in the 7 Series. Unlike the 5 Series sedan, every 5 Series Gran Turismo comes standard with the wide-screen iDrive display for a uniform look across the lineup.

One way in which the 5 Series Gran Turismo actually outdoes its 7 Series sibling is in back-seat comfort. Thanks to that elevated ride height, the bottom cushions provide extra thigh support, and the seatbacks recline for added comfort. The back seat also slides fore and aft, and those adjustments are power actuated if you get the optional power rear bucket seats.

As for cargo space, it seems there's not much in the trunk-15.5 cubic feet-but let's take a closer look at that cargo bay. The 5 Series GT's liftgate is divided into two pieces, and the lower piece can be lifted independently for access to the area directly behind the rear seatbacks-that's where the 15.5-cubic-foot measurement comes from. So unlike in conventional hatchbacks and crossovers, where trunk space is measured all the way up to the ceiling, the 5 Series GT's smaller measurement refers only to the trunk-like compartment underneath the liftgate's lower half. Translation: It's a useful amount of space. Moreover, if you open the entire liftgate and fold the rear seatbacks down, there's 63.6 cubic feet available, a healthy number that puts the GT on par with smaller luxury crossovers like the Cadillac SRX.

Technology

The 5 Series Gran Turismo comes standard with a dizzying array of high-tech features, including an awesome stereo with two subwoofers, but the technological heart of the beast is the beautiful 10.2-inch iDrive system. More than just a pretty face, iDrive has improved dramatically from its controversial early years, now 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. As a bonus, BMW's navigation system comes standard on every 5 Series GT; on the 5 Series sedan, for example, that's an extra-cost option.

Performance & Fuel Economy

The 535i is powered by a turbocharged inline-6 rated at 300 horsepower and 300 lb-ft of torque. Acceleration is plenty strong and exceptionally smooth with this engine, and fuel economy is respectable at 19 mpg city and 28 mpg highway. The 550i features a twin-turbocharged V8 with 400 hp, 450 lb-ft of torque, and otherworldly acceleration that makes the family-friendly Gran Turismo a match for all but the very fastest production cars. The V8 is unbelievably refined, too, with so little in the way of noise and vibration that it could pass for an electric motor at times. Fuel economy drops to 15/22 mpg, however.

An eight-speed automatic transmission is standard on every 5 Series Gran Turismo. Rear-wheel drive is the default configuration, but xDrive all-wheel drive can be added to both the 535i and the 550i. With AWD, fuel economy only drops by about 1 mpg.

Safety

The 2012 BMW 5 Series Gran Turismo comes with standard stability control, four-wheel ABS and six airbags (front, front side, full-length side curtain).

In government crash testing, the 5 Series Gran Turismo 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 has not tested the 5 Series GT.

Driving Impressions

The 5 Series Gran Turismo drives exactly like what it is: a tall 7 Series. We prefer the 7's lower center of gravity, but we do appreciate the GT's commanding view of the road ahead. That's not to say that the Gran Turismo doesn't handle well; in fact, this is one of the best-handling family vehicles on the market, exhibiting remarkable cornering composure for something so big and heavy. But the GT really hits its stride when it's time to make time on the highway. Its composure at speed makes it feel more like a bullet train than an automobile. We'll warn you, though, that the optional 19- and 20-inch wheels noticeably worsen the ride quality, so we'd stick with the standard 18s.

Other Cars to Consider

Mercedes-Benz R-Class: The R-Class comes standard with an adult-friendly third row, and it's got an excellent turbo-diesel engine option. The BMW's handling and acceleration are far better, though.

Mercedes-Benz M-Class: In the two-row luxury crossover segment, the M-Class is arguably the most refined option, and its available V8 engine is pretty competitive with the Gran Turismo's V8. But here again, the BMW's athleticism is superior.

Volkswagen Touareg: It's a dark-horse candidate, we admit, but the cheaper Touareg has a nice interior, a wonderful back seat, and far more off-road capability than the carlike Gran Turismo. We really like the way the Touareg drives, too.

AutoTrader Recommends

Did you see all the standard equipment the Gran Turismo has? We're amazed. There's one option we'd go for-those multi-contour front seats-but otherwise, the base 535i model has everything we'd want. We love the twin-turbo V8, by the way, but the extra cost and inferior fuel economy would hold us back.

author photo

Josh Sadlier is an automotive journalist based in Los Angeles and has contributed to such publications as Edmunds.com and DriverSide.com. He holds arguably the most unexpected degree in his profession: a master's in Theological Studies.

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