by Ray Thursby
Performance, practicality, and more room for packages.
Base Price $39,470
As Tested $55,355
There are plenty of luxury cars available to the buyers with the means to purchase them. Almost all promise performance as well as sybaritic comfort, though speed and handling usually take a back seat to leather, wood and all possible power assists.
BMW's 5 Series lineup is something special, however. No matter what the driving conditions, a 5 Series BMW is as much plaything as comfortable carriage. In this regard, the 5 Series models are genuine dual-purpose machines, totally competent whether cantering lazily down the highway or urged to full gallop down a twisting road. We are unable to find fault with them in either mode -- or in any mode in between.
Less evident than outright performance, are the concerns BMW has devoted to occupant safety. The front airbags are controlled by a dual-mode system that changes the deployment speed of the airbag depending on whether occupants are wearing seat belts; the front-passenger airbags will not inflate if that seat is unoccupied. Not only do the 5 Series cars come standard with side airbags in front, they offer them as an option for rear-seat passengers for just $385. A clever Head Protection System is supplied. Active safety enhancements are also standard, such as anti-lock brakes and traction control. A new Dynamic Stability Control system is available that reduces engine power and selectively applies braking force to individual wheels to counteract skids.
Each of the major players in the mid-luxury class has its own appearance. The 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, the Infiniti J30 is not conservative, and the Cadillac Catera is unobtrusive.
BMW continues to build on its heritage. The 5 Series stands 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.
New for 1999 are a pair of 5 Series station wagons. They differ visually from the sedans only aft of the C-pillar, where an extended roof and tailgate replace the sedan profile and trunk lid. The tailgate has a commendably low opening, giving access to the luggage bay right down to bumper-top level; if smaller items are to be loaded aboard, the rear glass can be raised separately.
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.
The 5 Series model line consists of the $39,470 528i and $51,670 540i. Each comes in sedan and sport wagon body styles.
The 528i is powered by a 2.8-liter inline 6-cylinder engine. With double overhead cams, four valves per cylinder and BMW's double VANOS variable valve timing, the 2.8-liter engine produces a healthy 193 horsepower and 206 foot-pounds of torque. Variable cam improves torque and reduces exhaust emissions. A new aluminum cylinder block reduces the weight of the engine by 51 pounds.
The 540i is powered by a 4.4-liter V8. This twin-cam four-valve design with the variable valve setup generates 282 horsepower and a robust 324 foot-pounds of torque.
Aside from their powerplants, the 5 Series cars are remarkably similar, differing mainly in amenities, minor detailing and trunk lid badges.
The 528i comes standard with a 5-speed manual; a 4-speed automatic is optional. The 540i comes with a 6-speed manual or a 5-speed automatic that can be ordered with a Steptronic manual/automatic shifter.
The $54,470 540i with six-speed manual amounts to a sports sedan. It comes standard with a sports package that includes a firmer suspension; this package is an expensive option on the other models. The sports suspension comes with firmer springs and shock absorbers, specially tuned anti-roll bars, 17-inch wheels and a 0.8-inch lower ride height. The 540i comes standard with a self-leveling rear suspension, an option on the 528i. The 528i comes with 15-inch wheels, the 540i automatic comes with 16-inch wheels.
Traction control and anti-lock brakes are standard on all models. BMW's system of traction and cornering-stability enhancement, called Dynamic Stability Control, along with Dynamic Brake Control come standard on manual-transmission 540i sedans and are optional on 528i models. Dynamic Stability Control is a computer-controlled system that uses inputs from a variety of onboard sensors to apply brakes and reduce power to enhance control; Dynamic Brake Control reinforces the driver's pedal effort in emergency braking situations.
The Inside Story
The 5 Series interior gets high marks for comfort and appearance. Trim is sumptuous. The 528i comes with attractive leatherette with brushed-aluminum accents, while the 540i is trimmed in soft leather with burl walnut panels discreetly applied to the center console, dashboard and door panels.
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. The 540i comes standard with a 12-speaker stereo. 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 for the 528i. 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.
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 Head Protection System, which consists of a tubular airbag on each side of the cabin anchored at the base of the windshield pillar and above the rear door. In the event of a side impact, the tube inflates, breaking 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.
Ride & Drive
Freedom from vibration is an inherent benefit of inline-6 engines, and the 528i's 2.8-liter is one of the best of the breed. It delivers great performance. BMW claims the 528i with manual gearbox can accelerate from 0-60 mph in 7.7 seconds, 8.7 seconds with the automatic. It also delivers excellent fuel economy, earning an EPA rating of 20/29 mpg city/highway.
The 540i accelerates even more rapidly, covering 0-60 mph in just 5.8 seconds with the manual, 6.2 with the automatic. The powerful 32-valve V8 is quiet and unobtrusive, making itself heard only when pushed hard. With its tremendous torque, this engine does give the 540i an edge in sports appeal over the 528i.
The 5 Series BMWs offer superb handling, regardless of suspension package and powerplant. They are true sports sedans, tracking precisely through corners with minimal body roll. Both versions react crisply to steering inputs, with a slight 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.
The manual transmissions 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.
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. The addition of station wagon variants allows buyers to justify their purchase as being practical as well.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.