Luxury carmakers typically offer one or two variants in this class, but BMW has had at least three 5 Series sedans for more than a decade. That tradition continues for 2004.
The least expensive is the 525i, powered by BMW's smaller, 184-hp inline six cylinder engine, retailing at $39,995. Next up it the 530i, with a larger, 225-hp six and a sticker price of $44,995. The ultimate 5 is the V8-powered, 325-hp 545i, and its price jumps a full $10,000 to $54,995. BMW also offers the 545i 6-speed at $58,295, which features a manual transmission and sport package.
These prices are up to six percent higher than 2003, even as the auto industry as a whole (including luxury brands) has held the line on increases. BMW justifies its increases with advanced technologies introduced in the new 5. Further, the company claims that given the "value ratio,'' or equipment for the money, prices have actually held steady. We're not sure what that means, but we know customers could buy a 2003 5 Series for less than they'll pay for a 2004.
That said, even the 525i comes standard with lots of luxury features. These include fully automatic climate control with active micro-filtration and separate temperature and airflow controls for each side of the cabin; an AM/FM/CD player with 10 speakers and two sub-woofers; a power tilt-and-telescope leather steering wheel: keyless entry with a multi-function remote and Vehicle & Key memory, which sets seat and climate controls for the driver whose key opens the car; and head and fog lights with automatic control. There are three 12-volt power outlets in the cabin and one in the trunk. There's also a rechargeable flashlight in the glovebox.
However, base prices for both the 525i and 530i do not include an automatic transmission ($1,275) or leather upholstery (part of the $2,400 premium package). All variants come with the BMW Assist package, including a one-year subscription to the service. BMW Assist provides tele-matic collision notification, an SOS button, roadside assistance, locator and concierge services.
The 530i accounts for nearly half of 5 Series sales in the United States, and adds three items to the 525i's standard-feature list: the bigger six-cylinder engine (3.0 liters vs. 2.5), slightly larger brake discs and 17-inch alloy wheels (vs. 16-inchers on the 525i).
The 545i's standard equipment includes still bigger brakes, a six-speed automatic transmission, leather upholstery, a power glass sunroof, a three-function garage door opener in the overhead console and more elaborate auto-dimming interior lighting. And, of course, the V8 engine.
The 2004 5 Series is the first line of automobiles offering a full range of six-speed transmissions. All three 5 Series are available with a clutch operated manual, a conventional automatic or BMW's Sequential Manual Gearbox ($1,500). While it will shift automatically, SMG is not an old-school automatic with a torque converter and a manual shift feature. It's more like a standard manual transmission with an automatic clutch. The SMG's clutch operates electrically without input from the driver, who shifts up or down simply by moving the gear lever or clicking paddles on either side of the steering wheel. SMG can also shift automatically, yet it delivers the improved acceleration and fuel mileage of a manual transmission because it eliminates the inefficiencies of a torque converter, called friction losses.
Our primary test car had the standard 6-speed manual, but it included many of BMW's more popular options, starting with the premium package (leather, dark wood trim, auto-dimming lights and the garage opener). The test 530i also added the sport package, with Active Steering and Active Roll Stabilization and 18x8-inch cast alloy wheels with 245/WR-18 run-flat tires ($3,330). It had BMW's Park Distance Control ($700), which warns a driver of low-lying or poorly visible objects with an electronic beep and graphic displays front and rear, and new Xenon Adaptive Headlights ($800). These provide high-intensity Xenon illumination on both low and high beam, and allow the outboard lights to steer with the car, Tucker-style, as it tracks through curves. Add optional rear passenger side-impact airbags ($385) and the $695 destination charge, and the 530i evaluated here retails at $53,305. The 5 Series' brand of sporting luxury does not come cheap.
Nor does the 2004's aluminum-intensive construction, which includes aluminum suspension components. To engineers, this suspension means less unsprung weight. To drivers, it means better tire contact on bumpy road surfaces. The brakes are impressive, too, and large by industry standards. The swept area, which ultimately determines maximum stopping power, has increased, and all discs are vented to maximize cooling (for automobile brakes, heat is bad). Yet the hottest technologies in the 5 Series' suspension are things difficult to see, even by crawling under the car. The first is Active Roll Stabilization, which BMW introduced on the 7 Series. ARS replaces conventional anti-roll or stabilizer bars with an electronically controlled, hydraulically operated system. It helps keep the body from leaning over in corners, allowing flatter cornering at higher speeds.
The second trick system in the 5 Series chassis is called Active Steering, which varies the steering ratio and eliminates the compromises of fixed-ratio steering. What's that mean? Better, more responsive handling.
Fast steering (a lower steering ratio, like 12:1) has advantages. The faster the steering, the more the front wheels turn for a given input on the steering wheel. When we're maneuvering into a parking spot, or driving down a particularly crooked road at low to medium speeds, fast steering means quicker response and less sawing back and forth on the steering wheel. But at higher speeds, slower steering is preferred (a higher steering ratio, such as 16:1). At 80 mph on the interstate, no one wants small movements on the wheel to make the car turn quickly. With truly quick steering, a driver who sneezes on the freeway might quickly be headed for a concrete abutment.
Most vehicles have a fixed steering ratio that's neither too fast nor too slow. The 5 Series Active Steering makes the steering quicker at low speed and slower at high speed. But it's not that simple. Active Steering is integrated in BMW's Digital Stability Control anti-skid electronics, and the system can actually make minor steering adjustments without the driver's intervention, or even awareness. Active Steering might intervene in a number of emergency situations, allowing safer, quicker recovery from a skid.
All the options on our 530i, indeed, nearly every option offered on the 5 Series, are available on all three variants. Other than an automatic, one of the more popular options missing from the test car was the Cold Weather Package ($750), with heated seats, heated steering wheel and headlight washers. The on-board navigation system is $1,800. Also available during 2004, the 5 will be available with a rear-seat entertainment package that includes a video monitor mounted at the back of the center console, a trunk-mounted multimedia changer and a pair of wireless headphones.
For the indefinite future, the new 5 will be offered in North America only as a sedan. An M5, the screaming high-performance four-door worshiped by enthusiast drivers, should debut by the end of 2004. BMW says it has no plan to bring a new 5 Series wagon across the Atlantic, because the 2003 wagon's sales don't justify the cost of certifying the new one for U.S. sale. Of course, the old wagon was never intended for the States, either, and eventually it found its way here.