BY ANDY ENRIGHT
Few cars in recent years have caused such rampant division of opinion as BMW's E60 generation 5 Series. Few have many gripes about the way the car drives, the value proposition or the build quality but ask about the styling and you'll get some colourful responses. Now that we've had some time to get used to it, the lines aren't quite as shocking as they were when the Five first rolled into BMW dealers back in June 2003 and the introduction of the mellower looking Touring variant also helps. Get beyond the challenging styling and you have a car that retains BMW's position as the best driver's car in the executive class. Business as usual.
People should really have girded themselves for the 5 Series given the unconventional styling of the 7 Series and then the Z4 roadster. Its predecessor had been a conservatively styled thing but had nevertheless found great favour. When Burkhard Goschel, BMW's head of research and development proclaimed that "the days of lookalike BMWs are over. from now on each volume model will display its own unmistakable personality" it became apparent that radical styling was going to be an ongoing theme, a point rammed home by the subsequent 1 Series launch.
At the outset in June 2003, the 5 Series range consisted of the 520i, 525i, 530i and 545i petrol-engined saloons with a 530d diesel saloon also offered. A 525d entry-level diesel model was slipped into the range at the end of the year with the mighty 535d topping the diesel tree in autumn 2004. Touring models also made an appearance in 2004, the first of the five-door estates landing in late April. A fire-breathing 507bhp V10 engined M5 model was also unveiled in summer 2004 but wasn't scheduled to go on sale until the following Spring. BMW's innovative Active Steering system was slightly modified in autumn 2004 to offer a less radical feel. A whole suite of incremental trim improvements was announced for the 2005 model year car including a TV tuner which could accept digital as well as analogue signals, a wider palette of body colours, and more sophisticated in-car entertainment options.
In January 2005, new Valvetronic engine technology was introduced on 525i and 530i models and a 523i variant introduced (also featuring it) to replace the 520i.
A major facelift at the start of 2007 saw power boosted on most models and economy improved with the aid of regenerative braking technology. The styling was also tweaked. At the front, the headlights and indicators became clear glass while the kidney grille sits flush with the bumper. The M5 Touring was introduced at the same time and a little later, the 520d model was boosted to 177bhp.
What You Get
At first glance, the 5 Series seems to incorporate cues from both the Z4 and the 7 Series. The oddly proportioned bootlid is reminiscent of the 7 Series whilst the 'flame surfaced' flanks reflect the light in a similar way to the Z4. Whereas the 7 Series and the Z4 are relatively specialist items, the 5 Series represents a major cash cow for BMW and if the public don't take to the styling, there will be major consequences. Although it doesn't rest easily on the eye, we'll probably grow used to it in due course.
Much of the focus has gone into developing innovative technology but at the same time keeping weight from creeping up. More space is coupled with a weight saving of up to 65kg, due in no small part to lightweight aluminium including much of the chassis and bodywork of the car and the suspension components. This focus on weight saving has resulted in some class leading performance and economy figures from a range of engines that is largely familiar fare.
Although the 5 Series does carry over some 7 Series styling cues, it's clear that BMW have listened to customer feedback. The bootlid is less extreme and although the 5 Series features the controversial iDrive control system, it's notably easier to use than the 7 Series system and is backed up by more conventional knobs and switches on the fascia. The fiddly electronic handbrake system used by its big brother has also been replaced, in this instance by a conventional manual one. The Touring estate is a more conventional-looking car but the unique 5-Series styling cues are always evident. The M5 will be out of most buyers' reach but the Sport trim level offers some of the styling flair without the pricetag. You know the drill, wider air intakes, bigger wheels, sports suspension, flared side sills, it will prove a popular choice.
What to Look For
No significant faults have emerged thus far. As with any upscale executive car, it's crucial to ensure that your choice has the right trim. Cars with bright paintwork in non metallic colours, the smallest wheel options and cloth seats aren't going to be anything like as easy to sell on as a car in a decent metallic hue with leather and tastefully sized alloys. Check that the service record and mileage corresponds and that if your car is a high mileage ex-fleet vehicle, that the price has been adjusted correspondingly. Like all contemporary BMW models, the 5 Series has no fixed service intervals, the car's diagnostics deciding when it needs to come in for a freshening, so ask the buyer questions about how the car has been run and get a feel for whether it's been cherished or punished.
(approx based on a 520i SE ) An air filter is around £15, whilst you'll pay a similar amount for a fuel filter. Oil filters are around £6, whilst spark plugs are £17. A replacement cam belt is around £24.
On the Road
Seven engines are available in the mainstream line up, the 170bhp 520i, the 192bhp 525i, the 231bhp 530i, the 333bhp 545i, the 177bhp 525 diesel, the 218bhp 530d diesel and the 272bhp 535d. All the petrol-powered units use BMW's latest bi-VANOS valve actuation system that gives hefty torque low down and outright power at the top of the rev range. Even the entry-level 520i will sprint to 60mph in 8.8 seconds, hit a top speed of 143mph and yet return an average of 31.4mpg. Step up to the six-speed 530i and the sprint drops to 6.7 seconds, the top speed rises to 155mph but fuel economy doesn't take too much of a hit, the 530i turning in a creditable 29.7mpg. The real star of the show is the 530d. Despite coming within a whisker of the 530i's sprint to 60 - the diesel car stops the watch at an amazing 6.9 seconds - it will still go on to 152mph and return 41mpg. It boats a torque figure of 500Nm (a Ferrari 360 Modena makes 372Nm) which means that it feels awesomely muscular when accelerating. As a contender for the world's best car the 530d takes some beating but the latest 535d might hold the trump card for some, its 560Nm of torque and 6.6-second 0-60mph time are impressive but you do a premium for that extra oomph. That only leaves the mind-boggling M5 with its 507bhp V10 engine. Read the figures and weep in abject terror - 520Nm of torque, 0-62mph in 4.7s, 0-124mph in 15s and a derestricted 205mph top speed. That is some car.
Much thought has gone into the way electronic systems blend with good old manual ones. BMW have taken the notion that electronics should aid rather than replace manual systems and the active steering system is a good example. Rather than developing the sort of pure 'drive-by-wire' systems that often isolate the driver from road feedback, BMW has instead developed a system that maintains a link between the front wheels and the steering wheel but which adjusts the power assistance dependent upon speed and yaw rate, promising quick turn-in when you punch the 5 Series into a corner but without the accompanying nervousness at high speed that many such cars demonstrate. This system is networked to the Dynamic Stability Control system, reducing the interventions DSC has to make.
Dynamic Drive, BMW's active suspension system is available as an option, and Active Cruise Control, a system that automatically controls distances to the car in front, is also available to order. BMW hasn't left too many safety features out of the 5 Series. Brake Force Display is an interesting concept, enlarging the brake light area when the driver really anchors on. Another first for BMW is Adaptive Headlights - a feature many will associate more with Citroen. This system, sadly still an option, swivels the headlights by up to 15 degrees left and right to illuminate more of the road through a bend. Unlike Citroen's rudimentary old mechanical system, this calculates speed, yaw rate and steering angle before steering the beams. Another technology 'borrowed' from another manufacturer - in this case Chevrolet - is a Head-Up Display that projects information onto the windscreen. BMW has yet to offer this technology, but it is offered on the M5 and is sure to filter across the rest of the range.
If you're a fan of that angular styling, go right ahead and buy whatever model you can afford. There's not a bad pick in the whole line up. If you're not so struck on the looks of the 5 Series, buy one anyway and hope they grow on you. Little can touch the feel of a Five and despite the car being less overt in its appeal than the previous generation model, the used market has found that current owners value their cars highly with a relatively slow turnover in stock. Don't expect any screaming bargains therefore, but if you can track down the right car at the right price, congratulations are in order. You've made an informed choice.