My, how we’ve grown.
With very few exceptions, just about every car, truck, and SUV has swollen in size and mass over the past few decades, due in no small part to the mind-boggling array of technological advancements in safety, comfort, and convenience that motorists have come to expect.
BMW’s cars have not been immune to the weight gain, and the brand has been on the receiving end of a lot of grumbling from the automotive media in recent years for its ever-expanding models that seem focused more on luxury than any sporting past. (Of course, who can fault the brand when sales have grown to coincide with this change in tack?)
While the 3 Series has long been the bigger seller, the 5 Series has been a defining model for the marque, blending posh accommodations with genuine performance chops, most often with a hallmark inline-six-cylinder heart beating at its core. The 2021 BMW 540i is still powered by a straight-six, but can now be had with an added kick of electrification from a 48-volt mild hybrid system. And despite the added complexity, this 5 Series still embodies the core traits that fit its pedigree.
Twenty years ago, the 5 Series was available in Canada three ways: mild, medium, or extra-spicy M5 edition. Now there’s more choice than ever, with a variety of four- and six-cylinder options, as well as a plug-in hybrid, and two degrees of twin-turbo V8 (habanero-hot M550i and full nuclear-grade M5).
With the help of its small electric kick, the 540i’s turbocharged 3.0L engine dispenses with 335 hp and 332 lb-ft of torque. As a point of reference, BMW’s M5 was the king of all sports sedans from 20 years ago, and despite its 310 hp motivating a car more than 100 kg (220 lb) lighter than this 540i, the quickest Car and Driver magazine could get it to 60 mph was 5.6 seconds. This mid-pack 540i does the same sprint a full second quicker – a direct result of all-wheel-drive traction, a sensationally-quick-shifting eight-speed automatic transmission, and a monumental wave of torque to ride.
In the real world this translates to truly energetic acceleration, whether pulling away from a stoplight, or squirting around slow-moving traffic at highway speeds. The thrust is always there and is pleasingly ample. For the truly power-hungry (or those who enjoy terrorizing their passengers) the V8-powered M550i offers vertigo-inducing acceleration; but the 540i should be plenty satisfying for most folks.
Fuel Economy: 8/10
The 540i’s nearest competitor is the Mercedes-Benz E 450, a car that’s roughly the same size and weight as the Bimmer, and is also motivated by a mild hybrid inline-six. Unsurprisingly, the consumption rate of each of these cars is nearly identical, with the BMW being slightly better in city (13.8 L/100 km), highway (8.7 L/100 km), and combined (11.1 L/100 km) consumption. (For the record, twenty years ago, a BMW 535i produced slightly better numbers, although that car was smaller and lighter than even a current-generation 3 Series.)
Driving Feel: 8/10
While we’re on the topic of size, this 540i is actually longer, wider, and taller than a 1991 7 Series, and it weighs nearly 100 kg (220 lb) more. Yet this modern 5 Series is capable of hustling down winding roads at impressive speeds and with sublime composure that would leave most of the highest-performance cars from bygone days in its dust.
Traction is tenacious as all four corners of 20-inch Pirelli P Zero summer tires enable the big BMW to put its power down and claw out of curves. Steering is electrically boosted, and unfortunately the 540i offers little feel or feedback from what the front tires are experiencing on the tarmac. Responsiveness is quick enough without being twitchy, though, and is appropriate for a car designed for luxury use. If you want greater immediacy in your sport sedan, BMW will be happy to sell you an M5 or an M3.
A large part of our test car’s handling prowess can be attributed to the suspension tune, that, in this case, includes adaptive dampers that keep the car flat when cornering – even at speed. When cycling through drive modes, in theory, there should be a noticeable difference in ride quality between the sportiest settings and comfort mode. Unfortunately, the 540i’s ride quality actually varies between stiff and very stiff, and requires drivers to be even more vigilant than usual when approaching pavement imperfections.
Toronto’s Highway 401 has as many craters as the moon’s surface, but during our early spring test week, there were some impacts from fairly average road divots that sent shockwaves through the body and made the car’s occupants wince. Stiff suspension, unyielding run-flat tires, and large wheels are a diabolical combination for ride comfort.
The interior is spacious for four (five can be accommodated in a pinch), and the seats are sublime. In fact, the heated and cooled front seats are some of the best offered in any machine thanks to being both decadently supple, yet firmly supportive. They seem infinitely adjustable to accommodate all shapes and sizes of bodies, and when sport drive mode is selected, the side bolsters even hug the occupants a bit tighter.
In addition to the room for as many as five occupants being roughly the same as the 540i’s primary competitors, its trunk space, at 530 L, is nearly the same as the Mercedes E 450, and notably larger than the Audi A6’s. The rear seats split and fold down to open up further space. Replete with all-wheel drive, the 540i is suitable for all-season use, although those who frequently traverse deep snow may wish to go for an SUV for the added ground clearance.
This particular 540i is a well-optioned car that provides an enormous list of features. Of note, there’s a panoramic sunroof, soft-close doors, side and rear sunshades, head-up display, and those amazing seats. But thanks to the Advanced Driver Assistance package, the 540i can handle much of the driving duties without much need for the actual driver. Adaptive cruise control that works in stop-and-go traffic, plus lane control steering assist, and even a parking assist function all speak to the truly high-tech feature content available.
User Friendliness: 8/10
The technology continues with the infotainment system. BMW’s interface has been honed into one of the best systems in the business, managing an incredible number of functions and data without miring a driver in convoluted menus. The rotary dial between the front seats remains, and still enables a lot of functionality without taking the driver’s eyes from the road. The 12.3-inch screen offers vibrant colours and crisp graphics, plus touch functionality, and the audio system offers impressive sound.
In addition to well-positioned seats, the driving position affords unobstructed outward visibility, and the steering wheel’s chunky rim is luxuriously soft to the touch and frames a digital gauge pod that could offer greater configurability for different styles (including one that looked like a pair of traditional, round dials, please).
BMW’s interiors have long been fairly staid affairs, offering functionality over flamboyance, and the same theme carries here. Owners from, say, two decades ago would find familiarity in many places of the new car’s interior. The black finish seen here is a bit severe, but several colour options are available for buyers looking to make a bigger visual splash. The materials throughout feel great to the touch and are flawlessly assembled.
The car’s outward styling is similarly traditional – to its benefit. With the exception of the E60 generation of the late 2000s, the 5 Series has offered clean and conservative styling throughout its lineage, and this current G30 generation is very much an evolution of the preceding F10 cars from a decade ago. The proportions are great for a midsize sedan, giving the 540i a sophisticated look that will surely age well. The giant 20-inch wheels speak to the car’s sporty capability, and the optional Tanzanite Blue Metallic paint is simply radiant in the sun.
While the United States National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) hasn’t yet tested a 2021 5 Series the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has, and the car fared exceptionally well, earning mostly top marks across the board. Additionally, with this car’s optional Advanced Driver Assistance pack, there’s a full complement of active collision avoidance aids, helping front end and rearward impacts.
Starting at $73,000, the 540i is priced in line with the Mercedes-Benz E 450 and Audi A6. As is typical of all three of these brands, the option packages are many, and sometimes extremely costly, often requiring buyers to spring for them in order to get some features that are standard equipment on far more affordable cars. The overhauled Genesis G80 disrupts the system with all-in pricing and luxurious trims that can make the German cars – including this 540i – appear overpriced by comparison.
The 2021 BMW 540i, like its competitors, offers larger dimensions and far higher levels of technology than ever before. The features and capabilities of this car were unimaginable years ago in early 5 Series models, yet still some critics cry that BMW has lost its way with the 5 Series. This 540i is proof that the griping is unwarranted. It’s a fast, capable, and highly luxurious sedan, just as it has always been.
|Turbo I6, 48-volt mild hybrid
|335 hp @ 5,500 rpm
|332 lb-ft @ 1,500 rpm
|10.3 / 7.6 / 9.1 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb
|2021 BMW 540i xDrive Sedan
|Price as Tested
$13,650 – Premium Enhanced Package, $5,950; Comfort Ventilated Seats, $1,500; Advanced Driver Assistance Package, $2,000; M Performance Package, $2,000; M Sport Brakes, Red, $250; Tanzanite Blue Metallic paint, $1,450; Individual Shadowline Headlights, $500