First Drive: 2017 BMW 5 Series

San Francisco, California – It may look similar to the current 5 Series, but the new 2017 BMW 5 Series sedan is an all-new car from top to bottom. New lightweight body construction, new styling, new engines, new suspension, new steering, new brakes, new infotainment system, new seats, and new safety features are just some of the changes to the seventh-generation 5 Series.

New for 2017 are numerous collision prevention safety systems and a semi-autonomous driving system.

The 2017 5 Series doesn’t look any bigger than the current one, but it is slightly larger: 36 mm longer, 6 mm wider, 2 mm taller with a wheelbase extended by 7 mm. The exterior styling differences are mostly in the details: larger, elongated headlight covers now merge with bigger kidney-shaped grilles behind which “active” grille shutters open and close to enhance airflow; the headlights’ “coronas” now have a hexagonal shape; both front fenders now have functioning air vents; the prominent crease along the side is joined by a second upper crease that ends in the upturned “Hofmeister kink” at the rear side window; and at the rear, the taillights now blend more gracefully into the trunk lid. The zero-cost option M-Sport package includes larger front air intakes, lower stance, side skirts, and revised rear valance.

Overall, the 2017 5 Series has a slightly bolder appearance while retaining its low-slung stance and streamlined profile. Our only beef is that it looks almost exactly the same as the larger 7 Series sedan. From a distance, it’s difficult to tell these two models apart. Has BMW relied too much on corporate family resemblance?

530i xDrive vs 540i xDrive

At the media introduction in California, we drove both the 530i xDrive and 540i xDrive sedans (all 5 Series models sold in Canada have xDrive) over a variety of roads and road surfaces north of the San Francisco area. In Canada, the 2017 530i xDrive and 540i xDrive will go on sale in February while the 2018 M550i xDrive and 530e xDrive plug-in hybrid models will go on sale in May or June. No word yet on the 535d or M5.

Replacing the 528i xDrive, the new 530i xDrive is equipped with a new all-aluminum 248 hp twin-turbo 2.0L four-cylinder engine (up from 241 hp) mated to a standard eight-speed Sport automatic transmission. The 530i xDrive sprints to 100 km/h in just 6.0 seconds (BMW-supplied figure) thanks in large part to its generous 258 lb-ft of torque starting at just 1,450 rpm. Throttle response is quick and the motor lets out a subdued growl under acceleration but is surprisingly quiet at freeway speeds. The eight-speed transmission is so smooth that shifts are often undetectable.

Buttons on the console for Comfort, Sport and Eco-Pro modes allow the driver to adjust the level of performance and fuel economy desired by pre-adjusting throttle settings, transmission shifts, steering effort and suspension firmness. Comfort is the default mode, but we found that Sport mode made for a more responsive and exciting driving experience while Eco-Pro mode redeemed its middling performance by saving gas when shutting off the motor at stop lights (seamlessly) and reducing energy consumption in city driving.

New for 2017 is a driver-selectable Adaptive Mode which automatically adapts the steering, shocks, and transmission settings to your real-time driving style. It will automatically choose Comfort mode when driving sedately or Sport mode when driven more aggressively. It even includes a GPS-controlled feature that shifts the transmission and adjusts the suspension based on the road topography and how far away the car is from the next corner or intersection. Notwithstanding Adaptive Mode’s adaptability, we felt more comfortable making our own choices with the fixed performance parameters of Sport mode when driving on twisty roads and the normal performance characteristics of Comfort mode or Eco-Pro mode when we weren’t in a rush. Psychologically, we may have been rebelling against technology: we really don’t want the car to do everything for us.

Ride and handling has improved over the previous-generation 5 Series. On the twisty backroads leading up the Napa Valley, the 2017 530i xDrive provided a very smooth and stable ride (in Sport mode) with secure high-speed cornering capabilities and responsive if not overly precise steering feel. The car’s new double-wishbone front suspension and new five-link rear suspension provided balanced and agile handling with high limits, but we found that potholes caused firmer-than-expected jolts in both Comfort and Sport modes.

While we liked the 530i xDrive, the 540i xDrive sedan is the car to have for effortless performance. Its 335 hp twin-turbo six-cylinder engine (up 35 hp) pumps out 332 lb-ft of torque at 1,380 rpm through 5,200 rpm and zips to 100 km/h in 4.8 seconds, slightly faster than last year’s 535i xDrive. It’s a super-quiet, super-smooth engine combined with a super smooth eight-speed automatic transmission. This is surely one of the nicest engine/transmission marriages on the market.

Fuel consumption figures for the 2017 530i xDrive and 540i xDrive were not available but we were informed that both models offered a 12 percent improvement in their Combined ratings.

xDrive available with rear steering

Equipped with standard xDrive (all-wheel drive), the 530i and 540i grip the road with a leech-like tenacity. Even on dry roads, the variable torque distribution between all four wheels contributes to stability and traction when powering out of corners or when encountering sand or loose gravel. For Canadian drivers from the rain-soaked streets of Vancouver to the snow-drift covered streets of New Brunswick, standard xDrive is an invaluable traction aid.

For the first time in the 5 Series, xDrive can be combined with BMW’s optional rear-wheel steering system called Integral Active Steering. At slower speeds, the rear wheels turn in the opposite direction to the front wheels for tighter turning radiuses, and at higher speeds the rear wheels turn in the same direction for faster lane changes and increased manoeuvrability. Unfortunately, none of the Canadian-spec cars at our media event were equipped with rear-wheel steering so we can’t comment on its performance. However, having driven other cars with four-wheel steering, I can attest to its advantages when making tighter U-turns and quick lane-changes.

New active safety and semi-autonomous driving

New for 2017 are numerous collision prevention safety systems and a semi-autonomous driving system. Using onboard cameras, radar sensors and ultrasound sensors, the new 5 Series can detect impending frontal, side or rear collisions, sound a warning to the driver, and if necessary take evasive steering or braking action to avoid a collision. For example, Lane Change Assistant automatically steers the car back into its lane if it wanders or is about to collide with another car. Active Cruise Control with Stop & Go can take evasive steering action if a car in front stops suddenly, even at speeds up to 210 km/h! This semi-autonomous system proved useful to us when we were caught in a slow-moving traffic tie-up: our 2017 540i xDrive automatically accelerated and stopped in busy traffic as the car in front slowed, then resumed speed. Our car also steered autonomously based on the lane markings and the position of the car in front. We found that this removes the stress of driving in stop-and-go traffic, but as the driver has to be ready to take over at any moment, there’s no time for a nap!

Another new and potentially useful feature in the 2017 5 Series is Remote Control Parking. Standing outside the car using the keyfob, the driver can start the car and steer it into, or out of, a narrow parking space or garage. Certain finger inputs and gestures have to be learned to operate the remote control keyfob, but it’s basically quite simple. You’ll certainly impress your neighbours!

Roomier, high-tech interior

With its redesigned cabin and a longer wheelbase, the 2017 5 Series provides more interior room than the previous 5 Series, particularly for rear seat passengers. Rear occupants have more legroom (up 30 mm) and kneeroom and the rear outboard seats are very comfortable.

Up front are nicely contoured 16-way power seats (optionally available 20-way ventilated/massage seats), a thick-rimmed leather-wrapped steering wheel, bright backlit round instruments with integral digital information screens, a revised head-up display that’s 70 percent larger, a wide centre console with a sequential transmission shift lever, iDrive controller, and a new stand-up 10.2-inch colour screen mounted on the dash. The new freestanding 10.2-inch display offers new tile-like graphics along with the latest iDrive 6.0 user interface.

Essentially, iDrive 6.0 is designed to make it easier to access telephone, entertainment and navigation functions by providing more ways to activate functions. iDrive 6.0 adds improved voice control, hand gestures, and touchscreen activation in addition to the longstanding console-mounted control dial. The new 10.2-inch display features six large “tiles” on two screen pages. Occupants can enlarge a tile simply by touching the screen, or move to the next tile by swiping with a hand gesture from left to right. You can also answer a call by pointing at the screen or turn up audio volume by making circular motions with your finger. However, some practice is required to make it work. We found that hand gestures need to be a certain distance away from the screen and moved in a precise fashion in order to make things happen.

We used the navigation system to find our way to the airport from the Napa Valley. We liked the fact that as turns are approached the map automatically zooms in to provide a better view of the intersection and zoom out again later. Our planned route proved to be accurate and we were offered real-time notifications of traffic congestion ahead along with alternative routes to avoid traffic jams. We were reluctant to veer from the planned route, but another BMW driver who used the suggested alternative routes got to the airport before us even though he departed 15 minutes later than we did. So we know it works. One criticism though: we couldn’t always hear the navigation voice instructions because the volume was too low. Turning up the radio volume didn’t seem to help.

For 2017, a new larger head-up display now includes turn-by-turn instructions for the navigation system. Unfortunately, wearing my polarized sunglasses, I couldn’t read the display. I attempted to adjust the HUD brightness by going through a maze of menus in the iDrive system but couldn’t find it, so I gave up. This highlights one difficulty with the new iDrive 6.0 system: there are so many menus and submenus that drivers may get frustrated trying to find what they want. Owners should probably spend half an hour learning the iDrive system before driving.

Other notable new interior features in the 2017 5 Series include wireless phone charging (using a tray in the centre console), a Wi-Fi hotspot that offers a high-speed internet connection for up to ten devices, and the first availability of wireless Apple Carplay connectivity.

All Canadian 5 Series cars offer a standard Harman Kardon sound system with 12 speakers but the big news is a new optional Bowers & Wilkins surround sound system with 1,400 watts, 16 speakers and a measuring microphone in the car that allows the acoustics to be tuned to the specific conditions, such as the number of people in the car. Both our test cars were fitted with the latter system which impressed us with its sound clarity and power. Price: $4,900.

2017 BMW 5 Series pricing

In Canada, the 2017 530i xDrive and 540i xDrive will go on sale in February. The 2017 530i xDrive (MSRP $61,500) replaces the 2016 528i xDrive (MSRP $60,500), while the 2017 540i xDrive (MSRP $69,000) replaces the 2016 535i xDrive (MSRP $67,000). Arriving in May or June will be the 2018 M550i xDrive (MSRP $80,900) which replaces the 2016 550i xDrive (MSRP $82,500); followed by the 2018 530e xDrive plug-in hybrid (estimate low $60K). No word yet on a replacement for the diesel-powered 535d xDrive or the hot M5.

February

2017 BMW 530i xDrive: $61,500
2017 BMW 540i xDrive: $69,000

May/June

2018 BMW M550i xDrive: $80,900
2018 BMW 530e xDrive: TBA

The Verdict

Improved performance and fuel economy, added safety and semi-autonomous driving features, a roomier and more comfortable cabin, and a more advanced and feature-rich iDrive system have put the seventh-generation 5 Series sedan on par with newer competitors like the Mercedes-Benz E-Class, Jaguar XF and Volvo S90. Other than a few quibbles with the iDrive system, our only complaint is that the new 5 Series looks too much like the 7 Series sedan. We wish it had more distinctive styling.

The 2017 BMW 5 Series is built in Dingolfing, Germany.

Sportier, safer and laden with technology 1/20/2017 6:30:00 AM