Test Drive: 2017 BMW 540i xDrive

The 2017 BMW 5 Series is the latest installment of a machine widely held as the world’s foremost luxury sports sedan. This time, it’s smarter, more handsome, lighter, and more efficient – not to mention absolutely overflowing with next-level feature content and tech.

No car I’ve driven to date has connected so instantly with my inner nerd, or made me say “holy geez” quite as much

Numerous features included with the tester are new to not only the segment, but to the auto industry as a whole. If you like your luxury sedan with sci-fi-level gadgets, the new 5 Series is worthy of your immediate attention.

The tested 540i xDrive amounted to $90,000 worth of cutting-edge styling, and feature-content goodies. If you think gadgets are stupid and frequently besmirch things like parking cameras and lane-departure warning systems and microchips, go track down a nearby stress-ball before reading further.

With the world’s luxury automakers engaged in a perpetual “who has more gadgets” contest, BMW has tossed a hand grenade into the ring. I’ve driven the latest from Audi, Cadillac, Infiniti, Mercedes, Volvo and others in recent months, and though each leverages a striking level of technology and advanced functionality, no car I’ve driven to date has connected so instantly with my inner nerd, or made me say “holy geez” quite as much as the latest from BMW.

Shoppers coming into the new 5 Series out of a former unit will feel right at home, initially. The shape and layout of the cabin is familiar: space enough for four adults, relatively generous rear seats, a familiar shape to the dash and displays, and a tried and true control layout, with updated but largely familiar interfaces. It’s instantly a 5 Series cabin, from that first glance.

But, go in a bit closer, and things get neat-o. The instrument cluster is fully digital, with high-resolution, dramatically animated and fully customizable dials embedded against thin metal rings. There’s an enormous, vivid head-up display (HUD), projecting a high-resolution, hologram-like infographic that appears to float over the hood.  Climate controls are accessed via a small touchscreen, with embedded tactile bumps.

There’s a widescreen display with gesture control, allowing you to manipulate selected functions with a wave or twirl of your finger or hand. This can get complicated if you’re a hand-talking Italian (like your writer), but twirling a finger to increase the volume, or stabbing towards the screen with two fingers to mute the audio, never gets old.

You can also get weather forecasts in the central screen. Want a massage? Just select the type and intensity you’d like via the central screen, and enjoy.

There’s even a parking camera system that provides a full perimeter display, allowing drivers to take a virtual walk-around of the parked vehicle in a sort of 540i “selfie mode”, to check their surroundings. Hands-free parking handles all maneuvers for the driver, including braking and switching of gears, once a space is approved by the outward-looking radar. If you like, you can even use a special remote key to pull the car into or out of a parking space while you stand outside. That’s right: you can park the 540i without being inside it.

Need more wow factor? How about the scent system, which allows drivers to use the iDrive console to control how the cabin smells, with the assistance of some swappable luxury smell cartridges you load via a panel in the glovebox.

All said, if you want to wow your pals, the 5 Series has you covered.

Elsewhere, look for big rear-seat space, quality throughout, and impeccable attention to detail, right down to control knobs finished in a fine ceramic. With BMW’s adaptive dampers fine-tuning ride quality on an inch-by-inch basis as the 5 Series rolls down the road, it’s like driving in your own private luxury jet.

Plenty of tech is applied for safety, too. The 540i can detect pedestrians, cyclists and large animals up the way, alerting you or even self-braking to avoid a collision. It’ll help you keep between the lines with self-steering; countersteer if you’re about to side-swipe someone; and more. My favorite safety feature was the adaptive LED lights, which give you a high-beam spotlight in front of the car, and flood the road ahead with top-quality white light that reaches far and wide.

So – tech is covered off in spades, but, as has long been the case with the 5 Series, that’s only part of the equation. The others? Performance, and comfort.

Performance comes courtesy of a 3.0L, 340 hp straight-six turbo engine with a multitude of fuel-saving gadgets. The power plant is a specialist in effortless light-throttle acceleration that’s creamy smooth and noiseless, as well as quietly plowing torsos into seatbacks when called upon. Even opened up, this engine is discreet, tastefully restrained, silky, and hardly makes a peep within the first two-thirds of the tachometer’s span.

There’s an eight-speed automatic to ensure low cruising revs and instant access to the perfect gear for any throttle input. Drive gently, and the 540i oozes down the road with torque to spare, never spinning beyond about 2,000 revs. Push harder, and the transmission snaps to the perfect gear without hesitation, flinging you along. And, with xDrive AWD, you’re well backed up for traction galore when the going gets slippery. Notably, the AWD system demonstrates expert calibration to smoothly handle traction coming and going under each wheel, even accelerating hard over patches of alternating ice and pavement.

Steering is heavyset, more so in sport mode, where it’s also quicker and works with the adaptive suspension to quickly and flatly direct the 540i around fast bends without the slightest bit of drama. Engage comfort mode, and the steering lightens, relaxes, and proves nicely tuned for hours of cruising.

Ditto the ride, which, aside from the gadgets, is the best part of this car. Dense, solid and durable, it’s also quiet, feels very finely tuned, and exhibits minimal noise or harshness, even on rougher roads. Driven on those, there’s little more feedback than a touch of a pitter-patter as the tires and wheels take a bit of beating, while the suspension absorbs and neutralizes and filters what’s allowed back into the cabin. It feels a measure sharper and more direct than a comparable E-Class or S90, but just as comfortable.

Ultimately, the latest 5 Series does a fantastic job of switching between a high-performance thrill ride and a laid-back cruiser, while losing nothing in between each, and in particular, operating however you like, with a refined polish in all areas.

Even used severely, with redline gearshifts, hard ABS stops or very brisk browsing of corners, the car never feels bothered. It’s authentically composed, almost in spite of anything the driver may throw its way. Pushed hard, the steering weight and ratio feel dialed in nicely against the size and weight of the car. Handling is flat and tidy, responses are fast and instant, and as hard as any reasonable driver would push this big sedan on a public road, there’s no drama, just composed athleticism.

Further, the engine’s hard-hitting torque, available from idle to redline, won’t leave most drivers wanting for more power, and brakes are both massively powerful and nearly sports-car precise in terms of the pedal action and feel.

Mileage on my watch landed at an appreciable 10.4 L/100 km of premium fuel, despite plenty of high-speed cruising and frequent use of the turbocharger.

Complaints? I often wished for more feedback from the steering, and a better “feel” of the goings on between the tires and the road. Further, there’s a learning curve, and some up-front fussiness, from some of the systems, before they become second nature to use. You’ll need to spend a fair bit of quality time in your new 540i before you learn how everything works. Thankfully, this cabin is a nice place to sit back, relax, and maybe even take in a massage, in the process.

Ultimately, here’s one of those $90,000 cars that feels like one, through and through – and perhaps especially for luxury-minded gadget geeks with the funds, who have a new standard in high-tech cruising to consider as part of their shopping process. The new 5 Series starts at $61,500.

2017 BMW 540i xDrive
Engine Displacement: 3.0L
Engine Cylinders: I6
Peak Horsepower: 340 hp @ 5,500–6,500 rpm
Peak Torque: 332 lb-ft @ 1,380–5,200 rpm
Fuel Economy: 9.6/6.1/7.4 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb
Cargo Space: 530 L
2017 BMW 540i xDrive
Base Price $69,000
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $2,245
Price as Tested $92,745
Optional Equipment $21,400 – Premium Package Enhanced $6,500; Driving Assistance Package $1,900; Interior Comfort Package $2,500; Smartphone Connectivity Package $750; Remote Parking Package $1,500; M Sport Brakes $750; Adaptive Drive with Dynamic Damper Control $3,500; Night Vision with Pedestrian Detection $2,500; Nappa Leather $1,500
Optional Equipment
10 0
Scoring breakdowns 8.5
8 Styling
9 Powertrain
9 Quality
9 Comfort
8 Practicality
8 Drivability
8 Usability/Ergonomics
8 Fuel Economy
10 Features
8 Value