Test Drive: 2018 BMW M550i

When describing luxury cars, the words “bargain” and “compromise” are typically strictly verboten. No one wants to feel like they’ve been to Value Village when dropping upwards of six digits on a vehicle.

Just about everything involved with propelling this car forward is a delight.

I’m here to make the case that, in certain situations, these traits shouldn’t be considered so bad.

Set aside your preconceptions for a moment and try these statements on for size:

“With its balance of performance and opulence, the BMW M550i comes off as an absolute bargain relative to other cars in its class.”

“Between its just-right power output and a design that’s clearly high-end but not ostentatious, the BMW M550i hits on the ideal compromise between quality and price.”

Is it possible to consider a high-end car to be both worth buying and reasonably priced for what you get? Consider me unapologetically converted. I adored this car – not in every single way, but in the ones that matter most.

Powertrain

Full disclosure for those less familiar with BMW nomenclature: this is not a true M car. It’s dressed up in an M Performance package, the first of its kind for the 5 Series.

If you really have your heart set on an M car, then you can wait for the next-generation M5 and its 600 hp, which was announced at September’s Frankfurt auto show. This would be the right choice for anyone who ever expects to go to track days or really loves cool performance doodads and doesn’t mind paying for them.

But if your car isn’t likely to see much action beyond commuting and the odd spirited swing to the golf course – and yet you appreciate solid power output and quick, smooth, refined throttle response – then you’ll find that the M550i delivers on what you’re looking for at less expense.

The 4.4L twin-turbocharged V8 is tuned to deliver 455 hp at 5,500 rpm and 480 lb-ft of torque from 1,800 rpm to give the M550i a zero to 100 km/h time of 4.0 seconds. By contrast, the car that’s likely to be most often cross-shopped with this, the Mercedes-AMG E43, tops out at 396 hp and gets to 100 km/h in 4.6 seconds.

Add to that the quick and on-point eight-speed sport transmission that’s custom-tuned to the V8 through four selectable drive modes, plus the standard rear-biased all-wheel-drive system, and just about everything involved with propelling this car forward is a delight to interact with.

It does potentially come with a slight sting at the pumps depending on how you choose to drive it, though it’s less of one than some similar cars would impose and no more of one than in just about any other car that’s comparable. The combined NRCan fuel rating comes in at 12.1 L/100 km; over the course of my week (during which I made liberal use of Sport+ mode), I averaged 11.6 L of premium fuel.

Drive experience

Though it’s not as gussied up as the M5 will be, the M550i comes with its fair share of bells and whistles – particularly this tester, which is equipped just about to the hilt. Unlike with some other BMWs, this car’s pricing structure is easy to navigate with most features being bundled into three different packages. The only thing it doesn’t have equipped, and that I was therefore unable to test, is the remote parking function.

A few performance enhancers are equipped as standard such as an adaptive suspension with a 10 mm lower ride height, power steering with custom mapping in Sport and Sport+ modes, M Sport brakes with painted blue calipers, and 20-inch alloy wheels with performance tires.

The four drive modes – which include the two sport modes plus normal and eco – are each distinct in their execution, but what I enjoy most is that none of them swings too far in any direction. Eco mode renders the car’s character conservative but not anemic; Sport+ turns the whole package dynamic and engaging, but not so much so that you’re likely to end up doing something stupid on public roads. In every setting, it’s eminently driveable.

Design

From the exterior, the M550i doesn’t exactly get your heart racing, but as an executive sedan that’s also hardly its intent. It looks classic, poised, and refined, as though every line falls in precisely the place that was intended. Perhaps it’s best described as being one of those lion-in-sheep’s-clothing kind of deals.

The interior, though, is an entirely different matter. While cruising along the highway, you might as well be sitting in the library – if only a library had such touches as lush leather and elegant wood grain. The seats that come with the Premium Package bring the opulence level up substantially with their detailed quilting, cushioned headrests, and massage function for both driver and passenger. I also appreciate BMW’s tendency to install its windshields more upright, the benefit of which shone through in this white interior: although it’s slightly less aerodynamic, it dramatically reduces the amount of glare to deal with when driving toward the sun.

The only wish-list items I was left with were for the hip supports on the seats to come a little higher and for a panoramic sunroof to be available as an option – only a small, single-pane sunroof can be had here, no doubt a compromise for quietness and chassis rigidity. That’s a detail that might push buyers toward competitors.

Connectivity

The M550i benefits from the same improvements to connectivity that can be found across the entire 5 Series lineup, some of which are impressive. The hands-free volume adjustment is a particularly nice touch – a twirl of the finger makes the volume goes up, and going in the opposite direction makes it go down. I accidentally set it off a couple of times while talking with my hands, but I suspect this is a habit I’d break quickly. If you’re not so convinced, you could always turn it off and opt to use BMW’s traditional dial set-up in the centre console.

Apple CarPlay functionality can be added on with the Smartphone Connectivity Package for $750, which also adds a wireless charging port and SIM-card-driven in-car Wi-Fi. However, there’s no compatibility for Android Auto. For some reason, the premium brands are all convinced that none of their customers buy Android phones, to the point that they don’t even bother installing it. If you’re an outlier, as I am, you’ll either have to pry your hands off your beloved Samsung and switch to the dark side or make the decision to go without.

One other minor quibble: satellite radio signals are apt to drop more frequently in this car than average. The antenna must be well-buried in the body work. If you live in a city centre with many tall buildings, this might get to you after a while.

Safety

At the base price, there’s a solid suite of safety technology equipped as standard: a head-up display, forward collision warning, lane-departure warning, rear cross-traffic alert and collision prevention, a rear-view camera, 911 emergency calling, blind-spot warning, and high-beam assist are among the highlights. For another $1,500, the Advanced Driver Assistance package adds active cruise control with stop-and-go, lane-keep assist, evasion assist, front cross-traffic alert, and steering and lane control.

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Verdict

Few cars cause as many arguments in our household as this one did – both my husband and I clamoured for as much seat time in it as we could scrounge. It was that much of a delight to drive.

This feels like a car that’s priced well into six figures. For just shy of $95,000, given what it is, the M550i truly is a bargain.

Competitors:

Mercedes-Benz E-Class