First Drive: 2017 BMW 5 Series

Even as it hurtles toward a future of ride-sharing and autonomous vehicles, BMW says that its vehicles will always be about choice, that even when we’re all passengers in self-driven cars the company will always provide its customers with an Ultimate Driving Machine – when he or she wants it to be.

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As evidence, look no further than the redesigned 2017 BMW 5 Series, which is simultaneously the fastest, most efficient, and most technologically advanced 5 Series in history. This car is clearly designed around its driver, intended to make his or her life simpler, safer, more comfortable, more rewarding, and more enjoyable. At the same time, it dips additional tire treads into the future, adding new autonomous technologies that might not be particularly useful today, but will come in handy tomorrow.

When the new 5 Series goes on sale in February of 2017, it will be offered as the 530i (turbocharged 4-cylinder) and 540i (turbocharged 6-cylinder) with or without an xDrive all-wheel-drive system. Prices start at $51,200.

By summer, BMW will add a plug-in hybrid called the 530e iPerformance (estimated 15 miles of electric range and almost 70 MPGe), which commands a nominal $200 premium over the standard 530i. A new M550i also arrives mid-year, the latter claimed by the automaker to be “the fastest 5 Series we have ever offered” with an acceleration time of 3.9 seconds to 60 mph.

Yeah, that “fastest” claim includes all previous versions of the M5.

With recent drives of the Cadillac CT6, Jaguar XF, Mercedes-Benz E-Class and Volvo S90 fresh in memory, I headed to San Francisco and its surrounding environs to sample the new 5 Series for a day. Based on this initial experience with BMW’s 2017 5 Series, I’m confident in reporting that it represents a dynamic benchmark within its segment if not a leader in terms of design and technology.

Refinement and luxury characterize the cabin

You’re unlikely to choose a 2017 BMW 5 Series for its styling. The car is balanced and distinctive, and is instantly familiar both for its use of traditional design cues and its shrink-wrapped 7 Series appearance. But is it attractive? Not to me, especially in comparison to the outgoing 5 Series, let alone other mid-sized luxury sedans like the gorgeous new Volvo S90.

Inside, it’s a different story. BMW has added a layer of refinement that swaps the purposeful austerity of previous 5 Series cars for a newfound sense of luxury. From the materials and their aesthetics to the ambient nighttime lighting and airy feel of the cabin, this represents an improvement over the vehicle it replaces.

Front seat comfort in the well-equipped test vehicles proved outstanding. Thanks to a wide range of adjustment coupled with excellent long-distance support, you’ll be happy to be a driver or front passenger. Taller people may find, however, that their favored seat position tucks them behind the center roof pillar, which can impede graceful exit from the car.

The taller you are, the more elusive rear seat comfort is. Mounted low in the vehicle, the seat cushion provides merely adequate thigh support. Legroom is fine, but there is no space beneath the front seats for feet. I spent well over an hour back there, and while it was not quite as uncomfortable as traveling coach with your carry-on bag taking up all of the space underneath the seat in front of you, it’s close enough.

Technology that goes too far, or not far enough

Get into the new 5 Series, and it should feel more open, airy, and spacious than before. A redesigned dashboard boasts a floating infotainment display sized up to 10.25 inches across and containing the latest version of BMW’s iDrive technology.

A robust offering, iDrive 6.0 boasts new menus, greater personalization and configurability, a touch-sensing screen, and gesture-responsive control. Additional highlights include wireless device charging, a Wi-Fi internet connection for up to 10 devices, Apple CarPlay smartphone projection capability, and predictive on-street parking information with ParkNow space booking.

Improved BMW Connected service now includes Amazon Alexa integration. This innovation means that no matter where you are, you can use the BMW Connected app on your phone to ask things like: “Alexa, how much gas is left in my car?” Or to issue commands such as: “Alexa, please lock my car’s doors.”

Once reviled as an ergonomic nightmare, the latest version of iDrive benefits both from the proliferation of infotainment systems and steady improvements by BMW over the years. Thus, the iDrive 6.0 system in the new 5 Series is palatable. But that doesn’t mean it eliminates distraction, despite the fact that it won a “Best Designed User Experience Award” from EyesOn Design at this year’s North American International Auto Show.

My advice to anyone who is purchasing a car equipped with a complex infotainment system is to get it set up to your personal preferences and then learn how to use the technology before you shift into gear and set off down the road. Once you’ve taken the time to do this with iDrive 6.0, it proves to be fairly, though not entirely, intuitive.

Lush graphics highlight the latest version of the technology, and I found it easy to program a destination by voice, the system quickly understanding and finding my home’s somewhat difficult Spanish-language street address and city name that contains a numeral. Given how infrequently modern infotainment systems achieve success on this front, I was impressed, and felt no compulsion to whip out my iPhone and use Siri, instead.

Gesture control is entertaining for about five seconds. After that, it becomes a tiresome distraction and if you’re the type to gesticulate while having a conversation, you’ll find yourself accidentally cranking up the stereo volume while making a point. On a positive note, the outstanding Bowers & Wilkins premium audio system ameliorates aural discomfort.

My bet is that if cars had always had gesture control, and then someone introduced the concept of a volume knob, the physical knob would be lauded as a technological marvel offering newfound simplicity, precision, and ease of use. There is one inside of the new 5 Series, and it works beautifully, making it a genuine shame that BMW does not see fit to also include a tuning knob.

It is also a shame that I can’t see the new heads-up display system while wearing polarized sunglasses. The display is 75-percent larger than before, featuring improved graphics rendered in multiple colors and providing detail regarding upcoming navigation directions as well as warnings from the car’s various driver assistance systems. That’s terrific, but the most effective improvement would have been to make the HUD visible while wearing polarized sunglasses. Perhaps BMW can call General Motors to see how to make this happen.

When equipped with its optional surround view camera system, the new 5 Series adds a slick new perspective view that gives the driver a greater sense of the car and its surroundings. This same technology powers a new remote 3-D view feature that allows the owner to view the car and its surroundings from their smartphone.

Forgot how to park? BMW’s got you covered

BMW appears to be quite concerned about making the redesigned 2017 5 Series easier to park, though the reality is that the company’s new autonomous parking features simply reflect practical applications of the technology required to advance the company down the path to self-driving vehicles.

In addition to offering predictive on-street parking data and ParkNow reservation service, the car’s parking assist technology is upgraded with automating steering, braking, acceleration, and gear selection while putting the car into both parallel and perpendicular spaces.

Remote controlled parking is also available for the new 5 Series. Using a special key fob, the driver can position the 5 Series in front of an open but narrow space, exit the vehicle, and then use the key fob as a remote control to park the car. No word from BMW about how owners of neighboring vehicles, who may no longer be able to access them with your new 5 Series wedged into a space that otherwise would not accommodate it, might respond to such haughty self-absorption.

An active version of BMW’s park distance control technology is also offered for the 5 Series, able to detect objects or pedestrians in the car’s path and, if the vehicle is traveling at less than 3 mph, automatically stopping the car prior to impact. It joins a lengthy list of active driving assistance systems that include a traffic jam assistant and an active lane keeping assistant.

The majority of the driving assistance technologies worked just fine, in as much as conditions allowed for their use. In particular, I like that BMW’s lane departure warning system vibrates the steering wheel to notify the driver that corrective action may be required. Also, the adaptive cruise control effectively managed speed in rush-hour traffic during a torrential downpour.

Unfortunately, the active lane keeping assist system proved less impressive. In hard rain, it had trouble “seeing” lane markings. Later, in dry and sunny conditions, wonky carpool lane markings beneath a narrow overpass on the 101 northbound freeway threw the 5 Series off of its game, and the car began “pinballing” from one side of the lane to other until the system gave up and almost put me into the center divider.

Given this performance, it’s a good thing that BMW plans to continue providing drivers with Ultimate Driving Machines and not Ultimate Riding Machines (except as applied to BMW motorcycles, of course).

More power to the people

Like every automaker, BMW is chasing weight loss in order to improve fuel efficiency. To that end, the new 5 Series is up to 137 pounds lighter, depending on the model, thanks to extensive use of high-strength steel and aluminum in the car’s construction. From the architecture to the suspension, as well as most of the exterior body panels, the 5 Series employs such materials.

As a result, the new direct-injected 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine used in the 530i delivers satisfying acceleration, hitting 60 mph in six seconds flat. Output measures 248 horsepower between 5,200 rpm and 6,500 rpm, and 258 lb.-ft. of torque from 1,450 rpm all the way to 4,800 rpm. An 8-speed sport-calibrated automatic transmission with paddle shifters powers the rear wheels, unless you’ve opted for the xDrive all-wheel-drive system.

Upgrade to the BMW 540i for a turbocharged 3.0-liter 6-cylinder engine producing 335 horsepower between 5,500 rpm and 6,500 rpm, and 332 lb.-ft. of torque from 1,380 rpm to 5,200 rpm. It also employs the 8-speed sport automatic and rear- or all-wheel drive, and can rush to 60 mph in just 4.7 seconds.

The next step up is the BMW M550i, which BMW says can accelerate to 60 mph in 3.9 seconds, making it the fastest 5 Series in history. Credit the car’s twin-turbocharged 4.4-liter V-8, which cranks out preliminary estimates of 456 horsepower and 480 lb.-ft. of torque. This model comes only with xDrive, a specially tuned 8-speed sport automatic, and BMW M upgrades to the steering, suspension, and braking components.

Perhaps more compelling for daily-driver types is the new BMW 530e iPerformance version of the car. This plug-in hybrid variant costs just $200 more than the standard 530i, features more equipment, and suffers no loss in performance while providing an estimated 15 miles of pure electric driving range and an anticipated EPA rating of nearly 70 MPGe.

The 530e iPerformance combines a turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine with an electric motor and a 9.2 kWh lithium-ion battery located beneath the rear seat. Total output measures 248 horsepower and 310 lb.-ft. of torque, and BMW expects this car to accelerate to 60 mph in 6.1 seconds. An 8-speed sport automatic drives the rear wheels, and xDrive is available. Using a standard household outlet, the 530e iPerformance can be fully charged in less than seven hours.

Given its essentially identical price to the 530i, the question isn’t whether you should get the plug-in hybrid version of the new 5 Series. Rather, why wouldn’t you?

Driving dynamics meet the definition of excellent

Lighter and stiffer structures allow greater fine-tuning of a vehicle’s suspension for a better blend of ride quality and handling, and as you might expect, BMW has aced this equation in the luxury sport sedan formula.

The driving day began behind the wheel of a 530i xDrive, the route consisting of urban freeways, city streets, and a pass over San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. During the afternoon, a 540i transported me along the winding roads north of the city, ultimately culminating in California’s wine country, Napa Valley. Both versions of the car struck me as remarkably refined automobiles, quiet, composed, and exuding competence and capability.

Traveling across greater San Francisco in the 530i, the turbocharged 4-cylinder engine proved buttery smooth, emitting a faint but authoritative growl under hard acceleration but otherwise proving entirely unobtrusive. No noise, no vibration, no harshness.

BMW’s joystick transmission selector takes acclimation, but the 8-speed sport automatic’s shifting does not. During my cross-city trip, it selected the right gear, every time, drawing no undue attention to itself.

Relentless winter rain has caused numerous fractures in the normally smooth Northern California pavement, and I hit many rough patches while driving the new 5 Series. Hit a pothole in this car, and you’ll see just how stiff its new structure is.

Thick rimmed and wrapped in smooth and supple leather, the steering wheel is a delight to grip. Steering response is fast and fluid, too, a remarkable achievement given that BMW has swapped the previous 5 Series xDrive models’ hydraulic steering for a new electric setup. Furthermore, the company’s Integral Active Steering technology (rear-wheel steering) is offered with xDrive for the first time, helping the make the new 5 Series feel extra athletic.

During this first portion of the day, while driving the 530i xDrive, I averaged 22 mpg at an average speed of 17.6 mph, reflective of the heavy traffic we faced. During the afternoon, in the 540i xDrive, I also averaged 22 mpg, but my average speed was 29.9 mpg.

Fuel economy isn’t the reason to choose the 540i. Head out onto twisty roads, and it is instantly clear what your extra $5,250 is buying: Speed, with a capital S. Though damp pavement required extra care, the 540i xDrive blasted along on some of the most beautiful roads in California, thrilling its driver as any proper BMW should. Switch the car into Sport mode, select the transmission’s Sport mode, start flicking the paddle shifters, and the 540i covers ground at remarkable velocities while plastering a giant smile on your face.

If this experience in the 540i xDrive was any indication, the new M550i is going to be downright extraordinary. Some might even characterize it as ultimate.

With the new 5 Series, BMW plans for the future while preserving its past

Long ago, BMW staked a claim as a builder of Ultimate Driving Machines. As of late, however, multiple automakers are pitching their products as fun to drive. Even Toyota is trying to convince people that you can call 867-PRIUS for a good time.

Personally, I find this confounding. On the one hand, numerous car companies are focusing their marketing efforts on driving enjoyment. At the same time, these same car companies are feverishly working on autonomous vehicles. Take Ford, for example. In the past couple of years it has unleashed the F-150 Raptor, Focus RS, Mustang Shelby GT350 R, and GT supercar, yet it is also diligently working on autonomous ride-sharing vehicles that it plans to put on the road by 2021.

As a driving enthusiast, I am heartened by BMW’s commitment to give owners of its products a choice as to when autonomous features are used, and the company’s promise to always create vehicles that are enjoyable to pilot. The new 2017 BMW 5 Series underscores this philosophical approach to the future of mobility, introducing new technologies to support automated driving while remaining a genuine thrill ride when the driver grips the wheel and takes full control.

While behind the wheel of the 2017 5 Series, my heart simultaneously weeps in dismay and swells with anticipation at what the future may hold.

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