Saturday, November 22, 2003

530i focuses on personality

'New look' may be an acquired taste, but BMW runs great

By Carol Traeger
Enquirer contributor

BMW 530i


Wheels rating: (out of 5)
4 wheels
The ultimate driving machine for golfers

Vital Statistics

What I drove: 2004 BMW 530i, four-door, five-passenger sedan with 6-speed manual transmission

Base price: $44,300

Price as tested: $56,145

Options on test vehicle: Cold-weather package, premium package (leather seats, wood trim, garage-door opener, auto-dimming rearview mirror, power lumbar support), premium sound package, sport package (alloy wheels, performance run-flat tires, power front sport seats, sport suspension), electric rear sunshade, heated rear seats, park distance control, and xenon adaptive headlights.

Drivetrain layout: Front-engine, rear-wheel drive

Engine: 3.0-liter, 6-cylinder producing 225 hp and 214 lb-ft torque

Transmission: 6-speed manual transmission, 6-speed automatic, 6-speed Sequential Manual Gearbox

Wheelbase: 113.7 inches

Length: 190.6 inches

Width: 72.7 inches

Height: 58.0 inches

Weight: 3,472-3,494 pounds

EPA mpg city/hwy: 20/30

Warranty: Basic: 4 yrs/50,000 miles; full-maintenance: 4 yrs/50,000 miles; roadside assist: 4 yrs/50,000 miles

Safety: Dual front airbags, front side-impact airbags, front and rear curtain airbags, LATCH child-seat anchors, interlocking door anchoring system, brake assist, traction and stability control.

Cool: Eyebrow lamps, Active Steering, Active Roll Stabilization, simplified iDrive

Uncool: Chunky styling

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Car Talk
Following the '02 debut of the new 7-series and the '03 launch of the Z4 Roadster, it's the 5-series' turn to sport BMW's "new look."

Those of you who are offended by guru Chris Bangle's designs won't be happy with the new 5-series, which looks more like the 7-series' brother than an updated version of the old 5. The good news is that BMW's new "middle series" is less radical, and has a friendlier demeanor than the scowling and plank-sided 7.

The 5's eyes, with their swept-back "eyebrow" lamps, look like fairy wings in a Maxfield Parish painting. The hood and side panels are streaked with convexities and concavities, which reflect light and add visual interest to what is otherwise a bland and blockish silhouette. As with the 7-series, the 5 has a fat and raised trunk, which is great for maximizing luggage space, but looks as if someone carrying a box ran into the rear end and left the box there.

Overall, the car looks more Japanese than German. (One night in a parking lot I actually mistook a Camry for my 530i test car.)

If you can get beyond the 5's exterior appearance, you'll find plenty of intriguing features within, including an Active Steering system, Active Roll Stabilization, a new head-up display, a simplified iDrive, and more interior and trunk space. But first, a rundown of the lineup.

The fifth-generation 5-series consists of three models, each defined by its specific engine: the 525i carries on with its 184-horsepower, 2.5-liter inline six; the 530i stays true to its 225-hp, 3.0-liter inline six; and the new 545i (which replaces the 540i) debuts with a 325-hp, 4.4-liter V8. Each model is available with one of three six-speed transmissions: manual, automatic or sequential manual.

I spent only three days with BMW's 530i test car - hardly enough time to figure out how to fold in the outside mirrors (I never did) let alone familiarize myself with the intricacies of such a complex car. Maybe the time crunch was a blessing in disguise; the 5 is so chock full of features, I'd never be able to describe them all here.

Active features

One of the 5's biggest technological advancements is "Active Steering." This system, part of the optional Sport Package, uses column-mounted gears to vary the steering ratio and reduce the arm-twirling necessary to execute turns.

My tester had the Sport Package, and the first thing I did was hunt for the button to activate "Active Steering." Turns out there isn't a button; the system activates itself based on vehicle speed and steering-wheel motion.

When you're driving slowly, such as while parking or negotiating hairpin turns, the steering becomes very direct and requires about two turns lock-to-lock instead of three. When I made my daily U-turn at the end of our street, my arms didn't do their usual cross-up, and the car fairly sailed around its axis. It felt like a much smaller car.

At higher speeds, the steering becomes less direct, but it still felt tighter than a conventional steering system. BMW says the system can even perform an opposite lock for you in a skid, but I didn't test that boast.

The Sport Package also includes Active Roll Stabilization. This system, which first appeared in the 7-series, replaces conventional antiroll (stabilizer) bars with active bars, which are twisted by hydraulic actuators to achieve nearly flat cornering. Indeed, cornering felt unusually flat, but not artificial; I never felt the wizard pulling levers behind the curtain.

The 5's "new look" may be an acquired taste, but the car's impeccable road manners are universally appealing. Ride and handling are lively and composed (as opposed to luxury-car numb), the antilock brakes are sharp, and the six-speed shifter is butter smooth. And the steering!

The "wave-themed" dash panel is clean and modern, and refreshingly light on knobbage, thanks to BMW's infamous iDrive system, which has been simplified in the 5-series.

Having had little experience with the 7-series's iDrive system, I can only say that the 5's iDrive was easy to use, even for a techno-goof like me. Now there are only four menus to navigate instead of eight - for climate, entertainment, communication and navigation - and you only have to push the console-mounted knob in four directions. For drivers who dislike consulting a computer screen to adjust the radio and AC, there are redundant audio controls (on the steering wheel) and climate controls (on the dash).

Head-up display

BMW's first head-up display debuts in the new 5-series. Available with the optional navigation system, the HUD projects important information (such as speed and navigation arrows) onto the windshield just above the instrument panel, thus enabling the driver to intake information without diverting attention from the road.

The new 5 is longer, wider and taller than its predecessor, with a roomier rear seat and a 26 percent bigger trunk. A tiny illustration on the trunk's floor - showing how to stow five golf bags therein - tells us all we need to know about this car's target demographic.

The new 5 is a good car, and it's better in every way than the old 5, save for looks. I enjoyed driving this BMW, but I couldn't shake the feeling it was constantly telling me, "Oh behave!" The 5 isn't a heart-stopping rocket. It's a country gentleman with modern sensibilities.

Being the youngest child in a family of three (and not a golfer), I feel a greater affinity for BMW's "baby series," the 3. Make that an M3. With Active Steering.


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