First Drive 5 - Is The 2004 BMW 5 Series Still the World's Best Sedan?

Discussion in 'OT Driven' started by TriShield, May 29, 2003.

  1. TriShield

    TriShield Super Moderator® Super Moderator

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    First Drive 5: Is The 2004 BMW 5 Series Still the World's Best Sedan?

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    The GOOD, the BAD and the... CONTROVERSIAL - BMW’S NEW 5 OFFERS ALL THREE

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    By MARK VAUGHN
    (00:01 May 26, 2003)

    “Does it have that 7 Series exterior?”

    That was what everybody asked when they heard we’d driven the new BMW 5 Series, due out this fall. The answer? Well, yes, it does have “that 7 Series exterior,” but come on, man, that Chris Bangle design dude has to be a genius or they wouldn’t give him such free rein with these things. If you don’t like the look of the 7 and 5 Series you’re just not forward-thinking enough, or you can’t appreciate the subtle integration of curve and thrust, the tension and anger of the shapes and forms, the... aw, heck, design is subjective. At least you get more trunk space.

    There are plenty of people who’ve said the humpy back end of the 7 has grown on them. And they’ll warm to the 5, too, just you wait and see (and maybe even the next 3, yikes!). Or maybe they won’t, who knows?

    Besides, it’s what’s under that skin that really counts to driving purists like you. Look at the dynamics and handling of the new 5 Series and there will be far more immediate and universal enthusiasm for the car.

    The new 5 Series’ front end is made mostly of aluminum to keep all models within 1 percent of a perfect 50/50 front/rear weight balance. It also has an all-aluminum suspension to lighten up unsprung weight, the 7 Series’ Active Roll Stabilization (ARS) to flatten out corners, and BMW’s first take on a head-up display. It will showcase the world’s first production active steering that makes whipping through slalom cones a breeze, even if it feels just a bit unusual through the fingers. Plus, it gets the equally controversial iDrive cabin computer interface, but with a nice new four-color screen so you can be confused in Technicolor.

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    From behind the wheel, the new 5 Series is fun to drive, although the new steering system has a different feel to it.

    So does the good on the new 5 outweigh the bad (and what some call the ugly)? Yes. The new 5 Series should remain the benchmark in the luxury/performance sedan category. You just can’t find an ill-handling, poorly powered BMW, it seems, whether it has a BMW badge on the back or a Mini, Rolls-Royce or even Ford-owned Land Rover moniker. The company’s stellar powertrain and suspension engineering overwhelms whatever other features the Muenchners may be experimenting with on any given model.

    Let’s start with the good stuff. The chassis and suspension setup on the 5 Series is almost exactly the same as that of the 7, only 7.6 inches shorter, 2.2 inches narrower and 0.9 inch lower overall. But it’s bigger than the previous 5 by about two inches in every dimension. The chassis proper has a front track 1.81 inches wider than the former 5 Series at 61.34, the rear track is 2.2 inches wider at 62.28, and the wheelbase is 2.44 inches longer at 113.78.

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    While the exterior styling has rankled many BMW fans, those qualities that make a BMW a BMW-its driving capabilities-are as good as ever.

    Front suspension is a strut with two lower links while the rear four-link is essentially the same as that on the 7. Wheels and tires range from 16 inches with 225/55 V-rated all-season tires on the base 525i to 225/50s on 17-inch wheels standard on the 530i and 545i. Add the sport package and you get a stiffer spring and shock calibration as well as 245/45 W-rated run-flats on 17-inch wheels on the 525i, up to 275/35W-18 run-flats on the rear end of the 545i. ARS and active steering are standard on the sport package, too.

    What is this new active steering stuff? Think of it as a transmission for the steering column, a planetary gearset transmission. The column drops down to a set of planetary gears that orbit the shaft. The planetary gears, and thus the steering ratio, are automatically electrically adjusted by a servo, which in turn is controlled in concert with the car’s Dynamic Stability Control computer. At slow speed, active steering makes it easier to park, boosting the pinion’s amount of influence on the rack, a feature you might have expected. But at higher speeds the ratio gets numerically lower. The active part is that the system can correct an overzealous yaw angle to keep the car from spinning out, effectively lessening the amount of countersteer you, in your panicked state, have dial-ed in. More on this later, but it pretty much works as advertised, though it feels weird.

    Throw in the optional ARS, BMW’s automatic antiroll bar that counters most of the body’s sway by yanking down on the inside corners of the car, along with that nearly 50/50 weight balance and you have what turns out to be a very nice package.

    Thrusting that suspension through curves is your choice of three engines and three transmissions, none of which is new: the entry-level 2.5-liter straight six, 3.0-liter straight six and the mighty 4.4-liter V8. They’re the same great, torque-happy, smooth-revving engines we’ve loved for years.

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    Transmission choices are the ZF six-speed manual, the six-speed Steptronic automatic or the six-speed Sequential Manual Gearbox (SMG). Again, nothing new here but still among the best units on the market. The only thing is that to get the SMG transmission, you also have to get the sport package.

    BMW lists 0-to-60-mph times ranging from 8.7 seconds for a 525i with an automatic to 5.8 seconds for a 545i with a six-speed manual or SMG transmission. The 530i showed 0-to-60 times on the spec sheet of 6.8 seconds for the manual/ SMG and 7.0 for the six-speed automatic.

    The 530is we drove had the 17-inch run-flat tires with the sport suspension, even though the sport suspension in U.S. trim requires the 18-inch wheels. Whatever, it worked splendidly.

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    We sampled a 530Ci with 17-inch run-flats; look for 18-inchers on U.S.-spec cars.

    BMW chose to introduce this car on the island of Sardinia in the middle of the Mediterranean. The Northern Europeans like to go south for the winter and, apparently, for the late spring as well. Sardinia isn’t necessarily known for its great roads—the Targa Florio wasn’t held here, it was in Sicily, to the southeast. But BMW managed to scout out some terrific two- and one-and-a-half-lane mountain pavement for us to pilot the car through.

    The most noticeable thing about the way the new car felt was its addition of ARS. It seemed to corner faster with this than without it, as was the case with the 7 Series before it. Like the similar active body control in top Mercedes-Benz products, it could be tuned to provide completely flat cornering, but isn’t. Enough body roll was left in to remind you what the car was doing underneath you. But not so much that you cornered on the side skirts. In a straight line at high speeds, the antiroll-bar effect was all but disconnected, making for a plush ride. It was a nice blend of response and control with luxury and comfort, leaning more toward performance and control, as it should in a BMW.

    The next most noticeable thing was the active steering. The day before we’d piloted a car with active steering and one without it around a tight Sardinian autocross course. In a very claustrophobic slalom, the active steering really shined. It guided the car through the cones faster and with less effort than the passive steering, which seemed to fight you rather than assist after several hard, fast cranks of the wheel. But the weighting of the active steering felt odd, as if the amount of assist was changing all the time, which it was, of course. Changing the steering ratio gave it a sort of leveraged effect on the rack, an effect that was exaggerated since there was no constant ratio. The ratio vaulted from 10:1 to 18:1, a fairly big swath.

    One of the active steering cars (not ours) had to be reset several times when the active steering didn’t return the steering wheel to center after a couple of quick, hard turns. A light came on on the dash and the driver stopped and restarted the car to reset the wheel to center—like reboot-ing a computer. If active steering completely fails for any reason, it returns to a set ratio that doesn’t vary.

    We drove a 530i with a six-speed manual on the slalom and had a great time. The manual feels a little heavy, but considering all the torque routed through it, that was forgivable. We spent most of the next day in a six-speed automatic, which was also fun on the winding, diving skinny strings of blacktop fettuccini that pass for roads in Sardinia. The only thing we wanted was a set of redundant shifting controls for the wheel, but anyone wanting that will probably be steered toward buying the SMG unit. There were no SMG 5 Series available on our drive.

    Ultimately, the new 5 Series is still fun to drive. Its balance is almost unmatched in the segment, the engine choices have never disappointed and overall engineering has been the benchmark in the industry. BMWs used to be more roundly accepted for styling, too, but what the heck.

    The 530i will get here first, by early October, with the 525i and 545i coming soon after that. Prices will be announced closer to the car’s introduction, but BMW did say the European-spec 530i will cost 40,600 euros, or $46,900, as of press time. U.S. models come more fully loaded than the European models, so you might want to add a little to that figure. The base 2003 model 530i starts at $41,100.

    While no official announcement was made about an M5, we can probably expect to see one within two years of the new 5’s introduction. The wagon will likely come out within one year. Look for about the same number of cars once production gets up to speed—last year BMW sold just more than 40,000 5 Series: 40 percent 525s, 45 percent 530s and 15 percent with the V8. BMW may even offer Americans a diesel someday, saying it is embarking on an evaluation of the diesel market. A diesel version of the new 5 will be offered in Europe.

    Now, if only BMWs could all be as appealing outside as they are inside, from behind the wheel...

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    2004 BMW 525i
    ON SALE: Fall
    POWERTRAIN: 2.5-liter, 184-hp, 175-lb-ft inline six; RWD, six-speed
    CURB WEIGHT: 3417
    0-60 MPH: 8.1

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  2. Nismo4090

    Nismo4090 Back in Black

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    jurry is still out
     
  3. curiousgeorgeM3

    curiousgeorgeM3 naughty little monkey

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    Hmmmm......after reading this and watching the videos on BMW.com, I am thinking that a new M5 might...I said MIGHT.....still be in CG's future. We shall see.
     
  4. Redline Racer

    Redline Racer Subaru Tecnica International

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    Its growing on me, like some sort of fungus.

    Still not at all keen on the new front end, the rear end or the side profile for that matter. The door-handles look good though. Also that interior just isnt working for me at all. The large gap below the CD slot is just too much like the one in the Polo, looking like there should be something there.

    The Active Steering hasn't convinced me yet either, both the principle of it and in practice because there seems to be a lot of test-cars suffering from problems with it. I'd be certain this will be sorted for the full production versions, but it does little to ease my doubts over it.
     
  5. Mountain Dude

    Mountain Dude Here it comes, and there it goes, another day in d

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    It does grow on you, just like the Z4, and as long as its ok to drive, I'll give it the thumbs up.
     
  6. T-T

    T-T Born Into Retirement

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    Looks even worse than the 7.
     
  7. TriShield

    TriShield Super Moderator® Super Moderator

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    The overall shape/profile looks good, but the lines could be a tad smoother inside and out.

    The steering sounds a bit weird as well, like something Mercedes would try.
     
  8. Mountain Dude

    Mountain Dude Here it comes, and there it goes, another day in d

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    The back lights are the worst part of the car, if they changed that, it would look so much better.
     

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