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First Drive: 2017 BMW 540i M Sport




LISBON, Portugal – What fries are to McDonald’s and razors are to Gilette, the 5 Series sedan is to BMW. “We asked people, ‘What do you most associate with our brand?’ and 58 percent responded, ‘5 Series,’” says Klaus Fröhlich, head of BMW research and development. “Worldwide, we have sold 7.6 million 5 Series since the car’s introduction in 1972, some 2.2 million just of the most recent sixth-generation car. In fact, roughly 20 percent of all BMW revenue now comes from the 5 Series alone.”

And now BMW is tinkering with its fries recipe.

Coming in February, the all-new, seventh-generation “G30” 5 Series, which BMW launched on the twisting seaside two-lanes of Portugal, represents a massive opportunity and equally huge stakes for the Bavarian maker. Get it right and BMW’s corporate coffers will bulge — especially thanks to a white-hot market in China (where nearly 1 million Chinese-built 5 Series have already been sold). The consequences if the market says “meh?” Too grisly to contemplate.

Size-wise, the new car isn’t dramatically different from its predecessor. Its width, height, and wheelbase have grown fractionally, while overall length has increased just over an inch. BMW senior VP of design Adrian van Hooydonk calls the theme of the new bodywork “business athlete,” which is a more elegant way of saying “it looks a lot like a 3 Series, only bigger.” A larger kidney grille (which hides aero-improving moveable radiator slats) and sleeker headlights give the impression of increased width — “but the car really isn’t wider,” says van Hooydonk. “In all, the front end is flatter, more concentrated.” At the rear, larger taillights wrap further into the rear fenders. With the available M Sport trim (as on my test car), the front air intakes grow, wheels swell to 19 inches, the side skirts become more aggressive, and the rear end gains a diffuser-style fascia with trapezoidal exhausts (the standard exhausts are round). Most important, the 5 Series uses the “cluster architecture” of the 7 Series, without the carbon fiber but making extensive use of lightweight, high-strength steel, magnesium, and aluminum (used for the trunk, trunk lid, doors, and roof) to reduce weight by up to 137 pounds over the previous 5 Series — while also improving structural rigidity.

At launch, BMW will unveil the new 5 in two versions: the base 530i and the uplevel 540i. Both will be available with optional xDrive all-wheel drive. Replacing the 528i, the 530i sports a new turbocharged, direct-injection 2.0-liter four making 248 horsepower (up 8 hp) and 258 pound-feet of torque (down of 2 lb-ft). As in all 5 Series models, it mates with an 8-speed ZF automatic (the one and only transmission offering).

The much-loved 540i moniker (gone in the sixth-generation car) returns for 2017, but it’s no longer a V-8. Instead, under the hood lies a turbocharged 3.0-liter I-6 that delivers 335 hp (up 35 hp over the outgoing 535i) and 332 lb-ft of torque (an increase of 32 lb-ft) from as low as 1,380 rpm. BMW says the car is a full second quicker to 60 mph than the 535i. With the M Sport package and its mixed-performance run-flat tires, the 540i can do the sprint in just 4.9 seconds (4.7 seconds with xDrive) on to a top speed of 155 mph (without the M Sport package, Vmax is limited to 130 mph).

Shortly afterward, probably in March, BMW will unveil two additional 5 Series variants. The 530e iPerformance plug-in hybrid will combine a 2.0-liter gasoline four with an electric motor to deliver 252 total system horsepower, 310 pound-feet of torque, and up to 30 miles of electric-only range. At the opposite end of the showroom floor, the new M550i xDrive (it’s all-wheel-drive only) will romp with a turbo 4.4-liter V-8 pumping out 462 hp and 472 lb-ft. With a 0-to-60-mph time of just 4.0 seconds, BMW says, the M550i will be even quicker than the M5 (at least, until the new M5 arrives down the road). BMW had an M550i on display (but, alas, not for driving) in Portugal, and it looked wicked.

All but confirmed, but still officially “being considered,” is a U.S. version of the 530d xDrive diesel. The new oil-burning 3.0-liter inline-six churns out 457 pound-feet of torque from as low as 2000 rpm and, BMW says, is 12-percent more fuel-efficient than its predecessor. With a drag coefficient of just 0.22, the 530d is also the slipperiest model in the 5 Series range. Look for it to arrive stateside this summer. Probably.

2017 BMW 540i rear three quarter in motion 02

2017 BMW 540i rear three quarter in motion 02

It’s in the cockpit that the most dramatic design changes await. Indeed, compared with the new interior, the old cabin looks positively dowdy. The new 5’s shapes are more angular and interesting, while a lowered instrument panel contributes to a vastly enhanced sense of airiness. You could almost be sitting in a 7 Series. Rear-seat legroom is up more than an inch (trunk space is also increased). Most notable is the central display screen, previously buried under an overhang of dash but now standing tall and on its own above the central vents. Of particular note: that 10.25-inch high-res color display — incorporating a new iDrive 6.0 interface — is a touchscreen, vastly improving user-friendliness. The displays for various systems — navigation, audio system, etc. — are spread out over two screen pages on six “tiles,” each tile devoted to a system. The tiles can be arranged as you see fit, your favorite three always visible and the other three just a swipe away. Further, each tile is “live;” one might display a moving map while another shows the album cover of the song currently being played. Touch a tile and the menu for that particular system pops up. Easy. Or, if you’re a long-time iDrive die-hard, you can call up menus and functions using the iDrive controller in the center console. The various systems can also be controlled via voice commands.

Finally, like the 7 Series, the new 5 offers the latest version of Gesture Control to operate infotainment and phone functions. Merely twirl your finger in the air to adjust audio volume, or point at the screen to accept a phone call. The 3D sensor in the center console does a reasonable job of following your virtual commands — provided you keep your hand within its “ballpark” — but in practice the system is more of a parlor trick than a bona-fide ergonomic improvement. Why is swiping a big touchscreen any more difficult than swiping — often less accurately — in mid-air?

The amount of advanced technology aboard the new 5 Series is staggering, so I’ll limit this review to major systems only. Projected onto the windshield in the driver’s line of sight lies a new color head-up display (HUD) that BMW says is 75 larger than the in the old 5. It can showcase a ton of data — from real-time traffic to the current audio track to readouts for a number of driver-assistance system. It works beautifully, too: even on some of the trickier twists of my drive route, I could easily discern where to turn without having to shift my eyes away from the windshield.

The optional 20-way adjustable front seats are available with ventilation and a massage function that’s almost as good as having an acupressure therapist working your backside. Using 20 inflating/deflating air chambers in the seat cushion and backrest, the system delivers any one of eight custom therapies, selected via iDrive. I tried one of the more aggressive settings — I believe it was called “Full Body Workout” — and the thing went after me as if someone were rolling a bowling ball across my back and legs. Soon I had to bail out.

Over dinner, Klaus Fröhlich told me that “BMW will have a fully autonomous car for sale by 2021.” That’s pretty easy to believe, given that the new 5 Series is largely autonomous already. Hold a turn signal down and the 5 Series will scan the road next to you and, if the coast is clear, automatically steer you into the next lane. Active cruise control uses radar to maintain a pre-selected distance from the vehicle ahead (at speeds up to 130 mph) and, in stop and go traffic, can automatically brake the car to a standstill and then accelerate again when the front vehicle starts moving again. The system actually monitors two vehicles ahead for smoother and smarter response, and even adjusts acceleration and braking for highway exits and roundabouts.

Other driver assistance systems include active lane-keeping (the 5 Series will steer itself with only a touch of your finger on the wheel to confirm that you’re paying at least some attention), an evasion aid that improves steering response and chassis stability in the event of sudden evasive action, and a surround-view parking display that can also deliver a Remote 3D “bird’s-eye” snapshot of your car straight to your smartphone. A Remote Control Parking feature allows the driver to exit the vehicle then have the 5 Series park itself (ideal for tight spaces without enough room for opening doors). Both parallel and perpendicular parking can be accomplished with zero input from the driver.

I spent a full day behind the wheel of a new 540i M Sport, sampling city streets, highways, and wonderful serpentine mountain roads not far from Lisbon. Given all of its cutting-edge convenience systems, one might think the new 5 has become a bit soft, perhaps more attuned to the needs of its passengers than the human behind the wheel. But you’d be wrong. This is a thrilling driver’s car. Quiet and composed in town, especially with the Driving Dynamics Control set to Comfort, the 540i flips like a light-switch into teeth-bared mode the moment you start squeezing hard on the gas and getting quick on the wheel.

In the mountains, I kept the dynamics system in Sport and did all shifting myself using the wheel-mounted shift paddles. The transmission proved quick and smooth shifting up or down. In Sport, the suspension firms-up noticeably, while throttle and handling response become livelier. The speed-sensitive, variable-assist steering is excellent; you’re always aware of what the front tires are doing, with a pleasing amount of heft in the wheel. Optional electromechanical Integral Active Steering steers the rear wheels a tad for sharp turn-in — not as quick as the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio I tested recently, but fast enough that the front end doesn’t feel like it’s washing out. Part of the credit also goes to the optional Adaptive Drive system, which replaces the previous hydraulically actuated anti-roll bars with bars regulated by faster-responding electric motors (the ride/handling balance is also improved). Finally, the inline six pulls with no turbo lag, making a delicious yowl as it winds out. The car is damn fast, especially given the plethora of luxury features riding with you.

Both brand aficionados and buyers just passing by the showroom are going to like the taste of BMW’s new 5 Series recipe. The car is a step up from the 535i in nearly every way: roomier, faster, more luxurious, better-looking, more user-friendly. Pricing and fuel-economy figures are not yet available (they’ll be announced at the Detroit auto show in January), but figure low $60s for a base 540i M Sport and a fuel-efficiency bump of about 10 percent.

Against a field that includes the Audi A6, the Mercedes E-Class, the Cadillac CTS, and the Lexus GS, the new BMW 540i feels very strong indeed. Only a proper comparison test could crown a winner. But one thing is abundantly clear: BMW messed with a good thing and made it way better.

2017 BMW 540i M Sport  Specifications

On Sale: February 2017
 Price: $62,000 (est. base)
 Engine: 3.0L turbocharged DOHC 24-valve I-6/335 hp @ 5,500 rpm, 332 lb-ft @ 1,380 rpm
 Transmission: 8-speed automatic
 Layout: 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, RWD sedan
 EPA Mileage: 22/33 city/highway mpg (est.)
 L x W x H: 194.6 x 73.5 x 58.2 in.
 Wheelbase: 117.1 in
 Weight: 3,850 lb
 0-60 MPH: 4.9 sec.
 Top Speed: 155 mph

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November 29, 2016