Even though all the talk at BMW, and indeed most carmakers, is about autonomous technology, the fact remains that Munich is still building some of the best cars to drive, you know — yourself. And this redesigned seventh-generation 5 Series, which happens to be the fastest, most efficient, and er, most technologically advanced 5 Series in history, proves that point ever so well by offering a more rewarding and enjoyable ride than the F10 predecessor. But what’ll happen once control is taken away from us? Will BMW still be the king of the driving hill? With so much semi-autonomous tech available on the newbie — such as Active Cruise Control with Stop & Go, Lane Departure Warning, Active Lane Keeping Assistant, and Traffic Jam Assistant — that question may need answering sooner than later. Anyway, the good news is that our tester, the 540i, scores very heavily when you take matters into your own hands, literally, and drive it.
It took BMW five years to develop this one and it’s been worth waiting for. The result is a 100kg lighter, more aerodynamic model with a number of new chassis developments that have improved handling no end, not to mention introduced even better levels of comfort. Influenced by the latest 7 Series, it adopts a more formal appearance than the previous version. It is distinctive and instantly familiar and looks the more serious choice in a segment that is littered with very good contenders. It’s a handsome looker and features LED headlights that flow into the double kidney grille (with active slats for the radiator).
The profile has a more pronounced beltline and the hockey stick-shaped character line adds a touch of sportiness. Around the back, it gets new taillights, and new trapezoidal exhaust tips. Overall, the sheet metal has more curves and creases but it’s more evolution than revolution styling-wise. Although it looks no bigger than the outgoing model, it has grown in stature; length has increased by 36mm (4,935mm) width has grown by 6.0mm (1,868mm) and the height goes up by 2.0mm (1,466mm). And as you’d have guessed, the increase in dimensions gives the newbie greater interior room, and that’s most notable in the second row where three adults can sit comfortably. The longer wheelbase helps, as does the reshaped back seat and thanks to a longer rear overhang, the boot space is up by 10 litres for a total 530.
The cabin is very reminiscent of the flagship and packs what looks like an identical centre stack with a 10.25in infotainment screen atop the dash. The 16-way adjustable Sport seats do a fab job keeping you locked in place when you’ve engaged Sport and begin tackling the corners with anger. From the high-quality materials to the ambient lighting, the interior offers top-notch refinement. Then there’s all the wizbangery including the iDrive 6.0, which boasts new menus and greater configurability, a touch-sensing screen, gesture-control, wireless device charging, a Wi-Fi internet connection for up to 10 devices, Apple CarPlay smartphone projection capability and a surround view camera system that gives you a greater sense of the car and its surroundings.
With a turbocharged 3.0-litre straight six making 340 horsepower and 450Nm of torque, its dynamic edge is brought to the fore by a slick eight-speed automatic that sends the grunt to the rear wheels — and with traction control given the day off, it even allows you to smoke them. The 540i has plenty of go, but it’s the engine’s muscular mid-range that impresses the most. When you engage Sport — which primes the throttle, engine, gearbox, steering and suspension to their most athletic settings — it becomes far more responsive and aggressive and there are times you forget it’s a big saloon; it seems to shrink around you. The lighter and stiffer structure has improved ride quality and handling no end and the new suspension soaks up the road imperfections with ease, and there is hardly a hint of roll.
Overall this one has a more fluid feel about it than the predecessor and a major reason for that is the harmony between the engine and ZF-built transmission and the smooth delivery of power. The steering is satisfyingly direct (if a little weighty in the sportier mode), which helps to heighten the car’s agility and handling. This — and the lack of any turbo lag — makes for a very engaging ride. The drop in weight clearly has benefitted performance but it’s also improved another aspect of the car, its fuel efficiency. BMW says the 540i will sip 6.5 litres per 100km. When you’re just pootling around town, the frugal six-cylinder is barely audible but hammer the throttle and the horses awaken with a raspy roar. It’s great to see that even though this new-generation car has a wealth of semi-autonomous features, it still offers a real thrill when you’re the one tasked with the driving. Better make the most of it as BMW plans to launch its first fully autonomous car by 2021.
It’s been around since 1972 and dwells in a segment with some exceptional cars like the A6, XF and E-Class. In spite of the classy competition, the new 5 Series should still be the go-to model for the vast majority.