Half an hour is a long time to a road tester. Long enough for your initial, broad-brush impressions of a car to form. Usually. But right now I'm half an hour into our first drive of the new BMW 5-series. I should have worked out just what this car is trying to be. And yet I haven't.
I was expecting a car that provided handling before outright comfort. But that's not what's turned up.
Don't get me wrong: the sixth-gen 5-series feels good. The driving position is beyond reproach, the new electro-mechanical steering makes it even more maneuverable around town, and with variable dampers, the low-speed ride is sufficiently supple to soak up nasty expansion joints on overpasses. It is terrifically composed, with great stability and impressive refinement at high speeds.
And yet it feels fundamentally altered in character – much calmer and more conservative than any 5-series that's gone before. Is that a reaction to the inherent sportiness of the old model, I wonder?
The previous 5-series, the E60, was controversial for many reasons, not least its styling. But it was also the most successful model in the car's 38-year history. It has traditionally represented just 25 percent of BMW's global sales, but the 5-series is also said to account for 50 percent of its profits.
Topping the lineup for the new 5-series, code-named F10, will be the 550i, running a twin-turbocharged 4.4-liter V8 with 401hp. The 535i driven here gets a turbocharged 3.0-liter straight six producing 302hp, and beneath it come the 254hp, 528i and 201hp, 523i, using BMW's normally aspirated 3.0-liter straight six in different states of tune. All models except the 550i get a six-speed manual gearbox as standard, but BMW expects most buyers to go for the optional eight-speed automatic.
Doing away with hybrid construction (the front end of the old car used an aluminum spaceframe for optimal weight distribution), the new model returns to a more conventional steel monocoque. The body is again made predominantly from steel but aluminum is used for the hood, front wings and doors.
Like every fresh generation since the original 1972 E12, the new 5-series has grown. Length is up by 1.5in., to 193in., width by 2.5in. to 73in., and the wheelbase has gone up by 3in., to 117in. The tracks are wider by 42mm at the front and 46mm at the rear, and the new car is heavier than the old one – 375lbs more than the old 530i, and 110lbs heavier even than the old 540i, at 3,750lbs.
The car's larger footprint is allied to reworked, aluminum-intensive suspension that junks the old car's MacPherson strut front end for double wishbones. The rear end continues with multi-links but the geometry has been completely revised; from the components themselves to the location of their pick-up points, it's all new. Three-stage adaptable electronic dampers are now offered as an option, too.
Another major departure is the adoption of an electro-mechanical steering system. Chosen for its fuel-saving properties rather than anything else, it is offered as standard with BMW's speed-sensitive Servotronic system for the first time. The big news, however, is the optional Integral Active Steering, which alters the car's steering ratio on the move and, as well as acting on the front wheels, adds rear-wheel steer.