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.BMW is eager to push the technological attributes of the new 5-series. Added to the high level of optional equipment available on the old model – blind spot warning, lane departure warning, head-up display, night vision with pedestrian detection, bi-xenon lighting with cornering control – are a new parallel park assist system, a distance warning system that uses sensors to provide a top-view image for easier maneuvers in tight spaces, and a frontal collision warning that automatically applies the brakes when it deems you're too close to the car in front at a prevailing speed.
All models also benefit from a brake energy regeneration system and ActiveAero, a development that sees the cooling ducts behind the enlarged kidney grille close on low to medium throttle loads to improve the overall aerodynamics. BMW also plans to add a hybrid to its 5-series ranks.
On the freeway, the 535i's turbocharged 3.0-liter engine proves all but inaudible at 75mph. That's partly because its turbine whine is dampened by the new twin-scroll turbocharger. But it is primarily the result of the optional eight-speed automatic transmission, which is heavily overdriven. At a constant cruise in top gear on the freeway, the rev counter rarely moves beyond 2000rpm. Such is the hushed character of the engine that other factors, such as road noise and wind buffeting, seem to be amplified.
That said, refinement is clearly improved over the old model, making the new 5-series an even more alluring long-distance proposition than it was before.
Inevitably, I feel I'm a gear (maybe even a couple) too high, but it's no great hardship. The on-boost qualities of the engine mean the 535i serves up generous levels of in-gear acceleration the instant you plant the throttle, as the gearbox slips back four gears. BMW says this car runs from 0-62mph in 6.1sec. A better indication of its real-world performance, however, is the 50-75mph split, which is put at just 5.9sec. Top speed is limited to 155mph, but the gearing is so high that it's achieved in sixth rather than eighth.
With 295lb ft of torque on tap at just 1200rpm, the 535i's engine feels more like a contemporary large-capacity diesel than a gasoline unit, with a seemingly endless amount of low-end shove, but also with the willingness to pull all the way to the 7000rpm limiter when you slip the gearbox into manual and nail it.
But even in Sport Plus – the most aggressive of four modes offered via the car's Adaptive Drive selector – the gearbox will always change up at the limiter, rather than holding on to your preferred ratio.
And the steering? While endowing the new 5-series with tremendous agility and great stability, the new system is rather lifeless and anodyne in its actions. Integral Active Steer is claimed to reduce the turning circle by up to 1.5ft at parking speeds, but the altering of the steering ratio at higher speeds is not seamless and it takes a good while before you feel confident enough to attack corners with any gusto.
The combination of traditionally steered front wheels and counter-steering rear wheels greatly reduces the work rate required from the driver. You rarely need to call up more than a quarter turn of lock unless you're maneuvering, and the weighting remains reassuringly constant over the most challenging roads.
In Sport mode, the electro-mechanical helm is incredibly direct, allowing you to place the new BMW on the road with great confidence. Turn-in is brisk – possibly too much so for some of those customers seeking greater comfort in their new BMW. There's never any need to saw away at the wheel, even on rollercoaster-like roads. With a simple roll of the wrists, the 5-series dives into corners at the sort of speeds that could fluster an Audi A6, Jaguar XF or Mercedes-Benz E-class.
Our test car was fitted with optional 18in. wheels shod with Dunlop SP Sport Maxx GT tires. It's a combination chosen primarily for grip, says BMW. But as you edge up to the limits of adhesion, the steering never really provides a convincing amount of feedback.
Yes, you're kept well aware of what the front wheels are doing, but the lines of communication are filtered to such a degree that the steering always feels oddly artificial. As the front end runs wide and the DSC Plus system reins things in to place you back on line, more natural feel and greater steering feedback would be welcome.
The brakes are so good that you end up taking them for granted. Pedal action is excellent, with progressive take-up and nice, firm weighting to lean against. When the pads begin to bite you're rewarded with a tremendously crisp feel, right up to the point where the ABS begins to cycle, allowing you to precisely judge the huge amount of stopping power on offer. It's just a pity BMW didn't fit the new 5-series with better-looking calipers; the naked metal units look like something off a third-world runabout.
You'd never criticize the car's exceptional interior, though. The new 5-series is noticeably more spacious than its predecessor; two full-size adults can comfortably be accommodated behind one another, and there's now sufficient shoulder room for three-across rear seating. And despite a reduction in the rear overhang, trunk capacity has increased to 18.7 cubic feet.
There is also a palpable improvement in the perceived quality of the materials, switchgear and various controls in here. There's still some hard plastic, notably below the line of sight, but it's now better disguised by a surface treatment similar to the upper section of the soft-touch “slush mold” dashboard.
All of which should make the new 5-series a deeply impressive car. From its more elegant appearance through to the enhanced qualities of its cabin and the way it drives, with its long list of chassis advances and its class-leading economy, it is clearly a step forward from the model it replaces and a much more formidable rival to the A6, XF and E-class.
But, deeply impressive? I'm still not sure. It's certainly not a car that immediately hits you between the eyes, but during lots of miles over varying roads it reveals the full breadth of its quality.
More than the old “ultimate driving machine” tag or even an “ultimate comfort machine,” BMW has clearly tried to create a car that does it all. But having driven just a single model – and one that was stuffed full of options at that – it's hard to say whether it has really succeeded.
The BMW 5-series used to have a singularity of character; for nearly 40 years it's probably been the world's defining sports sedan. Now that persona has become more complicated. One thing's for sure: this is a different kind of 5-series from what we've been used to up until now. It'll take some getting used to.