As I cruise down Silicon Valley’s Bayshore Freeway, I twirl my right index finger in small clockwise circles. Though the gesture recognition system needs several tries to pick up the command and crank up the 16-speaker stereo, the 20 air chambers massaging my backside keep my frustration at bay.
All the while, the 2017 BMW 5 Series is doing the driving, maintaining a safe speed and staying between the lane lines. And here, surrounded by an armada of tiny sensors and whiz-bang gizmos, I wonder: Has the Ultimate Driving Machine yielded to the Ultimate Autonomy, Luxury, and Technology Machine?
Return to Roots—Sort Of
In a former life, the 5 Series was the sports sedan, the car Audi and Mercedes-Benz engineers saw in their sleep. A perfect stew of tossable handling, smooth power, a full-size trunk, and room for the kiddies, it offered speed-thirsty parents salvation. Then came the sixth generation 5 Series (2010-2016), which abandoned the driver-centric mantra for a softer, heavier, and cushier drive.
The seventh gen 5 Series is here to reclaim its reputation, or at least some of it. It’s still packed with high-end tech, and it’s a touch bigger than the outgoing car, but it’s also 137 pounds lighter, thanks to helpings of aluminum, high-strength steel, and magnesium.
2017 BMW 5 Series
A mini 7-Series, for all intents and purposes; posh but punchy; performance for future M models to build on.
Automation overkill; options get pricey quick; for all intents and purposes, a mini 7-Series.
Gone for good, it seems, is the Teutonic minimalism of past 5 Series. Taking its place are diamond-quilted hides, rich woods, and tasteful streaks of matte aluminum. Traditionalists who pine for ergonomic minimalism will find it too large, unless they happen to be hauling around four passengers. Those who prefer a more imposing presence might think the 5-Series is right-sized for solo driving.
The performance, true to BMW tradition, comes in too many varieties to keep straight. The 530i ($51,200) has new turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder that can hit 60 mph in 5.8 seconds; the 540i ($56,450) packs a new turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-6 that churns 35 more horsepower (for a total of 335 hp), sweeping to 60 mph in as little as 4.7 seconds. Rounding out the initial crop of models are the 530e plug-in hybrid ($51,400) and a higher performance M550i xDrive ($72,100), both coming this spring. Expect more to follow.
Yes, the 530i and even the grunt-happy 540i still lean toward luxury over sports car purity. But cutting through the curvy roads of the Marin Headlands north of San Francisco, I get the feeling the chassis engineers have started giving a damn again. Aluminum suspension components help reduce unsprung mass and smooth out the 5’s ride over the bumpy bits. Both cars deliver excellent roadholding, satisfying acceleration, and an intuitive sense of chassis dynamics and weight transfer.
Cutting through the curvy roads, I get the feeling the chassis engineers have started giving a damn again.
In other words, the 5-Series is fun to drive again. The electromechanical steering system feels organic enough, while an available four-wheel steer package offers enhanced low speed agility and high-speed stability. (Just make sure to click into Sport mode instead of the dull, sluggish Eco or Comfort.)
Enthusiasts will note a familiar interior design feature: The center stack is canted 7.8 degrees toward the driver. This subtle touch affirms that yes, the human is still master, even as the robot elbows in.
But pound-for-pound, the car’s abundance of electronic aids and gizmos suggest it’s a luxo-cocoon first and a sports sedan second. Can’t be bothered to maneuver into or out of a tight spot? Use the key fob touchscreen and watch curbside while your 5 Series does the parking. Want an outside view of your vehicle without the labor of turning your neck? Use 3D Surround View for a live perspective on your immediate surroundings, complete with easy-to-spin pan views through gesture control or the touch sensitive nav screen. If you’re away from your ride, you can do the viewing remotely via your cell phone’s BMW Connected App.
The 5 Series even drives itself, at least in slow-moving traffic. Try to cruise hands-free on curvy roads at 40 or 50 mph and the car pinballs within the lane, bouncing between the double yellow and the side of the road.
Best to leave the driving to the driver. And in this car, the driver still matters.