The new BMW 5-Series is boring -- but it's also perfect

BMW 530i 3Hollis JohnsonThe BMW 530i.
  • The BMW 5-Series is now in its seventh generation.
  • The carmaker can’t make a bad car — but has it lost something in the thrills department?
  • We spent a few day with a 530i to find out.
  • BMW has had decades to set the bar, and it has gotten very good at that responsibility to the legacy of the 5-Series. It cannot disappoint, and it doesn’t. Nor does it thrill.

Reviewing the heart of the BMW lineup has suddenly and unexpectedly become tricky. We’re talking about the 3 Series and 5 Series sedans, vehicles that have established the bar for luxury, performance passenger cars since the 1980s.

It was BMW vs. everybody else back then — and everybody else was losing — but over the decades, the competition has come on and come on strong. The Ultimate Driving Machine is now challenged by German rivals Mercedes and Audi, as well as Lexus, Acura, Infiniti, Cadillac and even Alfa Romeo with the new Giulia. Passenger cars have also seen their markets fade as consumers have shifted to crossover SUVs.

The seventh generation of the 5-Series arrived for the 2017 model year, and I was pretty excited to check out the new sedan. My relationship with BMW four-doors has always been that I enjoy the compact 3-Series, don’t entirely get the full-size 7-Series, and truly adore the just-right, mid-size 5-Series, which has been around in one form or another since the early 1970s.

BMW flipped us the keys to a supremely well-optioned 2017 530i (base price: $108,900; as tested: around $138,000), a rear-wheel-drive version with a turbocharged four-cylinder engine. And we spent a weekend grappling with its charms.

Photos by Hollis Johnson.

No argument: BMWs look good in blue. In this case, Mediterranean Blue Metallic.

Hollis Johnson

The reason I like the 5-Series is that I find all the proportions to be right. The lines from front to back are long enough, the hood-line and belt-line combine for pleasing effect, and the front fascia with BMW's signature kidney grille is exactly the right distance from the cabin.

Hollis Johnson

It's a nice-looking car, stately, with a hint of sportiness and flash.

Hollis Johnson

The front end -- with those sleek LED headlights and the kidney grille dashingly chromed and stretched out a bit -- presents a good angle for photos!

Hollis Johnson

From the rear, the only complaint might be that the tail lights are blobs of red compared with the sleek headlights.

Hollis Johnson

See what I mean?

Hollis Johnson

The trunk-lid employs a subtle, aerodynamic lip.

Hollis Johnson

The overall effect is a design that's clearly bimmer: suave, refined, with an athletic stance.

Hollis Johnson

The BMW Bavarian-flag badge is all the iconography this car needs.

Hollis Johnson

By the way, BMW might not need much in the way of badging, but the company clearly thinks owners need a lot in the way of options. If you're wondering how our test car wound up costing $30,000 more than its base, look no farther than a host of driver-assist features.

To BMW's credit, you don't have to choose these options.

Shall we slip inside? The Ivory White Nappa leather interior is gorgeous -- and a cool $US1,000 extra. The Cove Wood trim, however, is included.

Hollis Johnson

The rear seats are comfortable, although taller adults mind find their knees pressed against the front seats.

Hollis Johnson

The front-seat passenger will fare better.

Hollis Johnson

But who cares about passengers? The Ultimate Driving Machine is all about the guy behind the wheel, right?

Hollis Johnson

A big change that BMW has undertaken is to de-value the driver, to a degree. It actually isn't all about the guy behind the wheel, as it once was.

Hollis Johnson

That said, the 530i is a deeply pleasant place to sit while driving. BMW has hit a sweetspot in this area, combining a serious steering wheel and instrument panel with a center stack that puts controls within easy reach.

Hollis Johnson

A moonroof fills the cabin with natural light.

Hollis Johnson

We hate the joystick shifter -- it's a modern toggling affair, and we'd prefer a simple P-R-N-D unit. The eight-speed automatic can be switched to manual mode, and the controls for BMW's much-improved-though-once-despised iDrive infotainment system are to the right.

Hollis Johnson

Speaking of iDrive, here's the 10.2-inch touchscreen, jutting up from the dashboard, that serves as a nerve center in the 530i. Here we see that bird's-eye composite camera view.

Hollis Johnson

This function can be tweaked to show a variety of views around the car.

Everything you'd expect from a modern infotainment system is present, from navigation ...

Hollis Johnson

... to entertainment, Bluetooth connectivity and smartphone pairing, USB/AUX ports, and the ability to tile the screen to show multiple sources of data.

Hollis Johnson

The Harmon Kardon surround sound audio system is, at $US875, a worthy upgrade. It's one of the best I've heard in a vehicle all year.

Hollis Johnson

iDrive was among the first infotainment system added to cars, and in the beginning, everyone hated it. It's much, much better now, but you'd better love submenus in the way that only Bavarian engineers can.

Hollis Johnson

iDrive can dive deep, managing everything from communications to vehicle diagnostics.

Hollis Johnson

So what's the verdict?

Hollis Johnson

I should perhaps address the driving dynamics and the 248-horsepower turbo four-banger right up front. It was fine. Would I have preferred an inline six, making 335 horses -- the type of motor I'd find in the 540i? I'm not sure, to be honest. The 530i's four-pot was punchy enough and never felt lacking in oomph, and I'd definitely savour the commendable fuel-economy: 9.8 l/100km city/6.9 city/8.7 combined. And I could still get from 0-100km/h in around six seconds.

You can noodle with the steering feel, suspension reaction, and power delivery by playing with the drive modes, consisting of Eco Pro, Comfort, and Sport. I tried all of them and ended up perfectly happy with Comfort most of the time, largely because I didn't think it demanded more than the turbo four and the eight-speed wanted to deliver.

That said, Sport was sporty, although it's clear that if you want an old-school bimmer driving experience, you need to think about stepping up to an M-Sport vehicle. It's been pointed out by others who've driven the seventh-generation 5-Series: this isn't your father's BMW. I add my voice to the sad chorus. My colleague Ben Zhang complained that the new 5-Series just lacks soul, and while I don't 100% agree, he has a point. There's just no in-between with BMW anymore. The regular 5-Series is about luxury and technology, while the juicy driving fun has been turned over to the M cars.

Ultimately, this makes sense, and it does represent BMW dealing with reality. Most contemporary BMW sedan buyers are looking at bimmers as luxury machines. The cadre of folks who bought back in the 1980s and 1990s were enthusiasts, often enough, and unfortunately, their values are being forced out of the market. BMW makes cars for them, but they just aren't the core of the brand anymore.

Apart from that lamentable yet understandable situation, the new 5-Series is, simply put, excellent. The 530i is a great car, from stem to stern, side to side, on the road and under the hood. It's a lovely freeway cruiser, but it can go all BMW and stiffen up, rewarding a driver who wants to tuck into some corners. The steering could be crisper, but that's nitpicking.

What we have here is a literally perfectly boring car. BMW has had decades to set the bar, and it has gotten very good at that responsibility to the legacy of the 5-Series. It cannot disappoint, and it doesn't. Nor does it thrill.

But what's BMW to do? Walking up the 530i in my driveway one dusky evening, moon rising, I was drawn in by the bimmer's quiet beauty and I had to ask myself, 'Can BMW make a better car?'

They can't. And if that upsets us in some way, well ... then it's our problem.

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