New cars: BMW 5-series

Another ace?

BMW’s “series two” 5-series range was beginning to show its age, but that did not stop the German company from selling 700,000 of them since the mild face-lift in 1981. However a completely fresh model will reach the British market in June, so extensively re-styled and re-engineered that the old model will look, and feel, positively antique. Munich executives are confident that the new 5-series will sell in even greater numbers worldwide, even though the four-cylinder engine has been discontinued, and it is inconceivable that the new range will be anything but a total success.

Superlatives have been heaped on the 7-series, and the new “5” basks in its limelight. The fresh styling bears a strong resemblance, suggesting a four-door coupe rather than a saloon, and the 5-series now has a commanding executive “presence” which the old model lacked. It is longer, wider and lower, and has a longer wheelbase and better accommodation (especially in the rear); but the most positive improvements, so far as the driver is concerned, are in the suspension.

If BMW had a cross to bear, it was the criticism that the 5-series was too softly sprung, less than ideally located at the rear, and wayward on wet roads. All that is likely to be history now, because the suspension layout is as close to perfection as modern technology allows. No matter how bumpy the roads may be, and no matter how fast it is driven, the BMW’s combination of poise and comfort is highly impressive.

The range will start with the six-cylinder 520i, provisionally priced at around £16,000 in Britain, going on to the 525i (circa £18,900), the 530i (£22,000), and the 535i (£23,500) — with Special Equipment versions of the 3.0 and 3.5-litre models adding £1500 to their prices. BMW (GB) Ltd intends all models to be well equipped, the 520i for instance having electric windows at the front and rear, twin exterior mirrors, green tinted glass, central locking and a quality sound system.

These are certainly premium prices when compared with those of rival models from Rover and Saab, to mention two quality makes, and BMW admits that prices on the run-out 5-series models have been pegged in the past year. BMW has a special cachet though, and afficionados of the marque will not have to wrestle very hard with their consciences before signing order forms.

Later this year, probably in September, the new M5 model will top the range with its glorious 285 bhp, 24-valve engine, but in the meantime the 211 bhp 535i is the flagship, and the M535i is absent from the range. Both the 3.0 and 3.5-litre engines are more powerful than before, and match the outputs of the equivalent 7-series models.

In quantifiable terms the 5-series is 10cm longer than its predecessor, the wheelbase is 13.5cm greater, the body is 5cm wider and the height is lower by 3mm. Knee-room for backsest passengers has been increased by 40mm, confirming the new 5 as a genuinely roomy model. Press information was coy in revealing that model-for-model the new 5 is 90kg heavier than the old one, to the detriment of acceleration figures for the 2.0 and 2.5-litre models, though a much better Cd figure of 0.30-0.32 produces substantially higher maximum speeds.

The 520i, for instance, is said to reach 62.5 mph from rest in 11.9 seconds (although it feels quicker than that), but the maximum speed is raised from 118 mph to 126 mph. At the top of the current range the 535i reaches 62 mph from rest in 7.7 seconds and has a maximum speed of 146 mph.

The wheels are up from 14in diameter to 15in, with wider tyres, to accommodate larger disc-brakes which are ventilated on the 525i and upwards. A bigger brake servo reduces pedal pressure, and in the steering department BMW has standardised the speed related, power-assisted recirculating ball system; Servotronic, which is also governed by engine speed, is an option.

In suspension the 5-series has made a quantum leap over the old model, straight from the 1970s to the 1990s. Although it resembles its predecessor in general layout, the system has been aligned with that of the 7-series, with Boge or Fichtel & Sachs twin-tube gas dampers all round.

The front suspension, with effective anti-dive characteristics, now has separate mounting points for the coil-springs and dampers, and improved rubber bushing. The rear suspension, with even more effective antisquat characteristics, has 13° trailing arms and an additional supporting bracket, and is perhaps 25% stiffer than the old layout. Rubber bushing has again been improved, although more in the interests of noise suppression, and the handling has been improved generally by achieving a 50:50 weight distribution, instead of 47:53. Tyre contact is enhanced, and the spring and damper rates are more highly tuned.

What goes on underneath the floor does not interest the majority of customers, but the effective ride and handling qualities do, and BMW has reached the finest compromise. Ride, on sometimes atrocious surfaces in Portugal’s Algarve, remained exemplary, and the stiffer-suspended, wider-tyred 535i remained impressive. The wheels were able to cope easily with holes and ridges without transferring shock to the cabin, and were not deflected even in hard cornering.

Fine handling, hitherto not a prime feature of the 5-series, is one thing (and we can only suppose that the car will behave itself on wet surfaces). Excellent noise suppression, both from the engine and from the tyres and suspensions, is the other factor which will impress potential clients. The 5-series comes close to the 7-series (and the Jaguar XJ6) in these areas, helped by having upwards of 44kg of noise-suppression materials added to the specification.

The 5-series is available with many of the features first seen on the 7s, including such things as speed-related wiper arm pressures (standard from 525i upwards), a more powerful and sophisticated heating system with five interior sensors and individual left-right control, and seat-belt upper fixings which height-adjust automatically as the front seats are moved forward or back.

In the rear the seatbelts are centrally located, fixing by the doors, so the occupants do not sit on the buckles ( the engineer’s also say it prevents heads being knocked together in an accident). A further safety feature, in the event of side impact, is the provision of a sill-level beam supplementing the door beam. All versions have US standard bumpers with miniature shock absorbers and easily demountable crushable structures which prevent chassis damage in accidents up to 9 mph.

Subjectively the 320i felt quicker in acceleration than BMW claimed (a 0-60 mph acceleration time of 10 seconds would not be surprising), but there were variations in standards between models; while the 2-litre felt very sweet and quiet, the 535i had a fair amount of wind-noise around the screen pillars, which we were told would be cured in production models, and connoisseurs will also miss the availability of the close-ratio gearbox.

Whilst it is always better to save a proper critique until a new model has been driven on familiar roads, it must at least be safe to say that BMW has produced another model with award-winning potential. MLC