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BMW 535i Test drive

24th Jan 2010 8:00 am

535i has a turbocharged 3.0-litre in-line six-cylinder producing 302bhp

The new BMW’s new 5-series saloon has the job of emulating the sales success of the old 5-series, which, despite its controversial appearance, ultimately became the most successful model in the car’s illustrious 38-year history.

Here is the 535i that has a turbocharged 3.0-litre straight six engine producing 302bhp. It comes as standard with a six-speed manual gearbox, though BMW expects the majority of buyers to opt for the optional eight-speed automatic. Rear-wheel drive is a given, but expect selected models to also receive optional four-wheel drive before the end of 2010. Along with the saloon driven here, a Touring version is also planned from October.

There’s a new-found calmness to the ride that initially leads you to believe that BMW might have gone too far in attempting to match rivals like the Mercedes E-class, Jaguar XF and Audi A6 and perhaps compromised the car’s traditional sportiness.

The reworked suspension with the variable dampers set in comfort mode is sufficiently supple to soak up uneven cobblestones, nasty expansion joints on overpasses and broken bitumen without the inherent harshness of the old 5-series. It is terrifically composed, with great stability, a nice tied-down feel and hugely impressive refinement both around town and at higher speeds.

On the motorway the 535i’s turbocharged 3.0-litre engine is all but inaudible at a steady cruise. That’s because BMW has geared its optional eight-speed auto ’box so high that you rarely need more than 2000rpm; that endows it with improved fuel economy.

The tall ratios are good for economy, but you often feel you’re a gear, maybe even a couple, too high when the gearbox is left to its own devices. However, the 535i serves up solid in-gear acceleration the instant you plant the throttle.

BMW says it’ll run from 0-100kph in 6.1sec - the same time quoted for the old 540i. A better indication of its real-world performance, however, is the 80-120kph split, which is put at just 5.9sec. Top speed is limited to 250kph, but the gearing is so high that it’s achieved in sixth rather than eighth.

While endowing the new 5-series with tremendous agility and great stability, the new active steer system is still rather lifeless. Incorporating a rear steer function that sees the rear wheels move in the opposite direction to the fronts at speeds below 60kph and in the same direction at higher speeds, it is claimed to reduce the turning circle by up to 0.5m at parking speeds.

However, 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 great gusto. That said, the combination of traditionally steered front wheels and counter-steering rear wheels greatly reduces the work rate required on the part of the driver. In sport mode, the electro-mechanical helm is incredibly direct, allowing you to place the new BMW on the road with a great confidence.

Turn-in is brisk. A simple roll of the wrists and the 5-series dives into corners at your command. The overall agility is highly impressive for what is now quite a large car. Typically firm damping and the actions of the active anti-roll bars do a great job of containing body roll.

The problem as you edge up to the limits of adhesion is that 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.

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.

The new 535i is a car whose overall driving character can be heavily influenced by the options the buyer has chosen, particularly its advanced active steer and variable damping control systems. After two days we were still attempting to come to grips with the many and varied functions that can be used to tailor its chassis and steering.

It’s not a car that immediately hits you between the eyes but requires familiarity and lots of kilometers over varying roads before the full breadth of its qualities begin to shine through. One thing’s for sure, though: it's a different kind of 5-series from what we’ve been used to.

Test conducted by Autocar UK

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