Diesel cars in India. First, people thought they were crude, and hated them. Then people realised they were fuel efficient, and loved them. Then the government banned them for being bad for the environment, and people hated them again. And now that the ban is lifted, who knows what people will think next. And where does that leave petrol cars? What’s clear is that no one has suffered for this more than car manufacturers who, understandably, just can’t keep up with the constant back and forth.
A few years ago, BMW even chose to make its entire core model range diesel-powered only, eliminating all petrol variants; a move it is now undoing, one model at a time, as we indecisive Indians slowly shift our preference back to Unleaded. You’ve already seen the 320i, and now it’s time to sample its bigger sibling, the 520i.
What is it?
It’s the BMW 5-series, the company’s mid-size luxury sedan, powered by a turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine that produces 184hp, 270Nm, 1,997cc. Those numbers don’t sound too bad, but then you have to consider that this car weighs about 170kg more than the 320i, whose 2.0-litre petrol engine has the same outputs.
The 520i is available in just one single variant, Luxury, and it costs Rs 54 lakh (ex-showroom, Delhi), but if you were expecting a cheaper sticker price for the petrol car, know that it is exactly the same as that of the diesel 520d Luxury. The reason for this relatively high price is that the 520i is a CBU import, while the diesel is locally assembled. Therefore, it sits in the middle of the 5-series model range (not including the M5, of course), between the Rs 50.5 lakh 520d Prestige Plus and the Rs 62 lakh 530d M Sport.
What’s it like on the inside?
The interior and equipment spec is identical to the 520d Luxury, and of course, has all the updates of the 2014 facelift. That means improved material quality, more metallic surfaces, a digital instrument cluster and a larger 10.2-inch iDrive screen. The dashboard design is still the same – straight-laced as ever, and despite the added chrome flourishes, it’s starting to show its age now. On the equipment front, the BMW 520i Luxury has just about everything you need, missing out only on a few items from the racier M Sport trim like launch control, a heads-up display and a Sport+ driving mode (it only gets Eco Pro, Comfort and Sport). You still get leather upholstery, dual-zone climate control, iDrive with a touchpad, paddle shifters, adaptive LED headlamps, engine stop-start, electric front seats with memory and a 600W Harman Kardon surround system.
The front seats are as plush as you’d want in your Rs 60-lakh sedan with good support and a wide array of adjustment. And this is despite the fact they’re a bit smaller than originally (so that rear passengers don’t feel as cooped up). Speaking of which, the rear seat is incredibly spacious and supportive, a 5-series trademark; the only caveat is that it’s sited low down and far back, so you have to lower yourself into it. And though our test car didn’t get one, BMW will supply a spare wheel with the 520i, but that'll eat into boot space.
What’s it like to drive?
As we’ve seen before, this engine is an absolute beauty. Its power delivery is smooth and linear, almost to the point that it doesn’t feel turbocharged. It’s also very refined through most of the rev range, and it spins up really quickly. The 520i will sprint to 100kph in 8.6 seconds and go on to a claimed top speed of 233kph, which doesn’t sound too bad on paper. In everyday use, however, things are a little different. Left in Comfort (or worse still Eco Pro) mode, the car is very hesitant off the line, and you will feel it hiccup as the boost comes on. Careful modulation of the throttle can overcome this, but ultimately all that added weight can be felt. Once on the move, it’s very refined, and provided you’re smooth with the throttle, it will respond in kind.
Sport mode is a very different story. Here’s where that ‘absolute beauty’ of an engine starts to show itself. It’s far more responsive off the line, it’s much quicker to rev and if you keep your foot in, it will chase down that 6,800rpm redline. Some of that refinement goes away at this point, but that’s only to be expected when you wring out a four-cylinder motor. And yet, it’s not quick or exciting enough to get your adrenaline pumping; certainly not as much as the 320i could. We can’t help but feel wanting for more; perhaps the 245hp 528i that’s available abroad?
This ‘F10’ 5-series is a good handler, more so than some rivals for certain. But as we’ve seen with the diesel models, it’s nowhere as exciting as its predecessor, the E60, nor the smaller 3-series. Things got a little better with the facelift, and though it’s mechanically competent on the absolute limit, in everyday driving, it still feels too big and soft. The flip side is that it rides over most bumps really well, albeit with a little float. Sharp bumps will kick through hard though, so watch out for those fresh monsoon potholes.
Should I buy one?
BMW’s four-cylinder diesel engine was never affected by the Delhi-NCR diesel ban as its swept capacity is less than 2,000cc. But with a bad reputation starting to hover over diesel cars, people were starting to move back toward petrol and the company just couldn’t ignore it. It’s a shame BMW didn’t bring the more powerful 528i to India instead (especially since the 520i is fully imported anyway), as the added power would have transformed a nice-driving car into a superb one. So this is not the choice for the enthusiast; both diesels feel nicer to drive. It is, then, the choice for those who simply must have a petrol 5-series (that isn’t an M5, of course) be it for the refinement or lesser impact on the environment. It’s well equipped, spacious and luxurious too; just don’t expect it to blow your socks off.