Dabolim, Goa, 1830hrs, Runway 26. The pilot pushes the throttles wide open and the A320 gingerly begins its roll. Twenty-five seconds and some serious amounts of thrust later, the torpedo-shaped capsule raises its nose to the sky. What makes this departure truly stand out from the ordinary is that we are flying right into one of the most spectacular sunsets I’ve seen in a long time.
But there’s also another reason why this flight is so unforgettable. Thing is, I’ve just stepped out from behind the wheel of Mercedes’ brand-spanking-new E-class, after pedaling it around all day, and then, when I hop off the plane in Delhi, I’ll be getting straight into BMW’s all-new 5-series! How’s that for timing? Now, going from one drive to another is often par for the course; drives of new cars often tend to get bunched up towards the end of the month with deadlines being what they are, but driving two brand-new competitors, one right after the other, well that’s just never happened.
The next morning, Delhi is cold and grey. The temperature on the digital dash reads 8deg C, and the mercury dips even further as we head out of town. Sunny Goa this isn’t. BMW’s new 3.0-litre straight-six, however, is lapping it all up, wolfing down all that cold dense air like a hungry beast. I recently drove this car in Portugal, but here on the highway, the engine spinning at 3,000rpm, the seamless manner in which it delivers its power – in one thick, wide stream – is just so addictive. I tuck in and go to full throttle every time I see a hint of an open stretch, and the powerband is so wide and the response so linear, it feels like there’s a controlled explosion going on under the bonnet, the wide rear wheels almost always fighting for traction. The new 5 really does have the ability to pin you in the back and keep you there.
The engine basically pulls all the way from 1,600 to 5,200rpm. And, like any well-tuned motor, the faster you spin it, the stronger it pulls; no sudden explosion of torque here, no sir. This engine also has a near-4,000rpm powerband, and that’s as close as you can get to a petrol today. Yes, select Sport, hold on to a gear in manual, and it will pull all the way to 5,600rpm, but after 5,300, progress slowly fades.
The new B57 3.0 straight-six is also much more refined. The mid-range is smooth, like the engine is gargling rubber bullets instead of ball bearings, and at low RPMs, it’s much quieter too. How has BMW achieved this increase in performance and refinement? Well, for one, it has upped injection pressure to a huge 2,500 bar. There are now six injections per stroke to help smoothen out combustion shock, there’s a new twin-scroll turbocharger for better and faster responses, and the engine also gets an all-new, lighter aluminium block, the innards of which are sprayed with metal for better sound insulation.
Still, BMW’s new straight-six isn’t the epitome of refinement. Other large-capacity diesels from the competition are quieter still, and the B57 still has a bit of a grumble at low speeds and that typical BMW angry rattle when extended. If this engine has to be remembered for anything, when the epitaph of the diesel is finally written, it will have to be for the near petrol-like manner in which it delivers the 265hp. And 0-100kph in a claimed 5.7sec: that’s serious performance. Remember, however, that the 530d will be the top-spec engine in the Indian 5-series line-up. Lower in the range will be two four-cylinder options – the 190hp 520d diesel and the 252hp 530i petrol.
Round And About
The area in which the new 5 has improved the most over its predecessor, however, has to be the handling. Where the previous-gen 5 had positively soggy dynamics and a vague, uncommunicative steering, the new G30 returns to form, and how. Sure, the version that’ll come to India won’t have the rear-wheel-steering system, and ground clearance will be a bit more than the European car’s 144mm, but this car still displays such an eagerness to take corners hard and fast, you can’t help but give in.
I luckily stumble upon the perfect road. Private and cordoned off, this piece of twisting and turning tarmac leads to an abandoned construction site. The road is well-paved, wide, and has almost every type of corner. The best bit: almost no one uses it, so we have the playground to ourselves.
There’s no time for messing around. I select ‘Sport’ and dive right in. First impressions: this 5 has lost a bit of agility over the European spec car. The loss of the rear-wheel steering means it doesn’t rotate as easily, and there’s a bit more roll too. Still, the driving experience it delivers is just spellbinding. The brakes, to begin with, offer a tremendous amount of feel as I get into a corner. This allows me to brake as late as I dare, and there’s just so much grip and confidence coming up from the front wheels, it’s easy to keep pushing harder and harder. What truly elevates the driving experience, however, is the balance. Yes, it rolls and eventually runs out of grip at the rear, but the new 5 is always so poised and comfortable, I’m forever looking to add more power as I exit corners. And what also helps is that the smooth and lightning-quick eight-speed gearbox is always ready to play. A few minutes of hard driving later, I feel the car had shrunk around me; no way does it feel close to 5m in length with a wheelbase of 2,975mm. And the connection between the steering and the four wheels, there’s a huge amount of that here too. What’s important to remember is that it is around 95kg lighter than the earlier car, and that’s sure to have an effect.
What also works extremely effectively is BMW’s new Adaptive mode. It’s so good, you don’t really need to fiddle with the various modes any more. The ride is soft and supple when you want it to be, and then when you start tearing around, the car senses it and stiffens up the dampers. Over some of the sharper bumps there is a bit of stiffness, and the new 5 thumps through at times even in ‘Comfort’, but BMW seem to have found such a sweet balance between ride and handling, it almost feels like the ideal compromise.
While the new 5 is fabulous to drive, a lot of owners will often occupy the rear seat and that’s what I evaluate next. There’s real leather here to begin with, some of the finest and softest around, and both the seat height and thigh support are extremely good. The backrest is a touch vertical (the earlier 5 had the more reclined backrest from the China car), but is extremely supportive. And because the new 5 has an almost 3m-long wheelbase, legroom is also more than sufficient; there’s plenty of space for my knees and my feet too. Problem is, I’ve only recently been in the back of the extended-wheelbase E-class, and that’s spoiled me a bit; legroom in the Merc is just miles better.
Quality on the inside has taken a huge step forward; most bits are built as well as those on a 7-series.
The BMW gets its own back once you go up front. The larger front seats are more supportive and comfortable, their range of adjustment is wider and finding the right driving position is so much easier. Quality levels are a notch higher too. I looked and looked, but there are no poorly built bits here, everything is just built to a higher quality level, and, unlike the Merc’s dash, the build quality is more solid too; there are no disagreeable squeaks, even when you prod the dash or thump it lightly with your fist. The 5 is better equipped too. The instrument panel is all digital, the central screen is of a higher quality, and resolution and functionality are so good, it reminds you of a modern smartphone. Even the touch functions work beautifully – all you ever need to do is hit the ‘button’ once. BMW’s iDrive system is even simpler to use now; and passengers at the back get their own remote for the system too. The new 5 even gets a few delight features from the 7. Gesture control works well, once you get used to twirling your fingers in the air, the blower control is also via a touch function and then there’s the sci-fi-like remote parking too. Some of the buttons like the blower control, however, are a bit small and fiddly to use, especially if the car is on the move, and I really did like the ‘rocker’ on the earlier car for selecting drive modes; you could use it without looking down.
BMW has also made a much needed modification to the boot, especially for India. The luggage compartment now comes with room for a space saver under the floor, and that’s far better than having a spare sitting exposed and all strapped up in your boot. Space will be down on the otherwise generous 530 litres, but having a tyre to fall back on makes a huge difference.
In the Balance
The new 5 is a massive leap forward in almost every area. It drives like a proper BMW to begin with. Performance is muscular, it handles with the fluency of a thoroughbred sports sedan, and control and feedback are so good, it constantly urges you to go faster and faster. And that’s a huge improvement over the earlier car, which, frankly, drove like anything but a BMW. The new 5 has also taken massive step forward on the inside. Quality levels are now easily best in class and it is lavishly kitted out, often as generously as cars from a class above, with some genuinely new bits of tech. Even the rear seat experience is good.
The new 5, however, lacks the E-class’ single-minded focus on the rear seat and simply doesn’t have as much legroom. What the new 5 delivers though is a more rounded package. It successfully delivers the impression of being a barely shrunken-down 7-series, and that’s a huge accomplishment when you take a step back and look at just how far forward the new car has come. This brings us to the all-important question, which is the better car – the 5 or the E? Well, to know that we’ll have to get both cars on the road at the same time, price sheet and option lists in hand. And that can only happen once the new 5 is launched somewhere in June or July at an expected price of Rs 52-65 lakh. The battle of the titans is coming up.