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2017 BMW 540i xDrive

Car and Driver logo Car and Driver 3/29/2017 DON SHERMAN
2017 BMW 540i xDrive© DON SHERMAN 2017 BMW 540i xDrive

Call it kismet, karma, or dumb luck, but practically every car line eventually enjoys a day in the sun. Twenty years ago, the planets aligned for the BMW 5-series. The fourth-generation E39 sports sedan arrived with beguiling powertrain, chassis, and aesthetic attributes and driving merits worthy of six straight Car and Driver 10Best awards between 1997 and 2002. Even Consumer Reports agreed with our assessment, naming the 530i its top sedan in 1996, 2002, and 2003.

Times have changed. Last year, the model’s U.S. sales plummeted 27 percent to a volume below the E39 days as buyers shunned sedans for crossovers and Mercedes-Benz made hay with its new E-class. This year, a fresh, seventh-generation 5-series is rolling into BMW dealerships, where fingers are crossed hoping that the sun will again shine on the original businessman’s express.

Fully Loaded

The 540i xDrive tested here faces daunting competition: four rival brands from Europe, four more from Asia, and two U.S. luxury brands, all hungry for their slice of the pie. BMW came prepared. While the new 5-series is a touch larger in every outside dimension and packed with every imaginable driver-assistance and safety aid, our test car weighed 16 pounds less than the 535i xDrive we tested three years ago. Chalk that up to shrewd engineering and more extensive use of aluminum. And, in spite of an exterior that recycles the sixth generation’s design motif, the LED headlights are bigger and brighter, larger kidney grilles now contain movable slats, and new front fender vents smooth the air flowing along side surfaces. Air deflectors and belly pans calm under-car turbulence.

BMW’s chassis engineers outdid themselves. Lighter suspension components are anchored to a stiffer unibody. Variable-ratio steering with speed-sensitive electric assistance can be coupled with rear-wheel steering. An electronic controller regulates damper settings corner by corner as well as front and rear anti-roll bar stiffness. The xDrive all-wheel-drive system—which now can be combined with the M Sport package’s lower ride height and four-wheel steering—improves winter mobility and eliminates wheelspin during launch without harming back-road agility.

The Price You’ll Pay

German technology never comes cheap, and the 540i xDrive starts at just under $60,000. Adding in practically every goody BMW marketing mavens dreamed up inflated the bottom line of our test car to $82,360. Various driver-assistance and collision-avoidance aids tack on $4900. The top Bowers & Wilkins 10-channel, 16-speaker, 1400-watt sound system costs $4200. The M Sport package adds $3250. The $3200 Dynamic Handling package includes the adaptive anti-roll bars and dampers but unfortunately cannot be combined with the $1150 four-wheel steering unless you step up to the M550i. Gesture control of infotainment functions ($190), a decklid that opens and closes with the swing of a foot ($600), remote-control automated parking ($750), Apple CarPlay ($300), soft-close doors ($600), and ceramic instead of plastic control knobs ($650) may seem gratuitous to some, but such upgrades are the price of entry in today’s car market, where every whim commands attention.

Our whim is expeditious A-to-B travel combined with spellbinding driving. Two weeks of testing revealed that this 5-series is better in several areas although disappointing in a few. The larger trunk now swallows four sets of golf clubs, and rear legroom is 1.2 inches greater than before. The standard leather seats are lovely to see and touch, and their support is impeccable. The M Sport steering wheel is a gold standard for section thickness, grip, and aesthetics. The grain and texture of the wood dash and door trim could pass the toughest Joyce Kilmer scrutiny. The faux-leather dash pad—covered in what BMW calls SensaTec—has a lovely feel, and this interior’s hard-plastic content is essentially nil. The iDrive infotainment mouse finally commands the comprehensive infotainment system intuitively, and the head-up display (included in the Driver Assistance package) works perfectly. A new Adaptive button on the center console automatically cycles chassis settings between Sport and Comfort depending on how aggressively you’re driving.

Strong Six

As always, BMW’s turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-six earns pole position in the engine hall of fame. With 335 horsepower, the new-for-2017 B58 edition is 10 percent more potent, and it hustles this two-ton-plus sedan to 60 mph in an impressive 4.5 seconds and through the quarter-mile in 13.1 seconds at 108 mph. There isn’t so much as a tire chirp off the line or any thrust disruption as the eight-speed automatic picks taller gears at the 7000-rpm redline. The higher you rev it, the more sweetly this engine sings, yet it barely hums while cruising. It also returned 21 mpg in our hands.

Speedwise, this 540i is in the thick of it with the all-wheel-drive competition: quicker than the Audi A6 3.0T (5.2 to 60 mph, 13.7 seconds at 105 mph in the quarter-mile) and Jaguar XF S (5.0 and 13.5 at 104) but a blink slower than the Mercedes-AMG E43 (4.2 and 12.8 at 109). Confirming what our ears told us, this BMW with its 72-decibel full-throttle noise level is quieter than the Jag and the Merc, losing to the Audi by only one decibel.

Rolling on 19-inch Continental all-season run-flat tires, BMW’s newest combatant also performed impressively in cornering and braking tests. Stopping from 70 mph took 169 feet, with no fade evident. The adaptive anti-roll bars restrict body roll to only a couple of degrees on the skidpad while minimizing front-tire scrub at the limit. The 0.88-g lateral acceleration we measured beats the Jag XF (0.86 g, also on all-season radials), falling only slightly behind the A6 (0.93 g) and the E43 (0.92 g), which were both on 20-inch summer tires.

Ride motions never verge on harsh, even in the Sport Plus chassis setting. The automatic damping does a commendable job of dealing with ragged pavement edges without flustering lateral grip on smooth roads. And when you lift off the gas to placate understeer, the nose takes a fresh bite without an unnerving swing of the tail.

Nits to Pick

There are instances of unseemly behavior, though. The 540i xDrive’s nose rises on hard acceleration, dips when you lift off the throttle, and drops during forceful braking. Although that’s not a horrible fault, it seems odd given the otherwise sophisticated damper control built into this chassis. We also noticed some wandering while cruising on the freeway with side drafts ruffling our feathers. Other minor gripes are headrests that cannot be moved back and out of the way without sacrificing upper-torso support and a door-pocket edge that grinds the driver’s left thigh during hard cornering. On exit, the driver’s left shoelace can snag the hood-release handle.

Regular readers may tire of our persistent whining about BMW steering, but this new 540i forces our hand (or mouth) on that subject. The null zone on-center is only a few degrees, the effort builds nicely and promptly when you initiate a turn, and the electrically assisted rack-and-pinion steering system never pesters you with annoying kickback over bumps or textured pavement. The bad news is a total lack of feedback from the road; that vital communication channel is a dial tone.

BMW development engineers told us that today’s customers request “isolation” when they’re queried on the subject of steering, so that is precisely what the owner body has been given. As with the lack of an available clutch pedal, it’s another sign that the 5-series—previously skilled at serving both cruising and charging drivers—has narrowed its focus.

We have a few theories about why the new 5 all but ignores its E39 heritage as a driver’s delight. Size is certainly a factor: Today’s BMW 3-series is only slightly smaller than the 5-series from two decades ago, nudging the seventh-generation 5-series toward the limousine lane. The evolving global business model is also at play. Last year, BMW sold four times more 5-series sedans in China than it did in the United States, consistent with that country’s four-times-greater population. Bimmer buyers on that side of the globe receive only long-wheelbase 5s, owing to their devotion to luxuriously roomy back seats. So maybe the blame lies not with the Bavarians but with the Chinese for the evolution of the 5-series into an ultimate riding machine.

Specifications >VEHICLE TYPE: front-engine, all-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 4-door sedan

PRICE AS TESTED: $82,360 (base price: $59,745)

ENGINE TYPE: turbocharged and intercooled DOHC 24-valve inline-6, aluminum block and head, direct fuel injection

Displacement: 183 cu in, 2998 cc

Power: 335 hp @ 6500 rpm

Torque: 332 lb-ft @ 1380 rpm

TRANSMISSION: 8-speed automatic with manual shifting mode

DIMENSIONS:

Wheelbase: 117.1 in

Length: 194.6 in

Width: 73.5 in Height: 58.2 in

Passenger volume: 98 cu ft

Trunk volume: 19 cu ft

Curb weight: 4171 lb

C/D TEST RESULTS:

Zero to 60 mph: 4.5 sec

Zero to 100 mph: 11.0 sec

Zero to 120 mph: 16.4 sec

Rolling start, 5–60 mph: 5.1 sec

Top gear, 30–50 mph: 2.8 sec

Top gear, 50–70 mph: 3.2 sec

Standing ¼-mile: 13.1 sec @ 108 mph

Top speed (governor limited): 128 mph

Braking, 70–0 mph: 169 ft

Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.88 g

FUEL ECONOMY:

EPA combined/city/highway driving: 23/20/29 mpg

C/D observed: 21 mpg

C/D observed 75-mph highway driving: 31 mpg

C/D observed highway range: 550 mi

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