Though it seems like yesterday to some of us, BMW has been offering a V8 engine in its midsize 5-Series sedan for over a dozen years now. And from the 1994 model year through 2007, if you wanted a BMW sedan with American-style torque, the V8 was the way to get it. Starting as a 282-horsepower 4.0-liter, it grew to 4.8 liters producing 360 horsepower for 2006. Notably, the torque figure in foot-pounds was also 360. The next engine down, a 3.0-liter inline six, put out 105 fewer horses--and 140 fewer pounds-feet of twist.
For the 2008 model year, the powertrain decision won't be so easy for torque junkies. BMW now offers the 3.0 inline six with a pair of small turbochargers. The official specs are 300 and 300, but acceleration times and dyno results suggest that the actual numbers are around 340--quite close to the big V8.
The kicker: the turbo six is much less expensive. Even factoring in $2,000 in additional standard equipment for the 550i, the 535i is about $7,000 less expensive. Making things even more interesting, all-wheel-drive is only available on the 535. Even after adding it and equipping the cars similarly, the 535xi runs over $5,000 less.
In addition to the turbo six, the 5-Series received a mid-cycle upgrade for 2008.
I recently had the chance to drive a 550i sedan and 535xi wagon back-to-back. Both were equipped with six-speed automatic transmissions (a manual remains standard across the line) and Sport Packages. This allowed me to evaluate the changes for 2008, and how the different powertrains compare.
Introduced for the 2004 model year, the Bangled 5-Series sheetmetal hasn't had many fans. Yet I personally like it--as long as large wheels are fitted and the paint isn't the now discontinued brown shade. The headlights and trunk cutline aren't nearly as bad as those of the 2002 7-Series. It might not be a strikingly beautiful car, but the general appearance is appropriately sophisticated and aggressive. Again, assuming that the wheels are at least 18s and the wheel design not overly frilly.
The front end has been revised for 2008. While the overall effect flows better, it's not easy to notice the differences without looking at the new and old noses side by side.
Also new for 2008, the 550i gets an upgraded sport package with 19-inch wheels and side skirts that resemble those of the M5. Some people will choose the 550 to get this package. Others will prefer the much lower price and perhaps also the less aggressive appearance of the 535's more restrained Sport Package.
The interior has received more changes, though again these are subtle. There's more wood trim (which is now standard, with three types to choose from). I'm happy to report that the semi-circular hard plastic door pulls I criticized four years ago have been tossed in favor of rounder padded ones. The look isn't as dramatic, but they feel much more comfortable when grabbed. Finally, the door armrests and center console top are now upholstered. (The iDrive knob also gains a padded leather cap.) Taken together, the changes lend the interior a more luxurious ambiance and cushier feel than it had last year.
Step up to the M5, and a fully upholstered instrument panel is optional. I've sat in one so equipped, and the execution, with tight-fitting, lightly grained leather and stitching on the prominent edges, is, well, special. Never seen anything like it. That's a different review, though, and once I unfortunately will not have the privilege to write.
The most obvious change to the interior, though, is that the conventional automatic shifter has been replaced by a silver plastic electronic unit that resembles a gaming joystick. You have to learn how to use it, and it feels a bit light and plasticky, but I suppose some people might like the high-tech look of the thing. The sport steering wheel has some matching shiny trim.
Unlike in pre-2004 5s, the current BMW 5-Series' instrument binnacle does not stick up high above the dash, affording a significantly more expansive view forward. Ive long felt buried in BMW sedans interiors. With the new 5 the driving position approaches my ideal, though I must still raise the seat about an inch to get the armrests, steering wheel, and instruments about where I want them. The car is about as large as it can be without distancing the driver from the car. I personally feel a tighter man-machine connection in the driver's seat of the new 3, but the 5 isn't too far off.
The 550i was fitted with a head-up display (HUD). Unfortunately, while a few subsidiary bits of info can be projected onto the windshield along with the vehicle's speed--including an irritating "speed limit exceeded" warning--engine speed is not among them. A HUD with a tach, as in the Chevrolet Corvette, can be very helpful in a powerful car with a manual or manually-shiftable automatic, as you can then simultaneously monitor the road ahead and the approaching redline.
In past years the 5 had two optional seats: "sport seats" that were part of the Sport Packages and "comfort seats." For 2008, the latter are part of the Sport Package. Aside from the cost impact--they are a $1,200 option--this makes a lot of sense, for the comfort seats can be adjusted to provide better lateral support than the old sport seats provided--the spacing between the side bolsters is adjustable. And they're among the most comfortable seats you can buy in any car as well. The angle of the upper seatback is independently adjustable. And you won't find more adjustable or more comfortable headrests.
The rear seat is significantly roomier than in pre-2004 5s. In the past Ive wondered whether the 5 was worth the extra money over the 3, as the difference in rear legroom between the two bordered on insignificant. Well, the difference is now significant. That said, the rear passengers view forward is blocked by the front seats large headrests. Im noticing this issue in more and more cars as sweeping rooflines force the rear seat cushion lower while safety concerns force headrests to grow. Thankfully, the rear seat cushion is not so low that it fails to provide decent (though not great) thigh support.
The new 5 can officially carry three people in its rear seat, but because the center position is high and narrow not even a child will be comfortable there. Also, carrying a fifth passenger denies rear passengers the use of a large, comfortable fold-down armrest complete with cupholders. Heated seats are optional front and rear.
Though most competitors continue to offer larger trunks, the 5s is usefully regular in shape. It can be further expanded with the option of folding rear seatbacks, a feature Japanese competitors do not offer. Interior storage compartments are plentiful.
On the Road
I generally prefer to drive cars with manual transmissions. Unfortunately, even BMW is shifting away from the devices. They remain standard on every 5-Series, but for 2008 a six-speed automatic is a no-cost option. Removing any financial justification for the manual. Both of the cars I drove were fitted with the automatic.
With a power-to-weight ratio similar to that of the previous generation M5, it should come as no surprise that the 550i is very quick, no matter what the speed. But then so is the 535xi, even when burdened by the heavier wagon body and an all-wheel-drive system. BMW says the V8 gets to sixty a couple tenths sooner. In other words, acceleration feels about the same in either car.
There are some subtle differences. The turbo six has a moment of off-boost weakness from a dead stop. But it's a brief moment. And once those tiny twin turbos spool up, it feels stronger than the V8 in the lower midrange. On the other hand, the V8 feels stronger near the redline, where the turbo six starts to weaken. At any speed, the V8 feels more instantly responsive. The turbo six might have the least lag of any turbo I've driven, but it can't match the snap of a normally aspirated throttle-free V8. Instead, when you dip deep into the throttle the massive thrust builds more gradually.
Again, though, these are subtle differences. The largest difference could well be how the engines sound. The turbo six is a very quiet engine. Even near the redline the sounds it makes don't get your blood pumping. The V8 makes louder, lustier noises. But even it is quieter than I'd prefer. The same engine is allowed greater expression in the 650Ci coupe, and I'd like to see a similar implementation in the 5.
Steering-wheel-mounted alloy paddle shifters are a new option on the auto-trans 535i and 550i this year (they were previously only available with the now discontinued SMG automated manual gearbox). They were on the 550i I drove. They are not available on the all-wheel-drive 535xi. No big loss. You can still shift the transmission by tapping the shifter. And when the lever is placed in the "sport" slot the transmission does such an excellent job of selecting the right ratios for aggressive driving that there's little need to do even that. "Sport" mode is too aggressive for normal driving, but moving between modes is as simple as tapping the shifter laterally.
Time for handling, and more goodies unavailable with all-wheel-drive: sport suspension, Active Roll Stabilization, and Active Steering. All three are only available with rear-wheel-drive. A more aggressive sport suspension is included in the 550i's Sport Package: together with the body kit, this is BMW's way of providing a reason to step up to the V8.
Since the 550i had a much firmer suspension and variable stiffness stabilizer bars, and its larger wheels were shod with lower profile more aggressive rubber, it should come as no surprise that the V8-powered sedan handled more crisply and cornered more flatly. The 535xi handled very well, in the intuitive way I've come to expect in a BMW, but its limits were clearly lower and it didn't feel as sporty. A Sport Package-equipped rear-wheel-drive 535i should handle nearly as sportily as the 550i, but be a bit cushier, based on test drives of earlier 5s with similar suspension tuning.
If I'd been comparing sedans, the 535xi would likely have felt less balanced than the 550i, because its weight distribution is more nose-heavy. In the wagon, the tall rear body likely cancels out the impact of the front axle drivetrain bits.
The 550 I drove was further fitted with the optional Active Steering. This system feels a bit heavier than the standard system, especially at low speeds, and feels quicker (because it is quicker) in non-highway driving. Some reviewers have had a problem with the way the steering ratio can vary mid-turn. I haven't experienced this issue, and generally prefer the quicker steering ratio it permits.
That said, the standard steering does have a more natural feel, and provides a bit more feedback. In no 5-Series, though, will you find steering feel like in the smaller 3-Series, where the steering and suspension feel more closely coupled to the driver.
The 535xi does have one significant handling advantage: you can be much more aggressive with the throttle when exiting turns. With rear-wheel-drive, even a wide, sticky single tire doesn't stand a chance against the torque output of the turbo six or V8. Mash the throttle when exiting a turn in the rear-drive 5, and you'll experience a moment of wheelspin followed by a moderate but noticeable intervention by the traction control system. Most of the time BMW's traction control and stability control systems react unobtrusively, such that you sometimes only know they've intervened from the idiot light. But a heavy application of throttle mid-turn is not such a time. There's too much torque in play for a light touch to be sufficient.
With the all-wheel-drive system, in contrast, you can go much deeper into the gas while turning. While I'm a big fan of rear-wheel-drive, with extremely torquey engines I begin to see more of a place for all-wheel-drive. BMW shouldn't restrict the sport suspension and trick stabilizer bars to the rear-drive models.
While the ride never turns harsh with the 550i's ultra-sport suspension, it can become somewhat bouncy on patchy pavement. Definitely try before you buy. The standard suspension is quite a bit softer and more absorbent, at the expense of handling sharpness (as noted above). The 535i's sport suspension probably strikes the best balance for most driving enthusiasts who also have an interest in ride comfort.
In any 5-Series, the cabin is very quiet, even at high speeds. It's far too easy to go 30 miles-per-hour faster than you think you're going, or even want to go. A few years back I took my father along for a test drive of a six-speed manual 545i. He ended up doing 55 through a subdivision, thinking he was doing half that. And he normally drives a Lexus. Keep an eye on the speedometer! (Now you know the main reason for the HUD.)
BMW 5-Series Price Comparisons and Pricing
Between the rear-drive 535i and 550i, the former strikes me as the better value. It offers nearly identical performance, for $7,000 less money. Fit both cars with sport packages, and the gap widens to about $9,000, because the 550i's M5-ish Sport Package lists for $4,600, $1,800 more than the 535i's Sport Package.
As has been the case for the last decade or two, the 5-Series costs about the same as the Mercedes E-Class, and considerably more than other competitors. The Infiniti M has won many recent comparison tests. I find it's handling much less intuitive and its suspension less composed. But when the 550i and M45 are similar equipped, the Infinity runs over $12,000 less.
But then the 535i with Sport Package, leather, and so forth is only about $3,000 more than the M45 Sport. Which should make the decision much more difficult even for the budget-conscious.
Prices change frequently, and differences will vary based on feature level. To quickly generate these and other comparisons with the specific features you want, visit my Web site, www.truedelta.com. (It's the only site that provides true "apples-to-apples" price comparisons.)
TrueDelta's page for the BMW 5-Series:
For 2008, the BMW 550i with Sport Package has been tuned to bridge the gap between regular 5s and the M5. It's very powerful, and handles better than any other sedan in the segment. Like with most other BMWs, the harder you push it, the better it feels.
But then there's the $70,000 price tag, and the 535i that offers 95 percent of the performance for about $9,000 less. Those who want the sportiest 5 short of the M will spend the extra cash. Those seeking the best all-around balance and best value will not.
A Note on BMW 5-Series Reliability
I cannot practically cover reliability within the context of this review. However, many people are interested in such information, so I've started collecting my own data. Results, once they are available, will be posted to my site, www.truedelta.com, with updates every three months.
Unlike other sources, TrueDelta will clearly identify what difference it will make if you buy a 5-Series rather than another vehicle by providing "times in the shop" and "days in the shop" stats (among others). You will be able to specify the number of years, annual miles, and types of repairs to include in BMW 5-Series reliability comparisons.
Before I can report results, I need reliability data on all cars--not just the BMW--from people like you. To encourage participation, those who help provide the data will receive free access to the site's reliability information. Non-participants will have to pay an access fee.
For the details, and to sign up, visit www.truedelta.com.
A link to this website and alphabetized links to my other vehicle reviews can be found on my profile page.
Some of my reviews of related vehicles:
Audi A6 review
BMW 545i six-speed manual review
Cadillac STS review
Infiniti M35 review
Jaguar S-Type R review
Lexus GS review
Mercedes E-Class review