Here we test drive the exceptional new BMW 5 Series in the most relevant model to Ireland, the 520d. Finished in M Sport specification, this model feels every bit as good to drive as the more powerful cars in the range, so it looks like it is business as usual in the mid-sized executive class - everyone playing catch-up to Munich...
In the Metal:
The BMW 520d doesn't lose anything in the looks stakes compared to its bigger-engined brethren, the M Sport model coming with subtle body styling addenda, a set of gorgeous 19-inch wheels (with what look like mere smears of rubber at the back; they're 30-profile items) and quadrilateral exhausts. All M Sports get this funky tailpipes feature, as does the 540i xDrive no matter what trim it's specified in. Inside, there are more upgraded bits of kit like sports seats and a sports steering wheel, and the cabin just feels an excellent place to be. The crystal-clear instrument cluster in TFT is a particular highlight, while there are some micrometre-esque panel gaps between quality bits of trim that ensures the Five's 7 Series-aping interior feels a suitably plush place to be.
It's a BMW in the finest tradition: still the best thing to drive quickly on a twisting road, even in 520d specification. Ticking the M Sport box helps, as it reduces the ride height by 10mm as a result of shorter springs and it also firms up the dampers to keep best control of the body. The 520d M Sport is also now lighter than its predecessor to the tune of 70kg and, crucially, it's also (at 1,560kg) lighter than anything else in the class, as it's trimmer than the automatic versions of the Jaguar XF 2.0d R-Sport (1,595kg), the Audi A6 2.0 TDI ultra S line (1,660kg) and the Mercedes E 220 d AMG Line (1,680kg). It's also extremely aerodynamic, with a best coefficient-of-drag figure of 0.22 for the forthcoming 520d EfficientDynamics model, while this M Sport rocks in at a still respectable 0.24.
All of the above features - plus sweet-as-a-nut steering, masses of front-end grip and immense traction - make the Beemer a wonderful thing to drive quickly. Gormless cliché it might be, but the Five simply shrinks around you and allows you to forget you're piloting a 4.9-metre-long executive saloon. It jinks from side to side with real alacrity and there's a huge amount of mechanical grip from the chassis that makes it devastatingly quick through corners. If you wanted more traction from it, you can specify the 520d with xDrive four-wheel drive, but it makes the car heavier, thirstier and slightly slower to 100km/h, all for an additional €3,650. We really wouldn't advocate that you bother.
Luckily, BMW hasn't sacrificed every last shred of comfort on the altar of high-performance driving thrills. Given most 520ds will be pounding up and down the motorway, ride comfort is important and the BMW has it in abundance. It's a hugely refined cruiser, with wind and tyre noise completely barred from entering the cabin, while the 2.0-litre engine is a beauty; rev it right out and beyond about 3,500rpm you hear a slightly louder rumble coming from the front of the car... but at most times, it's inaudible. There is absolutely nothing in the slightest to fault with the eight-speed Steptronic automatic and the 520d simply lopes along with a grace and dignity befitting of something with a blue-and-white propeller on the bonnet.
It is not, however, quite perfect. While the ride quality is extremely good - especially on the €1,496 Variable Damper Control that was fitted to our particular test car - it is not quite as delicate and elegant as the Mercedes E-Class on (pricey) air suspension. And we weren't blown away by the 520d's fuel economy on our drive. On an admittedly challenging route, involving a blast up twisty mountain roads, it only returned around 40mpg (7.1 litres/100km)... and we wouldn't say we were mercilessly thrashing it for the entire trip. Indeed, there were occasions where it was simply coasting along at 100km/h on motorways - and, later the same day, we drove a 530d xDrive, in a far more uncompromising manner, and saw 35mpg (8.1 litres/100km) at the end of the test. So the on-paper advantages of the 520d don't look to be immediately apparent once you're actually in the real world driving it.
What you get for your Money:
It's no longer the case that BMWs come with next-to-no-equipment as standard, with Professional navigation, climate control, leather seats and cruise control all part of a lengthy standard kit list. The M Sport adds all the styling goodies we mentioned above and the slightly sharper chassis, and the 5 Series - no matter what its specification - feels like a thoroughly top-quality piece of kit when you're behind the wheel, thanks to its digital instrument cluster and first-rate cabin materials. It's just that... at nearly 57 grand basic, the 520d M Sport is hardly what we'd call cheap and there is a very, very lengthy options list (made up of a lot of four-figure items) that could easily see a four-cylinder diesel saloon start knocking on the door of maybe €70,000 or €75,000. And that, to us, sounds like a LOT of money...
This is BMW in its best form. There have been little hints and signs recently with some of its other products that it is losing the focus on being the 'ultimate driving machine' before all else. And when officials on hand at this event tell you that the company aims to turn itself into a technology purveyor first and foremost in the coming years, your heart sinks a little further. But don't worry. Because the 5 Series is still the best thing to drive in its segment, by some distance. A Jaguar XF diesel might run it close, and the Mercedes-Benz E-Class is certainly a little more comfortable with the (costly) air suspension fitted, but neither of those cars is quite as highly skilled in all departments as the 520d. If you can specify it right, to keep the costs down, and drive it reasonably gently for at least some of the time, to maximise the fuel returns, then what we have here is the best mid-sized premium executive car on the planet right now.