Good: quietly handsome, practical, refined, quick, not an SUV
Not so good: price tag for this one, front seats, handling not as peerless as it should be
The BMW 530d Touring has a lot to live up to. Back in the nineties, when I was a teenage nascent petrolhead, the venerable Autocar magazine pronounced that the E39 5 Series Touring was the best car in the real world, a sweet spot of styling, panache, handling, performance and practicality. Ever since then, there's been a 5 Touring-shaped hole in my brain around which the word 'perfect' is usually arranged. One of the best drives I've ever enjoyed in my life was driving from Dublin to Cambridge and back in an E60 525d that was a sports car on the switchbacks leading into Bets-y-Cowyd, a limo on the M6 motorway and a roomy estate when I collected my darling lady wife and her chattels from an extended stay in that great university town.
So, this new 'G31' 530d xDrive Touring, resplendent in menacing black coachwork, with the subtle enhancements of the M Sport body kit, has a lot to live up to. It really has to be all cars to all men, and (full disclosure alert) BMW was so keen for me to really try it out properly that it put me up for a night in the fabulous Park Hotel in Kenmare, just so I would have a sufficiently distant destination to drive to. Well, it would be rude to pass up an opportunity such as that...
In the initial miles, the 530d seemed to be everything that you could want from a car. We've criticised the current 5 for looking too much the clone of the old one, and for not moving the styling game onwards, but as ever with the extra bodywork of the Touring, and the extra protein-shake-bulk of the M Sport kit, handsomeness inevitably settles in. It's not a beautiful car, the 530d, but it is very pleasingly good looking.
That's true too of the interior. As a father of two, I don't think ivory-white leather is really my bag, but it does lift the look of the cabin, and the all-digital instruments, the big new iDrive screen and the sheer sense of quality lift what would otherwise be a cabin stuck in the too-generic category. It isn't as good as the cabin of the new Mercedes-Benz E-Class, though, which is possibly the first time we've ever said that about a 5 Series, and I think it's behind the Volvo V90 in terms of style too.
It's behind the Volvo in terms of comfort too. The Swede (and the Benz from Stuttgart) both have the sort of front seats that you'd happily spend the rest of your days plonked upon. The 5's flatter to deceive, and I think it might be specifically these optional sports seats. They have every kind of electric adjustment known to man, but the seat bases left the backs of my legs and by buttocks (sorry, I had to say it) unsupported and after about an hour behind the wheel, acute numbness set in.
Which is a shame, as the rest of the 530d is so brilliant at obliterating distance. That engine, for a start. When diesel is finally airbrushed from history, it's engines like this 3.0-litre straight-six that we'll cling to some sort of tribal memory of. Using the inherently smooth nature of an inline-six as a starting point, it's exceptionally refined with its note only rising to a distant, purposeful growl as you accelerate hard. The rest of the time it whirrs away near-silently and very smoothly, and recorded an impressive 43mpg over more than 2,000km of very mixed driving. The cabin itself backs up the engine's refinement with a lovely sensation of quietness, which would have been quieter still if someone hadn't ticked the box for the full-length panoramic roof. Space in the back seats is only OK, it must be said, but the boot is impressive - at 570 litres, it actually out-Volvos the Volvo by 10 litres, and I still love the fact that you can open the rear glass separately to the tailgate. Why would anyone want to buy an SUV? Seriously?
Certainly not for the way they drive, and the 530d is a sobering reminder that as we move further and further away from traditional saloons, estates and hatches we are also moving away from proper handling and ride combos. Actually, this is an area where the 5 falls down, just a touch. Surprisingly, for a BMW, it's not the best car in its class to drive. The Jaguar XF and the Volvo V90 (!) both have sweeter steering (the BMW's is fast, but never talks to you very much or very loudly) while the Mercedes has a superior ride quality. The 5 feels fine most of the time, but on challenging roads the suspension is too quickly apt to send a whump and shudder up through the structure when it encounters a sharp impact, and there's just too much vertical movement when driving over undulations, to the point where we found ourselves backing off for comfort's sake on challenging Kerry and West Cork roads. At least the xDrive four-wheel drive is peerless - adding much-welcome extra traction on those wet, twisty bits around Kenmare, and never feeling flat-footed or giving you the sensation of power being shunted around the wheels. It's seamless, much like the ever-brilliant eight-speed ZF automatic gearbox.
In spite of its flaws, though, the 530d Touring remains an achingly desirable car, one that can bear the weight of responsibility of being a family hack, yet still retains an aura of classy want-one-ness, once you've turfed the kids out and given the leather a clean. At €102k for the press test vehicle, we're into insane pricing, but you can get a Touring for an awful lot less than that. As with the sybaritic surrounds of the Park Hotel, someone at BMW was lashing the cash for the sake of impressiveness, I think. To a point, it worked.
The best car in the real world, though? I think the Touring can still take a tilt at that title, but the crown sits on the E-Class' head for now.