Update - link to production car review
On Nov 28, 2016, we published our first drive of the 2017 BMW 530d xDrive. Below is our original test drive in the pre-production versions.
The BMW 5 Series needs no introduction, and the seventh generation, known internally at BMW as the 'G30', will be unveiled to the world next month (October 2016). A full five months before that we met up with BMW's chassis development team at work, testing the new car on the public road - in North Wales no less. When you read this, bear in mind that the vehicles we drove were nowhere near the production-ready article, inside, outside or under the bonnet, but we were told that the chassis was 90 per cent finished, so we're going to focus on that aspect here. To give it some perspective, we took a current 'F10' saloon with us across the Irish Channel on the Irish Ferries Jonathan Swift vessel and test drove it on the same roads as we used for the new car drive.
In the Metal:
As mentioned above, the test vehicles were not finished inside or out, so no point trying to squint past the swirly camouflage. For what it's worth, the new 5 Series appears to be tauter of line on the outside, while the cabin detailing takes plenty of influence from the current BMW 7 Series. BMW did tell us that the new 5 Series is some 100kg lighter model-for-model and it has a slightly lower centre of gravity. That's partly thanks to the use of aluminium in the roof, doors and boot lid.
First car of the day was the BMW 540i sDrive, so rear-wheel drive, eight-speed auto, turbocharged straight-six 3.0-litre petrol engine under the bonnet and about 265hp at its disposal. The test vehicle featured rear-wheel steering (Integral Active Steering in BMW-speak) and variable damping, both options. They do disguise the base tune of the chassis somewhat, especially the steering. At the higher speeds we're traversing the Welsh countryside at the rear wheels will be turning slightly in the same direction as the front wheels to help the car turn into a corner in a stable fashion. The result is incredible nimbleness, yet without any nervousness. The variable damping helps here, especially in Sport mode. That gives the dampers more control over the body movements yet it's never harsh or overly firm either. In Comfort mode it's noticeably softer and better suited to motorway work than excellent Welsh B-roads. Like the 7 Series, there's a new 'Adaptive' mode too. BMW tells us that its aim for the new 5 Series is to retain the current car's comfort but add more dynamism. First impressions suggest that's the case here, though this vehicle won't be representative of the majority of those sold in Ireland.
The second test car is closer. It's a 530d xDrive fitted with sport suspension and Integral Active Steering. Not many in Ireland specify BMW's xDrive four-wheel drive for their saloons, and in fairness we didn't really test its traction-aiding ability as it was a sunny, dry day in Wales. As ever, the six-cylinder turbodiesel is a gem, giving the 5 Series effortless performance. This ended up being our favourite car of the day, in spite of the fixed-rate damping system. The sport suspension comes with stiffer, 10mm lower springs and a beefier front anti-roll bar, yet it never once felt uncomfortable or compromised on our drive. This could well be the perfect 5 Series.
Finally, we tested a 530i sDrive, which may be powered by a petrol engine that nobody in Ireland will buy (it's a four-cylinder in spite of its name), but this car rode on standard suspension and did without rear-wheel steering. While it was notably softer on the road than the 530d with sport suspension (the 530i rode on smaller wheels with higher profile tyres as well), it was still good to drive. We spent our time in the 530i going back and forth over the same five-kilometre section with Alexander Meske, Head of Application Driving Dynamics BMW 5 Series, beside us and a laptop in front of him. He talked us through the set-up of a modern electrically assisted power steering system and then proceeded to alter the calibration for us to try out. This was quite an illuminating exercise, revealing that a simple tweak to the software for the steering completely alters the feel of the car; one minute it felt large and unwieldy, the next nervous and too fidgety. The finished product seems to have got the balance just right.
Driving the current BMW 520d back-to-back with this car, it's clear that the new one has taken a considerable step forward in terms of driving enjoyment. It feels lighter on the road, more responsive to input and body motion is better controlled. The steering is also lighter yet offers up more feedback. Bodes well for the finished product.
What you get for your Money:
Interestingly, BMW's engineers referred to the rear-drive cars on the drive event as 'sDrive', a tag that hasn't been applied to the 5 Series in the past. Other than that, we don't expect to see drastic changes in the pricing or trim levels of the 2017 BMW 5 Series, so there could be SE, Sport, Luxury and M Sport specifications to choose from and plenty of petrol and diesel options. The Irish market will continue to focus on the 518d and 520d. On the petrol front, it appears that the 528i will replaced by the 530i, though will retain a four-cylinder engine, while the 540i tested here replaces the 535i, presumably using the turbocharged 3.0-litre straight-six. For reference, the outgoing 5 Series starts at €46,050 on-the-road for the 518d SE manual.
This is by no means a definitive verdict on the 2017 BMW 5 Series, but initial impressions are that the German company has met its own brief in retaining the outgoing car's comfort levels while making it more dynamic and more engaging to drive. We're looking forward to trying out the finished article later this year.