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Pushing the envelope

Pushing the envelope

The corner was long and sweeping, nicely cambered with a slight rise as it turned into a long narrow straight. Nothing special - typical even of the many roads I had been driving all afternoon in and around the South Wairarapa Coast and in my mind, the perfect place in the Wellington region to get to grips with BMW's new 5-Series.

Mid corner, the warning message on the iDrive display unit took me by surprise - 'Loss of tyre pressure - stop vehicle immediately.' Which of course I did, even though I usually notice a flat tyre and nothing felt out of the ordinary. Subsequent kicking of tyres and walking around the car had both me and my passenger scratching our heads.

Not one of the tyres looked flat, so I hopped back in the car to read further the iDrive message sure that it was mistaken. 'If your vehicle is equipped with run-flat tyre technology....' Sure enough, we had it, and the simple message was ‘do nothing.’ Well almost. Don't drive over 80km/h and depending on a few factors, such as passenger numbers, don't drive for more than a few hundred kilometres before changing it. For new BMW owners, the days of getting your hands dirty changing a tyre are over...

In case you hadn't noticed, BMW are at the cutting edge of advanced technology in their cars. This new approach was heralded with the controversial 7 series and the 5 picks up where the 7 left off. The problem of course with anything radically new is that it tends to polarise opinion. It has to be said, that on first acquaintance, I didn’t feel immediately comfortable with the new 5. I had grown used to the old one, and like many things that are familiar, I questioned the need for change. As the old adage goes, if it ain’t broke, why fix it?

The 5 carries over styling elements of the 7 – such as the raised boot lid and revised yet distinctive headlights, but the end result - at least in my mind - is vastly more pleasing on the eye. Where the 7 can look vaguely ponderous, the 5 looks agile and purposeful. The 18” wheels of the test vehicle nicely fill the wheel arches and the ‘hunkered down’ look says this car means business. The sharper edges and ‘flame’ surfaces add to the stealth element that is so much a part of this car.

But let’s not get carried away. After all, there are plenty of cars that look great only to hugely disappoint behind the wheel. Let’s cut to the chase – how does it go? Extremely well as it turns out, as you might expect from a BMW. I don’t think it’s overstating the facts to say that the handling characteristics are sublime. To get to the Wairarapa, you must first negotiate Wellington’s notorious Rimutaka Hill. It's an excellent test of any car’s ability and tends to help separate the wheat from the chaff.

The 5 series took to it like a duck to water, turning in crisply with barely a hint of over steer and holding the chosen line long after most cars would have given up. The levels of grip and road holding are frankly outstanding. The steering is hugely communicative and making for a greatly entertaining drive. And for those who are more enthusiastic than perhaps is good for them, BMW’s excellent DSC traction control system is always on hand to help prevent catastrophes.

Much of the success to this driving package lies in the inclusion of new technology, namely active steering and dynamic drive. In essence, Active Steering is designed to adapt to the driving situation, producing a greater or smaller steering angle as dictated by the vehicle's speed. What that means in practice is that the steering is effectively sped up. It's great for parking and three point turns but equally capable when punting the car through the twisty stuff.

The Dynamic Drive active suspension system minimises body roll in bends by using active stabilisers on the front and rear axles. The system keeps the car very flat in corners making it more agile but also more comfortable - all the better for driving fast over demanding hills. Citroen fitted something similar to the Xantia some years back which worked well then. BMW's works even better.

No disappointments under the bonnet either. Both in line-six engines I sampled are impressive, but the 530 diesel is the pick of the three litre engines. The 530d uses common rail diesel technology and adds a turbocharger to make for a truly outstanding piece of mechanical engineering. Its power output measured in kilowatts is slightly lower than its petrol brethren - 160kW compared to 170kW - but those figures tell only half the story. The torque figure, or 'pulling power' for the diesel is a whopping 500Nm vs. 300Nm for the petrol version. BMW claims it is one of the strongest engines in its class. Not only is it quick - BMW reckon 0-100km/h in 7.1 seconds - but the low down grunt is phenomenal. It can, at times, sound a bit like a turbo charged tractor, but it's pretty quiet for a diesel. And what can be more fun than beating an HSV off the line with a diesel? Not that punters should be discouraged from the petrol engine - it has all the attributes that make BMW engines so desirable - but the diesel would definitely get my vote.

Throw in the smooth and silky six-speed gearbox and the BMW is practically unstoppable. If you’re considering a manual, think again. This transmission is great, and frankly even the excellent pseudo-manual 'steptronic' is somewhat redundant. The most enthusiastic drivers will likely opt for exclusively using the full auto after a couple of spirited drives. Interestingly, when in manual mode, the box re-sets itself in second gear rather than first for take off. On the slightly less positive side, I found the automatic downshifts when descending inclines a little intrusive. Probably a safer option but I am dubious as to whether it’s welcome.

Equipment? Pretty much as to be expected. First rate leather, electric everything and a top notch stereo for starters. Air bags galore and pretty much every other safety device yet thought of are also standard. The auto windscreen wipers are almost scarily precise, in effect providing a useful summary of the car's philosophy - 'I do everything, and I do it better than all of my rivals.' The iDrive - run by a joystick controller between the seats that the driver uses to click and whirl functions such as temperature control on a dash mounted LCD display - is still not exactly intuitive.

But, most of the functions can be operated separate from the iDrive, so it's practically a personal choice as to whether you use it or not. Of course none of this comes exactly cheap. Currently on offer here in New Zealand – and just being joined by several V8 variants – are the petrol 525i and 530i and diesel 530d. The 525i starts at just under $102,000 in SE auto mode and runs through to $118,000 for the 530i SE auto. The auto only diesel variant is $113,000.

It has to be said, the new 5 series will not appeal to all. The styling will not be to everyone’s taste, nor will the sporty (read firm) ride and it’s possible the technology will discourage as many punters as it attracts. Having said that, BMW says sales of its 7 Series are well ahead of sales of its previous model so it may be too soon to draw any hard and fast conclusions about what are seen as desirable attributes in a luxury car. Whichever side of the fence you may be on, there is no doubt that BMW have a philosophy for its vehicles and that philosophy includes incorporating usable technology to make them as cutting edge as possible. And for a company as progressive and successful as BMW, I can’t think of a better approach than that.


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