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BMW 5-Series retains driving goodness

December 05, 2003|by JASON STEIN/Wheelbase Communications

If you know the BMW 5-Series, you can understand the gasp that went out when word spread that the Bavarian automaker was looking into making a few tweaks and a few tucks for 2004.

Change it? Inconceivable.

Make it better? Impossible.

You could almost hear the rumblings from the BMW faithful.

When it comes to ride, handling and performance, it's no secret the previous-generation 5-Series has been both the bench and the mark. It has set the standard for luxury sport sedans. It has attracted more customers every year from 1996 through 2002 - remarkably defying convention by achieving even higher U.S. sales in its final calendar year. For seven years running it has been the standard.

So why redesign? BMW says because it "knows how to follow tough acts." Just make them tougher.

Three new models will be phased in this fall, forming the new-generation 2004 5-Series - a roomier car that's longer, wider and taller than ever before. BMW says the gains in dimension will result in greater space for up to five people, more comfort and a bigger trunk.

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Big news? You don't know the half of it.

But just when you wonder if the 5-Series is getting too big around the middle, BMW says it promises to stay fit and trim where it counts. Driving feel, maneuverability and agility have always been core values of the 5-Series and that theme continues. An all-aluminum front-end and chassis actually reduce overall weight despite more size.

But the biggest shift away from the previous model comes in the form of technology. Several features are being directly pulled from the recently redesigned 7-Series including: iDrive, the central nervous system for the climate, audio and navigation controls, now standard on the 5-Series; Active Roll Stabilization, a traction-control system that senses a possible rollover and then works to prevents it; Active Cruise Control, an on-board brain that keeps the 5-Series at a safe distance while following other cars; and an amazing Harmon Kardon sound system.

But this isn't some scaled-down 7-Series. Several advanced technologies make their debut on the 5-Series for 2004, including BMW's much-anticipated Active Front Steering (AFS). The system varies the level of steering input that must be used in direct relation to the style and speed of driving, and the road conditions. For example, under normal driving at low and medium speeds, the steering requires less effort (with fewer turns of the wheel needed). This increases the agility needed for in city driving and parking. Out in the road, when cornering at high speeds, the steering stiffens.

AFS will be optional on all 5-Series trim levels except the top-end 545i with manual transmission, where it will be standard.

And the technology continues. Additional features that debut on the 2004 5-Series include optional adaptive headlights that swivel to illuminate a turn. Adaptive brake lights brighten as more pressure is applied to the pedal, which gives additional warning to vehicles that are following. Run-flat tires and a tire-pressure monitoring system are optional as well as multi-colored head-up display that projects vital data onto the windshield. There's even an optional fold-down DVD player for rear-seat passengers.

If all this has you thinking the new 5-Series is a big, giant computer game, think again. BMW hasn't forgotten the "sport" in sport sedan.

The new Series consists of three models, each powered by its own specific engine. The 525i sedan continues with the engine of its predecessor, the responsive and fuel-efficient 2.5-liter, 184-horsepower inline six-cylinder that flouts any notion of "entry-level" status. The 530i offers a step-up in six-cylinder power with a 3.0-liter 225-horsepower engine and additional standard equipment over the 525i. The 545i sedan derives its model designation from the Valvetronic engine first introduced in the 7 Series: a 4.4-liter V-8 delivering 325 horsepower, up 35 horses from the previous 540i. Each model is available with a wide range of packages and stand-alone options, and each is available with a choice of three transmissions, all six-speeds: a manual; an automatic with manual control; and a sequential manual gearbox (SMG) that automatically works the clutch for you.

On the outside, it's bold and daring without losing the 5-Series' trademark stance.

Fear not, BMW lovers, fear not. The best-selling sedan is still the benchmark and more. Still the luxury sport sedan it always was. Still the Ultimate Driving Machine.

© 2003, Wheelbase Communications

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