Over the years we’ve called the subject of this week’s Road Test by Request “exceptional,” “perfectly balanced,” and simply “the best sport sedan in the world.” We’re talking about the BMW 5-series. For years, the 5-series has provided the world’s serious sedan fans with the ultimate combination of comfort, style and performance. Which places BMW in a peculiar position. How do you build it better when you already build the best?
You do it by making a host of changes, some subtle, some very obvious. At the top of the obvious list is the styling. The lean, early-‘90s Bimmer look has been replaced by smoother, more rubenesque lines. And these flowing curves don’t just make the Five look bigger. It is bigger, measuring 2.2 inches longer overall with 2.7 inches more wheelbase. But it’s also lighter, some 88 pounds lighter than its predecessor.
Part of that savings comes from the less obvious stainless steel exhaust header on our 528i test car’s brand-new 2.8-liter inline six. Shared with the latest 328i, this 24-valve unit produces 190 horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque. A 282 horse V-8 is available in the 540i. Both engines push power through either a 5-speed automatic or a silky-smooth 5-speed manual like that found in our test car. Rowing effortlessly through those gears allowed us to romp to a 0-to-60 time of 7.1 seconds. And through the quarter mile in 15.7 seconds, at 91 miles per hour. Power was everywhere in the rev band, coming on in a smooth, seamless flow. Our drivers loved it.
Our drivers have also long loved the Five’s handling, and still do! Unseen, but substantial, increases in chassis stiffness and lighter aluminum suspension components, shared with the latest 7-series, are the news here. On our smooth test track, this meant tenacious grip and very predictable behavior at the limits. Even at higher speeds, the car’s forgiving nature will save much adrenaline.
Out on the road, however, the drivers were divided about the new rack-and-pinion steering, some feeling that it was precise but lacked feel. Real world bumps and potholes also had them complaining about this year’s softer suspension feel, claiming that it made the car wallow in fast corners But that softness also translated into a very refined highway ride and a remarkably low 66-decibel interior noise level at 60. While back on the track, anti-lock equipped, vented disc brakes all around delivered 115-foot stops from 60 miles per hour and rock-solid stability.
Solid also describes the build quality of the 528i’s smart new interior. It’s sleeker, without the cold, Teutonic feel of previous Bimmer cockpits. And with not only standard dual air bags, but cleverly concealed door-mounted side air bags, as well. The front bucket seats, with optional leather trim and 10-way power adjustments, are plusher and more comfortable on long hauls than before, and face a typically efficient BMW gauge cluster. The standard cassette player hides under a flip-up door, with the confusing multi-function radio buttons nestled below. Even busier controls for the standard automatic climate control system lie below that. While farther along the center console are a set of very rudimentary cupholders. Both front and rear seats offer more room for ‘97. The rear offers optional split-folding seatbacks and a pass-through with ski sack. But while passenger space is up, trunk space is down to 11 cubic feet. A low liftover, however, makes for easy loading.
Prices for the latest 528i start at $37,900. Our superbly equipped test car came to $44,345. That’s the upper-end of the mid-size Euro-sedan class, but still a better buy than its smaller 328i cousin.
But while we’ve found a few more nits to pick than we expected, there’s no doubt that the latest 5-series is a superb driving machine. Our friends at Automobile Magazine were even more enthusiastic, saying: “The finest of all ‘ordinary’ BMWs, we think, is this new 5-series line that epitomizes what sport sedans are all about.”
Strong words, and we almost agree. The many changes, both seen and unseen, allow the new BMW 528i to easily beat all competitors straight out of the box. It’s only when measured against the brilliance of its own predecessor that the 528i stumbles slightly. But then, when you’ve already built the best sport sedan in the world, building a better one is never easy.
Engine: 2.8-Liter, Dohc, 24-valve, In-line 6 Cylinder
Torque: 207 Lb Feet
0-60 MPH: 7.1 Seconds
1/4 Mile: 15.7 Seconds @ 91 MPH
60-0 MPH: 115 Feet