First Drive: 2011 BMW 535i

Balancing performance and fuel efficiency.

by on Jan.25, 2010

Taking the new 2011 BMW 535i for a drive along the Portugese coast.

While the 3-Series may be BMW’s “bread-and-butter” car, accounting for the lion’s share of its sales, the 5-Series is the brand’s soul, the fulcrum of the Bavarian’s balancing act of passionate performance and luxury.  So, we jumped at the chance to get behind the wheel of an all-new 2011 BMW 5-Series in Portugal, this week.

The 5-er has been around since 1972 and hasn’t done badly for BMW, selling more than 5.5 million copies, over nearly four decades.  The outgoing model launched in 2003, and has been the most successful yet to display the 5-Series badge.  So developing a replacement has been a challenge, to say the least.

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The 2011 BMW 5-Series moves away from the edgy extremes developed by former BMW Design Director Chris Bangle — who left the company a year ago, but still played a critical role in its development.  Bangle’s approach was to stage a styling competition between 120 of BMW’s designers.  Set in motion three years ago, the first round of the battle resulted in five initial exterior designs and four interiors.  Eventually, after a series of shoot-outs,

The design of the 2011 BMW 535i was the result of a "shoot-out" among the automaker's best designers.

Jacek Fröhlich’s exterior design and Oliver Heilmer’s interior were given the nod.

To maximize interior space the 2011 BMW 5-er’s wheelbase was stretched 3.14 inches to 116.9”, making the new car the longest in its segment. The overall length increased by 2 inches and the width by 0.5 inches, while the height dropped a microscopic 0.04”.

Surprisingly, the weight of the car has only increased 110 pounds , even though there’s plenty of new technology built in for occupant, as well as pedestrian safety. Along with the hood, the dorrs, front side panels and front spring support are made of aluminium. The result is not just a savings of 51 pounds but a significant increase in stiffness.

“Just one and a half years ago the European regulations for pedestrian safety changed, so we had to adjust at a late stage,” noted Josef Wüst, Project Director of the 5-Series.

The interior of the 2011 BMW 535i is familiar, debuting on the new 5-Series GT.

The 2011 BMW 5-Series is, as we’ve come to expect from BMW, a technological showpiece, with new features such as parking assistant, which identifies a suitable space and automatically steers the car into the spot; the driver only working the brake and gas pedals.  Another new system is surround view, which uses four cameras to provide a motorist a birdseye view.

The 535i was the vehicle of choice during the first driving event with the new 5-Series, in Portugal.  (We also had the chance to get behind the wheel of the 530d, though the clean diesel isn’t scheduled to leap the Atlantic any time soon.)  The 306 horsepower BMW 535i features a new inline-6 engine with a single, twin-scroll turbocharger, direct injection and Valvetronic variable lift – the same powertrain package that made its initial debut, a few months back, in the 535i GT.  It replaces the twin-turbo package in the current 5.

The new engine’s torque gets a 2.6% bump, to 295 lb-ft between 1,200 and 5,000 rpm, but fuel economy drops to 33.2 mpg highway.

All new 5-Series models come standard with the BMW’s new eight-speed automatic transmission, which debuted in  the 2009 remake of BMW’s flagship, the 760i.  The transmission is not only some 6 lb lighter, it is also more compact than the old 6-speed gearbox. And it’s designed to reduce by 6-7 per cent.

The new 2011 BMW 535i can be set to Normal, Sport or track-ready Sport+ mode.

One of the most significant changes found with the 2011 BMW 535i is its suspension, which is now of the same basic design as the latest 7-Series, with an aluminium doubl- track control arm in the front and an aluminium Integral-V rear.

We spent a day driving around Lisbon and into the verdant Portugese countryside, aided by the updated iDrive navigation system – which also debuted on the latest 7-Series, which you can monitor on  its new 10.2” screen.

While the 5-Series’ driving dynamics are impeccable, critics have often faulted the various incarnations for a somewhat cramped interior.  Not so the new model.  We instantly felt comfortable, with lots of leg room.  The nice dash layout, which conforms to the classic BMW cockpit design, is largely the same as the 535i GT’s.

With the optional Sport Package with Driving Dynamics Control you can choose Comfort, Normal Sport or Sport+.  The typical BMW aficionado is likely to go for the middle setting, and we were pleasantly surprised to discover that in town, on the rough and uneven streets of Lisbon, the BMW 535i was anything but uncomfortable. But on the winding roads along the coast, the car proved to still have the balance and grace one would expect of the 5-Series.

The challenge, with a car like the 5-Series, is to update styling without abandoning the soul of a machine many consider the best in BMW's mix.

Kudos to the 535i’s new electric steering system, which delivered a great sense of road feel without the unpredictability that many similar systems suffer from.

In Sport+ mode, and with traction and stability control disabled, the new Bimmer remained delightfully neutral as we flogged it around the Estoril race track.  Yet, in case you acted too eagerly and lead-footed the throttle, it proved easy to control rear wheel drift.

The engine responded quickly to the most subtle blips of the throttle, and although I did not have a stopwatch to confirm acceleration, the car felt like it lived up to the advertised 0-62 mph times of 6.0 seconds.

The new 8-speed transmission shifted quietly and without any hesitation when you shifted up or down via the paddle shifters on the steering wheel.

Though this is not a race car, it will come awfully close for people who want to hit the track every now and then, just to push the edges of the proverbial envelope.

But more important is the fact that the 2011 BMW 535i provides luxurious and comfortable commuting quality with confident handling and a firm but compliant suspension. BMW again has succeeded in improving an already good model without compromising driving fun.

The 535i will reach showrooms on June 20 and will be followed by the 550i, with its 400 hp V-8. Later this year, look for the fuel-sipping 528i, as well as the xDrive four-wheel-drive variants. The new Touring will debut as a 2012 model.

Though the numbers have not been announced yet, but expect to see something close to the current price of some $55,000.

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