First Drive: 2010 BMW 550i Gran Turismo

A shape that grows on you.

by on Mar.29, 2010

Big, sure-footed and fun to drive despite its heft, the 2010 BMW 550i Gran Turismo.

Change is the only constant.  If you’re a BMW purist, you might want to repeat that line a few times because the automaker’s line-up has certainly changed quite a bit in recent years, and some of the new entries take a bit of getting used to.

It was difficult enough for some Bavarian Motoren Werke aficionados to accept the idea of the original X5 SUV — a “sport-activity vehicle” in the maker’s parlance – bearing BMW’s double-kidney grille and “spinner” logo.  Then came the X6, not quite sport-ute, not quite sport coupe.

Now, we’re being asked to get our heads around the 2010 BMW 550i Gran Turismo.  This strange brew isn’t really your classic GT, nor is it a sport-ut, despite the four-door’s surprising heft.  Stuck for an easy definition, we jumped at the opportunity to take it for a long weekend’s drive down the Autobahn from Munich, up into the Swiss Alps and, finally, back down into Geneva.

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Anyone used to the classic BMW sedan or coupe is likely to be in for a surprise when they get up close to the 550 GT.  While it’s not quite as bulky as one of the maker’s X models, it still carries plenty of heft, especially when you compare it to some of its Gran Turismo-class competitors, like the new Porsche Panamera or the Audi A5 Sportback.

Our 2010 BMW 550i Gran Turismo as we set out from the company's Munich headquarters for the long drive to Geneva.

One reason is that BMW has borrowed the underpinnings of the newest 7-Series sedan – it’s got about the same wheelbase, at 120.7 inches, though it’s three inches shorter — and mandated that the GT deliver a similar amount of interior space.  The Grand Turismo is something of a “tweener,” its seats mounted about two inches higher than a conventional 5-Series sedan, yet about five inches lower than the X5 crossover.  That makes it easy to slide into the new offering, rather than dropping into your seat, as with a conventional BMW sedan.

It may seem a bit awkward from the outside, but you can guess which model backseat passengers would opt for, given a choice – especially when they discover the rear seat can slide nearly four inches fore and aft.  Our test car also included the optional luxury package: electrically adjustable twin rear buckets with sunshades and remote climate controls.

One of the more unusual features of the 550i GT is the dual-access hatchback.  You can drop a small liftgate or open the entire assembly for easier cargo access.  There’s also a removable parcel shelf – which neatly tucks away when not in use — providing more flexibility than either a conventional trunk or sport-ute design.

The cordoned-off cargo compartment reduces the sort of boominess common with classic wagons or SUVs, but the trade-off is less noise and less visibility.  Without the rearview camera we’d have been going by guesstimate whenever we had to back up.

The BMW 5GT has a lot in common with the topline 7-Series, including the elegant use of leather, shown here being prepared on a special laser cutting machine at the Sindolfing plant.

The camera system is just one of the seemingly countless high-tech options and standard features offered on the 550, which slots in somewhere between a 5-Series sedan and the bigger 7-er.

The elegant and refined cabin is closer to that of the topline sedan, with lavishly double-stiched leather and hand-polished wood balanced by soft metal accents.  The aforementioned camera displays on a huge, high-mounted LCD screen that doubles for navigation and just about every other electronic function BMW has crammed into the car.  The visual impact is tremendous and, to our appreciation, the maker has adopted the latest version of its iDrive controller.  This all-in-one device still isn’t our favorite, but it’s a significant improvement over earlier iDrive versions that were anything but intuitive.

Following a winding trail from Munich to Geneva, we logged enough time on the open Autobahn to be inspired by the raw power of the 550i Gran Turismo’s 4.4-liter twin-turbo V-8.  Borrowed from the latest-generation BMW 750, and making 440 horsepower, it dominated the road, easily cruising anywhere from 125 to 150 mph.

We had some company along the way and occasionally switched into the European 535 diesel, a delightful package that delivered nearly the performance and none of the guilt, racking up near-hybrid fuel economy even at Autobahn speeds.  For the moment, there are no plans to bring the diesel to the States, though that could change if demand grows for the oil-burners BMW has already parked at U.S. showrooms.

Switch the suspension to Sport mode and you can handle almost anything, including fresh snow in the Swiss Alps.

(The 550i Gran Turismo will be followed by the 535i, which features a single-turbo, direct-injection 3.0-liter inline-six.  Rated at just 300 hp, it’s nearly as good at moving the GT’s 4600 pounds, soaring from 0 to 60 in about 6.2 seconds, less than a second more than the 550i’s twin-turbo V-8.)

On the open highway, you don’t really notice the raw mass of the 5GT.  It’s size became much more apparent as we started climbing into the Swiss hills, where it came close to straddling the lines on both sides of the lane.  But any sense of highway clastrophobia quickly vanished, and despite its bulk the GT readily proved to have the solid footing of a mountain goat, unperturbed even when a pre-Spring flurry began turning the pavement white.

While some of the purists in our press corps will opt for conventional steering, we were quite pleased by the optional Active Steering system, which not only varies the steering ratio of the front wheels but also turns the rear wheels up to three degrees.

The adjustable suspension, meanwhile, offers a variety of modes.  We’re not sure there’s much value to the soft “Comfort” setting, though “Normal” will get you through anything but the most aggressive corners.  “Sport” is a must for pushing the limits on a backwoods Swiss road, and if you’re really out to test your own mettel,” you can go for “Sport Plus,” which is a virtually track-ready setting that, among other things, dials back stability control to the point where it kicks in only when you’re about to launch yourself off a cliff.

For the moment, at least, there are no plans to bring the diesel-powered BMW 535d Gran Turismo to the United States.

At $65,775, the 2010 BMW 550i Gran Turismo isn’t cheap, but it delivers a lot for the price.  What could be more disconcerting is fuel economy, at just 15 City/21 Highway.  While final figures have yet to be set, you might consider waiting for the 535i Gran Turismo if mileage is a key factor in your decision making.

There was a time when BMW was the most rigid of the German makers, at least when it came to stretching the design envelope.  In recent years, it’s been making up for lost time with models like the X5, X6 and, now, the 550i Gran Turismo.  The unusual design has a few drawbacks and clearly isn’t for everyone.  But if you’re looking for a luxury cruiser that can make the miles seem to vanish in comfort — while also delivering the sort of spirited performance and handling BMW is known for — then there are plenty of reasons the 5GT is worth a close look.

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