2018 BMW 5-series European-spec
Last spring, BMW invited us to drive the new-for-2018 5-series sedan in what was described as “early-development” form. That’s code for European-spec cars cloaked in camouflage inside and out, with a chassis still using interim calibrations. This experience turned out to be a brain-picking session. Before key settings were finalized for production—scheduled to begin before the end of this year—our BMW hosts wanted to know our opinions of where they’re heading with the brand’s second-best-selling product line (globally), behind only the 3-series. We’re now finally allowed to share them with you.
Public back roads in northeast Wales have served BMW’s hands-on development needs for years. The team resides for weeks at a medieval castle (its location is kept secret from the public), where the cuisine is excellent but cell service is spotty. Meetings are infrequent. Instead, the team spends time on the well-maintained roads, where there’s minimal traffic and the law-enforcement authorities put top priority on clearing rogue sheep from the pavement.
The test-car selection consisted of three variants of the new 5-series, code-named G30:
• A rear-drive (sDrive) 540i equipped with IAS and VDC. Decoded, these labels stand for Integral Active Steering—that’s four-wheel steering—and Variable Damper Control.
• A 530d with xDrive (all-wheel drive), a Sport suspension, and IAS.
• A rear-drive 530i equipped with a co-driver operating a laptop wired to vary the car’s steering characteristics.
BMW engineers declared the key goals for this seventh-generation 5-series to be the following: Sustain the current model’s sales success amounting to two million cars (globally) in the past five years; be the sportiest entry in the luxury-mid-size segment; provide a smooth ride with excellent body-motion control and outstanding agility; and offer customers around the world a business-oriented limousine equipped with a pleasant Sport suspension.
BMW’s brilliant damper tuner Jos van As chaperoned our drive in the turbocharged six-cylinder 540i, which was riding on conventional, non-run-flat tires. This car’s steering was impressive thanks to a narrow on-center dead spot, immediate off-center response, and commendable precision. Our one gripe was that the steering effort was much lighter than we believe is most appropriate for a BMW. The dampers provided competent control over body motion with no hint of harshness. Aggressive braking while turning did not fluster this 5-series one iota.
Next up was the 530d equipped with all-wheel drive, four-wheel steering, the Sport suspension, and run-flat 19-inch tires. Here, our host was Manfred Ahrens, BMW’s “functional design driving dynamics” manager for the 5-series. Ahrens reported that development work begins with calibrations for the Comfort mode before attention shifts to the more enthusiast-oriented suspension settings. Pressing the Sport button on the console varies steering effort, transmission operation, and throttle response (no adaptive suspension in this car). The Sport-suspension dampers have a fixed calibration, and the ride height is 0.4-inch lower. According to Ahrens, 15 to 20 percent of U.S. customers will choose the more handling-oriented suspension. We found this car too firm, even on the smooth Welsh roads, and not ideally suited to the tortured pavement common in the United States. The road texture excited the tire treads, sending noise and harshness straight into the cabin. The steering was perfect for effort but numb-feeling and totally lacking in feedback from the road. Tapping the Sport button raises steering effort by 10 percent, a change we found barely noticeable.