Love is supposed to be unchanging, untainted, and absolute. It’s overwhelming attraction and unwavering commitment. When love is mutual, both sides work to sustain and grow it. Enthusiasts love BMW.
Love betrayed? That gets nasty.
The new 2017 540i is the latest evidence that BMW may be just not that into you anymore. It’s squishy where previous 5s were taut, and it trades eagerness for comfort. Of course, it’s a spectacularly capable car built with the solidity of the door to Wittenberg’s All Saints’ Church, on which Martin Luther posted his 95 theses that launched the Reformation in 1517. But, 500 years later, the 540i is nowhere near that communicative.
G30 Is No E39
Tested here is the rear-drive version of the 540i powered by the twin-turbo 3.0-liter inline-six rated at 335 horsepower; we previously tested this engine with xDrive all-wheel drive. Sitting a notch below is the 530i powered by a turbocharged 2.0-liter four rated at 248 horsepower. And one rung above is the M550i that has a twin-turbo 4.4-liter V-8 humming with 456 horsepower under its hood.
Called the G30 within BMW, this seventh-generation 5er (the series dates to the 1973 E12 model) derives from the same component set as the current 7-series. And that makes this car a big keg of Bavarian doppelbock. The 117.1-inch wheelbase is up only 0.2 inch from the superseded F10 generation, and at 194.6 inches overall, length has grown a mere 1.5 inches. But the F10 was no dainty car. This happens to be the 20th anniversary of the introduction of the landmark E39-generation 5-series that many argue was the peak for the species, and this new 5 is a whole lot bigger than the E39.
The G30 stretches 6.6 inches longer than the E39 with 5.7 inches more metal between the axles. More significantly, this new 540i weighs 4071 pounds where the 2001 540i (equipped with a naturally aspirated 4.4-liter V-8 and a five-speed automatic transmission) weighed 147 pounds less. In fairness, though, all cars have grown heavier in that time period, and this new 540i is actually a bit lighter than its immediate predecessor. C/D’s long-term 2011 BMW 535i (an early F10-platform car with a turbo 3.0-liter six and a six-speed manual) hit the scales at 4075 pounds. Four pounds may not be much less, but it’s not more. And this 2017 540i carried an exceptionally high level of options, while the long-term car had only a few.
That’d be $25,165 worth of add-ons atop the $57,445 base price. That includes a mostly decorative $2600 M Sport package; the Driving Assistance and Driving Assistance Plus packages that together run $3200 and add a number of cameras, sensors, and active safety features; and a $3500 Dynamic Handling package that incorporates adaptive dampers and anti-roll bars as well as an Adaptive Drive system that coordinates the interaction between those two technologies. Are we wrong to think that an Ultimate Driving Machine should include something called Dynamic Handling as standard equipment?
German luxury manufacturers have never been shy about option pricing, so this is no great surprise. Still, it takes some brass to charge $4200 for a Bowers & Wilkins sound system and then demand another $300 if the customer also wants Apple CarPlay compatibility.
Lovely, Spacious, Tech-Heavy Cabin
Fortunately, this $82,610 car has an interior that befits its lofty station. The $1600 Luxury Seating package includes a set of seats that adjust in far more ways than anyone’s body can and are upholstered in spectacularly supple nappa leather with diamond tufting that looks like a blanket of engagement rings. The M Sport steering-wheel rim may be a few millimeters too thick, the shifter wand is a few degrees beyond inscrutable, and the iDrive control system’s menus still stretch a few layers too deep, but the overall design is among BMW’s best and the quality of construction is right up there alongside corporate brother Rolls-Royce.
The long wheelbase pays off in good rear legroom and abets a more stable ride. In a class that includes cars such as the Jaguar XF, Audi A6, and the Mercedes-Benz E-class, the BMW feels and is the roomiest. It’s not quite the stretch-out indulgence of larger luxury machines, but it’s comfy in the back seat. And that makes sense, since so much of BMW’s future is bet on the Chinese market where those with the means prefer being driven instead of driving.
Plenty Quick but Insulated
It’s that driving part that’s most frustrating about the 540i. All the mega-gigatrons of technology aboard insulates the driver from the experience. Only fleeting hints of mechanical joy make their way to the human who, it seems, is only nominally in charge. The test car contacts the pavement through a set of staggered Goodyear Eagle F1 Asymmetric 3 tires, size 245/40R-19 in front and 275/35R-19 in back, but the car might as well be floating on a magnetic field. Charge into and then brake for a corner and the car doesn’t take the flat four-wheel set expected of BMWs. Instead it feels, well, sort of ordinary; with no report through the wheel or seat about what’s going on down at the tires. It’s great for a luxury barge, not that swell for a car with the epic sporting reputation of the 5-series. Take the time to make sure all the tech-nannies are switched to their most irresponsible settings, and it gets a little more engaging, but the electrically assisted steering remains Novocain numb.
There is, at least, some thrust aboard. The two turbos are tuned to boost the straight-six so that it achieves its peak 332 lb-ft of torque at an utterly silly 1380 rpm, barely off idle. It’s tough to parallel park this thing without reaching the peak torque rpm. That meshes well with the talents of the eight-speed automatic transmission. Driven gently, the transmission will trot, almost unnoticed, to the highest possible gear to keep revs down and fuel economy up. Drive as if you mean it, and the bottom six gears (none of which is an overdrive ratio, sixth being 1.00:1) dance as if Twyla Tharp and the ghost of Bernd Rosemeyer had conspired to set the tuning.
At the track the 540i reached 60 mph in a commendable 4.7 seconds with the ample torque compensating for the modest 335-hp rating, and it scooted through the quarter-mile in 13.2 seconds at 109 mph. The all-wheel-drive version tested earlier did those deeds in 4.5 seconds and 13.1 ticks at 108 mph. It’s expected that the AWD version gets off the line a little better, with the rear-driver closing the gap at higher speeds. Hitting 120 mph in 16.3 seconds, the 540i is 0.1 second ahead of its all-wheel-drive sibling.
It’s also acceleration that compares well with the greatest of all the E39s, the M5. Back in 2000, an E39 M5 powered by a 400-hp 5.0-liter V-8 lashed to a six-speed manual transmission zipped to 60 mph in 4.8 seconds and ran the quarter mile in 13.3-seconds at 108 mph during a comparison test that it won. This new 540i’s turbo six is an overachiever. And despite the beating it received in our hands, it averaged 22 mpg.
Stopping from 70 mph in 168 feet is pretty good, but 12 feet longer than that old M5. Likewise, the 0.87 g skidpad orbit doesn’t quite match the old E39 M-car’s 0.90 g. Sure, this new one isn’t an M car, but it’s 17 years later and the archrival 2017 Mercedes E300 4MATIC can stop in 154 feet and corner at 0.90 g. Worst of all, this 540i may be quicker and more fuel efficient, but it is nowhere near as much fun as the old car. Not even close.
Back in 1997 the entire BMW range in America consisted of variations on the 3-, 5-, 7-, and 8-series, plus the Z3 roadster. That’s five lines. But with the introduction of the X5 in 2000, BMW began an incredible expansion of its product portfolio. Today there are six car lines (not including the Z4 that’s fading out of dealerships now), five SUVs (with more on the way), and the electric i3 (range-extender optional) and hybrid i8. That’s 13 product lines not counting hybrid variations, M versions and whatever knick-knacks they’re selling in the dealership accessory shop. In places like prosperous Thousand Oaks, California, BMWs are more mainstream than Chevys or Fords, so the Rusnak BMW dealership resides in a block-long building. If the ultimate driving machine still resides in that block, the new 540i isn’t it.
Love may be unchanging, but the world changes around it. There’s no arguing with BMW’s massive success as a business, but it’s straining the enthusiasts’ ability to love it unconditionally. That matters to us, even if it doesn’t matter to BMW.
VEHICLE TYPE: front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 4-door sedan
PRICE AS TESTED: $82,610 (base price: $57,445)
ENGINE TYPE: turbocharged and intercooled DOHC 24-valve inline-6, aluminum block and head, direct fuel injection
Displacement: 183 cu in, 2998 cc
Power: 335 hp @ 6500 rpm
Torque: 332 lb-ft @ 1380 rpm
TRANSMISSION: 8-speed automatic with manual shifting mode
Wheelbase: 117.1 in
Length: 194.6 in
Width: 73.5 in Height: 58.2 in
Passenger volume: 99 cu ft
Trunk volume: 19 cu ft
Curb weight: 4071 lb
C/D TEST RESULTS:
Zero to 60 mph: 4.7 sec
Zero to 100 mph: 11.1 sec
Zero to 130 mph: 20.0 sec
Rolling start, 5–60 mph: 5.6 sec
Top gear, 30–50 mph: 2.5 sec
Top gear, 50–70 mph: 3.2 sec
Standing ¼-mile: 13.2 sec @ 109 mph
Top speed (governor limited, mfr's claim): 155 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 168 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.87 g
EPA combined/city/highway driving: 24/20/30 mpg
C/D observed: 22 mpg