BMW’s 5-Series has never been ostentatious, it’s never screamed out for attention or keenly elicited pedestrian glances. Instead, it’s flown under the radar of many since its inception back in 1972, but for those who know better the 5-Series is one executive saloon that’s hard to beat. Now in 2010 the 5-Series has entered it’s sixth generation and remains low key but is stronger and more advanced than ever before. Car and SUV spent a week behind the wheel of the top spec (below the M Division’s M5) 550i to see what’s new and what’s stayed the same. On paper, the 550i is the true stealth bomber of the range, equipped with a full payload of raw power, cutting edge technology and bulletproof build quality.
Exterior aesthetics were a heated talking point of the previous E60 5-Series penned by controversial designer Chris Bangle. The new 550i sees a return to the understated strong looks that defined earlier models. While there remains a clear resemblance to the E60 model the muscular creases in the bonnet and along the flanks combine with the prominent kidney grilles to better create a modern example of a familiar bloodline. Critics could argue that the new 5-Series hasn’t done enough to break new design ground, but few would blame BMW for playing it safe this time around. That said, the new 550i does stand out as an athletic machine with wide 19-inch wheels and gaping twin chrome exhaust tips offering a subtle hint to the power hiding underneath its contemporary sheet metal.
Even the harshest design critic would struggle to fault the 550i interior, with high quality leathers, metals and plastics that cosset the driver. There are a wide variety of artistic shapes and textures but all switchgear is thoughtfully placed and easily operated. The leather-wrapped steering wheel is thick to the grip and houses audio and phone controls. There are numerous class touches including illuminated climate control displays that disappear into their surrounds when not required and a large high-def colour control screen that’s recessed into the dashboard for good visibility even in harsh lighting conditions. The i-Drive jog dial control system is excellent, it’s very simple to use and has functions for a variety of applications, from playing music stored on the in-built hard disk to checking oil levels and tyre pressures. There’s too much standard equipment to list but some tricks to show off to friends include a heads up speed display, a booming 12 speaker stereo system, 4-zone air conditioning with backseat controls and a voice recognition system. If you want to get into the lengthy (and pricey) options list, high-tech gems like seat mounted rear DVD screens, active cruise control or a night vision safety system are available.
The 550i cabin is tailor made for covering long distances with leather seats that offer a multitude of adjustments including extending the base – ideal for longer legs. The bolstering is supportive but never intrusive and the front seats can be either heated or cooled. The unfortunate flip side of these class-leading front seats is their bulky size decreases rear legroom for backseat passengers. While the available legroom is acceptable for adults it’s definitely not generous. Headroom is ample for all but the middle passenger in the rear pew who gets a hard seat and limited headspace due to the 550i’s coupe-inspired roofline.
Despite the elegant interior and sumptuous seating it’s under the bonnet where the 5-Series has traditionally separated itself from competitors and the 2010 550i is no different. Wedged into the 550i’s engine bay is BMW’s latest V8 fire breather, displacing 4.4-litres it uses twin-turbocharging to produce 300kW of power and a stomach shifting 600Nm of torque. Acceleration is delivered with effortless urgency and no lag, with the maximum torque available from just 1,750rpm. It’s also very flexible for a high performance engine and isn’t always on edge, happily cruising smoothly at low rpm around town or on the motorway, but a quick prod on the fun pedal in any gear and there are instantly huge doses of grunt to play with. The hard-hitting V8 will get the 1,830kg BMW to 100kph in five seconds flat and won’t let up till it hits an electronically limited 250kph.
Shifting the gears is BMW’s silky smooth eight-speed transmission. It moves through the ratios well and is as competent as you can get without using a twin-clutch set up. If manual gear shifting is required, sequential changes can be made on the gearstick or alternatively through the steering wheel mounted paddles.
In terms of handling the 550i is a master at hiding its generous dimensions, it feels lightly nimble and with a 50:50 weight distribution and rear-wheel-drive, very sporty as well. Thanks to the clever Dynamic Driving Control and Dynamic Damping Control system, which uses stabilisers on the axles, body roll is almost non-existent and the level of grip on offer will hold longer than most driver’s nerves. If you’re hell bent on getting the 550i sideways then the Sport + mode will give the driver enough leeway for some “controlled drifting.” Both the brake and accelerator pedals are sharply responsive but still easy to operate smoothly. Steering feel isn’t quite as responsive with BMW opting for an electromechanical system which gives the vehicle a light, precise feel, but robs it of the more direct feedback some BMW fans would expect.
Ride quality is remarkably good in the 550i with all but the heaviest bumps easily absorbed by the suspension. A rigid steel frame prevents vibrations from entering the cabin and no real ride comfort compromises have been made to achieve the 550i’s high handling abilities.
When it comes to safety there are all the usual airbags and seatbelt pretensioners ready to fire but there are other clever tricks as well like a lane change warning system and a bonnet that pops up if you collide with a pedestrian.
So what’s the bottom line on the BMW 550i? Well it’s a hard vehicle to fault because it plays to all the traditional 5-Series strengths. It’s elegantly styled in a fashion that’s ultra-modern but still aware of its own bloodline. Its powertrain is a marvel in terms of its refined and strong power delivery, and the driving dynamics are truly cutting edge for a mid/large size sedan. Add in the luxurious and highly equipped interior and the 550i is certainly a lot of car. But a lot of car costs a lot of money and at $173,000 it’s not a cheap proposition. Start ticking the options sheet and it can reach $200k. However, for cashed-up badge lovers the BMW 550i will definitely not disappoint.
What we like:
- Awesome powertrain
- Technologically advanced
- Luxury interior
- Bulletproof build-quality
What we don’t like:
- Steering can feel vague
- Back seat space is limited
- Optional equipment is pricey
Words and Photos: Adam Mamo