BMW 535i Touring 2011 Review

Picking the wagon body style over a sedan is a decision that could be made for a variety of different reasons. A big dog could be the cause; moving large equipment for a hobby could be another need for the extra space. The price of the more practical wagon body shape traditionally was paid in aesthetic appeal. But for anyone who believes that wagons are still the ugly siblings of sedans needs to take a look at the BMW 5-Series Touring. Car and SUV spent a week enchanted by its free flowing design and its executive cruiser meets family workhorse attitude.

While the recent popularity of SUVs and crossover vehicles has pushed low-slung wagons on to the endangered species list the 535i Touring shows real evolution of the body style. While we’ve had plenty of BMW’s current range for review at Car and SUV headquarters, no other model has generated as much interest and admiration as the 535i Touring. Our test machine was glamourised over the standard model by the optional M Sports package ($8,350). This upgrade sees a more aggressive body kit fitted, lower sports suspension and eye-catching 19-inch M-Light alloy wheels. If you want to give your BMW wagon some serious road presence the M Sports package is the way to go.

At the front the Touring is identical to its better-known sedan sibling with a wide, upright kidney grille and deeply creased bonnet. A broad shoulder line pushes back through its flanks into muscular rear wheel arches. The roof dips away at the back in a shooting-brake style, blackened pillars and chrome around the side window line give the Touring a long and dramatic profile. The pinched and curved rear end is highlighted by jewelled 2-piece tail lamps and twin exhausts accommodated by a rear diffuser. The paintwork is outstanding and even in the conservative Space Grey hue it has a liquid look that promotes the Touring’s subtle curves.

Visibility isn’t bad for a modern wagon, the side glass narrows but continues very far back and while the rear windscreen is on the smaller side, it’s not dangerously so. Exterior dimensions are nearly identical to the 5-Series sedan but the Touring is slightly shorter and offers 20mm more rear headroom for backseat riders.

Inside, the 535i is typical BMW low-key opulence with abundant use of high-quality leathers, metals and plastics. Our test subject used contrasting silver trim to break up the dark plastics with attractive effect. Switchgear is all within reach and presented logically. The M Sport steering wheel is thick to grip and houses audio and phone buttons. The basic controls can be operated through push buttons but to access the deeper set of options and information the I-Drive jog dial is required. It’s now a very intuitive system that commands a whole range of entertainment, navigation and vehicle settings. With the optional ‘Navigation Professional’ system ($2050) installed the sat nav looks great on the full colour widescreen. Instrumentation is nicely familiar with large black and white dials sitting above a smaller secondary screen that displays trip computer info.

The standard equipment list is impressive and includes high-end kit like heads up display, adaptive xenon headlights, rear view camera and parking sensors, Bluetooth, run flat tyres, lane departure warning, cruise control with braking function and a thumping 12-speaker stereo with 230W amp and iPod input.

It’s a very cosseting cabin for driver and shotgun passenger, in the rear pew it opens up more but space remains limited. Cabin space on the whole is only satisfactory for a vehicle that has the generous exterior dimensions of the 5-Series touring. Head and shoulder room is ample all around but the bulky front chairs steal away valuable legroom from rear passengers. The trade-off is two of the most comfortable front seats on the market. They are wide yet supportive, heated and have a multitude of electronic adjustments to get them positioned just right and memory settings for when you do.

Behind the rear seat back the Touring 5-Series offers an extra 40-litres of luggage capacity over the sedan at 560 litres. Fold flat the 40/20/40 split rear seat back and the available space expands to 1670 litres. The loading area is very practical with adjustable tie down hooks, an easy release lever to fold the rear seats down and an electronic/automatic blind. The tailgate opens high, making it easy to load larger items, but if the 535i is parked in a height restricted space or you just want to chuck some shopping bags in the hatch, the rear glass windscreen can open independently.

On road the 535i is strong and smooth with a 3.0-litre inline six-cylinder engine on duty. It’s the latest example of what’s a traditional engine layout for BMW, and uses a twin scroll single turbo to achieve its power. Power output is rated at 225kW with 400Nm of torque. With the Touring tipping the scales at 1,845kg, just 70kg heavier than the sedan, its 0-100kph sprint time is the same at 6.1 seconds.

Get on the throttle and power builds quickly above 3,000rpm, but the six-cylinder is a master at disguising its true pace and feels relaxed and effortless in it’s performance. It moves swiftly around town, but on the open road the 535i feels most at home with plenty of mid-range pace for passing and making express movements between corners. It’s a hard engine to fault, but it can show hints of turbo lag and gives away a little refinement when pushed hard. By comparison its diesel burning 535d stablemate, with its twin turbocharged motor and massive 600Nm of torque, feels a notch smoother and more advanced. That said, the 535i has lineage and its own character – both models are impressively powered.

Shifting the gears is BMW’s eight-speed automatic transmission. It’s a silky smooth unit that has tightly spaced ratios and serves as testament that a functional, modern gearbox doesn’t have to use a twin-clutch set up. There’s also a sports mode, which keeps the 535i on edge and if you want to make the changes yourself – a sequential function on the gearstick or steering wheel paddles. The powertrain works in with BMW’s EfficientDynamics features to give the 535i a combined fuel consumption figure of 8.5l/100km. That’s not bad for a turbocharged six, but if you drive it hard expect consumption to easily breach 12l/100km.

Get the 535i’s rear wheels pushing you through the corners and it begins to feel much smaller and more nimble, if you don’t turn your head, there’s no indication that you’re in a med/large wagon. Body roll is minimal, grip is total and its overall handling limits are higher than most drivers would dare explore. Refinement levels are very good with extensive sound-deadening denying engine or road noise from intruding in the cabin. There’s also a complete lack of booming or rattles from the longer wagon body shape. Steering in the 535i is on the light side, particularly on centre, but on twisty roads or at higher speeds it firms up and is always precise.

BMW has made sure occupants are well protected in the 535i Touring with side-impact protection and front, side and curtain airbags ready to pop. There are active front headrests and pyrotechnic tighteners on the front and outside rear seat belts. Helping keep the 535i on the road is stability and traction control systems, ABS brakes with brake assist and a driving dynamics control unit.

Without doubt the 535i Touring is one of the most elegant and engaging family haulers on NZ roads. With the M Sports upgrades it’s a real head turner and a huge departure from the boxy station wagons of old. Interior space is comfortable and cosseting but not as expansive as some competitors but the rear loading bay is highly usable. On the road there are no real concessions to make in choosing the Touring body shape, it’s a quick car without being intimidating and its dynamics are competent and reassuring. Sure the 535i Touring doesn’t come cheap, especially with expensive optional equipment tagged on, but in the world of family wagons you’ll be rolling in one of the top dogs.

Price: $151,500 as tested $186,980

What we like:

  • Exterior design with M Sports kit
  • Practical loading area
  • Highly refined cruiser
  • Smooth and strong powertrain

What we don’t like:

  • Interior space is restricted
  • Some of the best features are optional equipment and expensive
  • Fuel economy figure is hard to achieve

Who will buy this car: Cashed-up superheros who do the hard yards in the office all week and ferry the kids around on the weekend. Possibly a person who has various sports and hobbies and wants to get to them quickly and with style.

Cool Factor: Very high, the 5-Series sedan is sexy but the Touring is a dead set stunner especially with the M Sports kit. Kiwis love wagons and this one will earn you major kudos.

Words and Photos: Adam Mamo

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