First Drive: 2017 BMW 5 Series

First Drive: 2017 BMW 5 Series

A couple of weeks ago I travelled to Lisbon in Portugal to drive the 2017 BMW 5 Series. Unfortunately we could not bring you the story at the time because the German media had not yet driven the car and so we had duct tape put over our keyboards until December 2.

Fortunately, one German title was so upset about being late to the party that it broke the embargo earlier this week. Their toddler tantrum is our gain, so here it is, our first drive of the new 2017 BMW 5 Series.

BMW had to do something — Jaguar had introduced a lighter and more agile XF, while Mercedes had eclipsed everyone with the tech of its new E-Class. The game was on.

2017 BMW 5 Series

BMW had already shown the way the 5 Series might go with the latest generation 7 Series. Like the 7, the new 5 sits on the Cluster Architecture platform, which will also produce a new 3 Series and X5 in 2018 as well as gave birth to the X7. That platform is all about economies of scale, but it is also about gadgets — and the 5 has lots of them.

The new chassis is 100kg lighter than the old model. It features integral active steering — rear-wheel steering for those outside of a BMW engineering department. You can have it with a BMW personal copilot, again company-speak for semi-autonomous driving, and you can have it with remote control parking where you can put the car snugly in your garage while standing in the driveway maneuvering it with a smart key. And then you get gesture control, so you can waggle your finger to raise the audio volume. And there’s connectivity — lots of it.

All of this is probably why the company did not focus too much on changing the design. Adrian van Hooydonk, vice-president of design at BMW, points out there is a new line that runs from the Hofmeister kink in the C-pillar forward along the car and then back again. He says it is unique to the 5 Series and will become a signature item. Look closely, it’s there, I promise.

2017 BMW 5 Series

There is a larger grille, flanked more closely by narrower headlights and new daytime running lights. There are also new tail-lights and a few new pieces of chrome work. That’s about it for the exterior, except for one thing: the blind spot. At one point while driving, the blind spot behind the A-pillar and wing mirror almost covered an entire Peugeot 208.

Moving to the interior, things are very different. The dash is slimmer than in the old car, helped by moving the infotainment screen from the console to on top of the dash. It’s also larger, at 10.25 inches, and is a touchscreen system.

There is still an iDrive dial controller for the system, but Van Hooydonk says: “I believe that in the space of this vehicle’s lifetime, customers will move more to voice control.”

Some iDrive haters will be happy about that, even if it does mean they will find themselves talking more to their car than to their partners.

There is a new digital display, which debuted in the 7, as well as ambient lighting. It is all much more upmarket, perhaps even to the extent that it might persuade those who are thinking of downsizing to steer clear of the 7 Series and go for the 5 instead when it arrives here in February 2017.

However, Josef Wüst, head of midsize class products at BMW, says that is unlikely. The 7 has lots more going for it in the rear seats, where 7 Series owners spend a lot of their time, he says. Perhaps not such an easy decision in China, though, where the 5 will be available in a long-wheelbase version.

2017 BMW 5 Series

The midsize market, points out Wüst, is where it all really began for the Bavarian car maker, so the 5 is hugely important to the company.

We drove the 530d and 540i in Lisbon, equipped with BMW’s xDrive all-wheel drive system, which will not be coming to SA except in the flagship M550i.

Speaking of flagships, Wüst refused to comment too much on the next generation of the M5, which has been undergoing testing in Nevada in the US.

However — and some might need to sit down for this — he did say “both worlds, that of the electric vehicle and performance vehicle, can exist together. The ideal car would therefore be a hybrid M5.” Seriously — a hybrid M5? We will have to wait and see, but you might be reading it here first.

Before that, and later in 2017 or early in 2018, there will be a 530e plug-in hybrid which the company claims will have a range of 50km in electric-only mode and have the potential to deliver a fuel consumption figure as low as 1.9l/100km.

Back to the cars we did drive though, and it is clear the 100kg weight reduction and work beneath the skin has done a lot for the car. The 530d felt lighter, more agile, possibly even fulfilling the mantra of the “business athlete” that BMW marketing types keep calling it.

2017 BMW 5 Series

The steering is slightly (only slightly) heavier and more responsive than that in the 7 Series and it maintains that dynamic character that is a hallmark for the brand. As with previous generation 530d models, it is the pick of the bunch.

The 540i, on the other hand, is the one you want if you enjoy speed. Performance is said to be up 10% in this model. The throttle has to travel a little before you get the response you need but then it just goes.

Switch between modes and the differences are immediately evident. This is a car to drive in Eco Pro mode to the office and in Sport+ mode at the weekend.

2017 BMW 5 Series

There is one major issue though, and that, perhaps not surprisingly, lies with some of the tech. That semi-autonomous stuff is not without its issues. Try as we could, we could not get the lane-keeping assist to work properly. The lane-change assistant also seemed to go on a tea break. Flick the indicator on the highway and the car should change lanes automatically, but in the 530d, it either did nothing or wandered all the way across until you had to pull it back before heading off the side of the road. It was better in the 540i, but still a little temperamental.

And unlike models such as the Mercedes, it does not track the car ahead, and when we engaged it on a normal road, it just kept straight in the corners.

Wandering cars aside, BMW has upped its game with the new 5 Series. It might not have changed much on the outside, but the interior is now the best in the segment. Most of the technology and connectivity is superb, as are the engines. Is it a “business athlete”? Absolutely. – Mark Smyth

2017 BMW 5 Series