540i: Great, but wait until X hits the spot

The 540i is an impressive leader of the BMW Five Series sedan line-up … but who’s really going to buy into it?

For: Impressive tech, class-leading refinement, beautifully built.

Against: It won’t reverse SUV preference, pricey.

DRIVING the BMW 540i provides fantastic insight into what the Five Series’ car Kiwis love most is going to be like.

Sorry, that sentence is going to confuse. What I mean is that the flagship of the Five-Series sedan line on sale now lends a brilliant early heads up to a higher-standing equivalent that has yet to be released.

That’s ‘higher’ physically … and figuratively: The X5 of course. Even before the sports utility vehicle sales boom reached big bang level, Munich’s ‘sports activity vehicle’ was already established as the most popular BMW model here.

Nothing has changed since the new-generation Five Series road car range landed earlier this year. Though, of course, pretty much everything has.

With the seal-bound machine having alone stepped up to a brand-new platform and some fantastic new tech, the X5 is left running a whole generation behind, with no redress until the next one reaches production. In 2018.

So, a year to go until the SUV comes back on pace with the sedan and just-landed wagon. That’s a decent wait that’ll seem all the longer, and all the more excruciating, for those X5 faithful who care check out what they’re missing out on.

Basically, they’ll discover that while the soft-roader might be the better all-round package, the G30 passenger model – as result of stepping up to a vastly improved body structure and wealth of enhanced technology – is clearly the cleverer choice in a Mensa sense.

The cheapest version of the new passenger car is basically smarter than the cleverest of the old and spanning all variants are functions yet to come to any other BMW, not even the exotic and truly whizzbang i8.

A distinction that is evident when considering the cheapest Five sedan, the $99,990 520d, is massively more obvious with the $142,900 540i, which as befitting its flagship status gets not only the most powerful current engine, a 3.0-litre six-cylinder making 250kW and 450Nm, but is also provisioned with assists and luxuries that X5 drivers can only dream enviously of.

Basically, the Five Series car can undertake a host of functions that are well beyond any X5, from snazzy semi-autonomous driving to performing self-parking with the driver outside of the car, to acting as a WiFi hotspot and being the world’s first vehicle to run Apple CarPlay/Android Auto without need of a tethering cable. It also stands taller in respect to the host of active and passive safety functions that come as standard and has comfort features that, for now, are only shared with the most expensive sedan Munich makes, the super-luxury Seven.

Admittedly, some of these features look better than they always work. The Driving Assistant Package comprising a suite of camera and radar sensor systems interacting intelligently with the active cruise and auto emergency stopping that is standard to all NZ-market Fives and enables BMW to play catch up with Mercedes and its category rival E-Class is of that ilk.

As I discovered with the Benz, assists that lend ability for the driver to remove his/her hands from the wheel for up to half a minute and leave the car to self-determine its place in the traffic stream and even change lanes to overtake if prompted aren’t quite infallible.

While operability can be achieved on single lane open roads, it depends massively on the quality of road markings – a need to continually ‘see’ the centre and side lines in order to keep the car between them is so paramount that it ultimately only feels truly comfortable on properly-marked motorway.

Also, when it wants you to take over, it isn't really obvious enough. And the lane-keeping assist function can be accused of being overly 'bossy' with its corrections when you're actually doing the driving for yourself. I found myself turning it off, which defeats the purpose of having it in the first place.

But the fact that it is there at all will probably earn kudos. Owners who like to show off are going to love demonstrating a technology that, remarkably, is still optional on any X5, the self-park feature. The sedan’s is the very latest which can sniff out a free parallel or 90 degree park then self-manoeuvre into it with the driver at – but not having to hold – the wheel. Buy into an enhanced set up and you can slip out of the car and trigger it to self-place into tight spots with control from a special key fob that has in-built stop, go and steer functions.

There’s more. We’re fully into an age of on-the-go Wifi, so a broad gambit of BMW ConnectedDrive services and applications available through the 10.3-inch Touch Control screen, along with Professional navigation, also lend the sedan a clear edge. The tetherless infotainment link is great, the wireless phone recharge pad in the centre console pad just as handy, though it asks that Apple users buy a Qi accessory.

Another breakthrough to smirk about: The active cruise control has speed sign recognition, so the car will automatically reduce pace to the posted limit – like when entering an urban area from the open road or going through road works - then speed up again to the previous pre-set pace when clear. Every Five gets this as standard (along with a head up display); no X5 has it even as an option. Such is the pace of technology.

The sedan also a speed limiter, active cruise control that operates down to stop-start traffic, front and rear cross-traffic warning, 360-degree camera, lane keeping assistant and full-length curtain airbags enforces contention that the basic specification comes with more equipment than any rival’s entry-point. The X5? Not so much …. guess that’s part of the territory when you’re buying a truck, right?

But that’s what we want. So, all in all, even though the sedan is one of the smartest cars on the road, it’ll always be prejudiced against because of the packaging. As I say, in this day and age, sports utilities are the go and sedans are on the outer.

That’s a shame, because the 540i sent me was quite the looker. Long, lean and wholly expensive-looking, the shape adds new inflection to a design language drawn from last year’s Seven and also set to be adopted by the next Three and is enhanced all the more by the M-Sport highlights meted the test car.

History flavours with the black ‘ribbon’ across the front said to remind of the full-width grilles of the earliest models and the Hofmeister kink; the modern influences are in the complex and quite beguiling surfacing and the low roofline.

The interior benefits from higher levels of luxury than before; exquisite applications of wood for those who like that kind of thing though the metal highlights traditionally favoured by Kiwis are still there. The leathers, Nappa at 540i level, are artfully stitched and the quality and detailing are outstanding. Parts of the trim are laser-scanned so that abutting areas can be specifically cut to match their exact profile.

The flagship also takes incredibly comfortable, form-fitting multi-adjustable, heated and cooled front chairs. A sunroof, rear window blinds and Ambient Air – a choice of fragrances for the air-conditioning – are all included as standard.

The main feature is, as always, the iDrive. The sedan has version six (don’t ask, the X5 doesn’t), which gives touchscreen functionality to the 10.3-inch centre display.

Combined with the existing rotary controller—with its touchpad surface—steering-wheel controls, voice recognition, and centre-stack buttons and knobs, there are more ways than ever for drivers to adjust the car and its infotainment systems.

The 540i also reaches to Gesture Control, which allows commanding infotainment and telephone functions by pointing with one or two fingers or by swiping with an appropriate hand motion. It’ll no doubt have potential buyers oohing and aahing, but it seems unnecessarily complex given how easy it is to carry out the same functions, for the most part, without taking your hands off the steering wheel. So, it’s the one tech feature I’d happily say ‘nein’ to.

Of course, cars are for driving and, being a BMW, there’s a certain expectation of it being both civil and hugely polished and yet also quite fast and a bit feral.

It kinda is. The impression that this car is tailored for driving fun begins with how you place in it. You sit nicely low, so it not only feels spacious front and rear, not just in terms of head room but also foot space, due to an increased wheelbase, but also better connected.

The car feels athletic and quite involved for its size and exec role; moreso than any E-Class. The Seven’s carbon core structure was deemed too rich for the medium model, yet everything else transfers, so there’s plenty of high-tensile steel, aluminium and magnesium, enough to make it lighter (by 80-100kg), stronger, safer, tauter, quieter.

As you’d hope, the 540i is king of the kick-off, with 5.1s measured by BMW’s clock and a top speed that, if met in NZ conditions, would make you the lead item on any news report. Go hard and there’s not a chance of seeing the 6.7L/100km optimum economy cited by BMW’s test lab.

It has access to the fullest gambit of Adaptive Drive, including bodyroll-cancelling active anti-roll bars and Integral Active Steer (rear-wheel steering), sets the standard for largest rim size (20-inches) and lowest-profile tyres - 245/35 front and 275/30 rear with the M-Sport package which you will want, because not only does it steer more precisely, but you also gain access to a better set of dynamic dampers and brakes whose strength and pedal feel are excellent.

So it’s sporty and yet, for me, it was the newfound refinement that initially shone through. The engine is silky smooth and quiet in normal use; it gets an edge when opened up but, ultimately, the overall refinement is such that it piles on speed deceptively due to its smooth delivery.

In terms of the chassis, there's precious little body roll and the car is precise and easy to adjust. It feels composed and stable and body control is exceptional. For all that, it doesn’t ‘involve’ massively; there’s not a load of feedback through the steering. But, then again, maybe doesn’t have to be that sharp. That’s the remit of the impending M5, yes?

Overall, the 540i serves to reinforce how refined and competent the new chassis is and what incredible opportunities are afforded by the latest level of technology.

That new X5 is going to be quite something, that’s for sure.