The BMW 5 Series offers a compelling blend of all-round abilities, but wants specifying carefully

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During the past decade BMW has branched out into every market niche, from the coupé-SUV crossover that is the BMW X4 and the BMW X6 to the estate-saloon-soft-roader hybrid that is the BMW 5 Series GT (2009-2017). But it is still the classic, default models like this BMW 5 Series that form the backbone of the brand.

From the look of the latest model, introduced in 2010 and mildly revised late in 2013, you would be forgiven for thinking that BMW is playing it safe. But underneath the skin the 5 Series is more complex than ever. An eight-speed automatic gearbox is available on the whole range, and the engines offer world-class tech. All this technology ensures the 5 Series remains the executive saloon of choice ahead of the Audi A6, and the revamped Jaguar XF and Mercedes E-Class.

Be in no doubt, the latest 5 Series is a very accomplished car

BMW also says the 5 Series is a more sophisticated all-rounder than it has ever been before. And with Efficient Dynamics on board, every model gets an impressive blend of performance and economy – astonishingly so in some cases.

The vast range comprises of three bodystyles including a saloon, a hatchback and an estate, not forgetting a storming twin-turbo V8 BMW M5. Trim levels are the easy bit to deal with – mainly there are three to choose from, although company car and eco minded buyers will gravitate towards the sole, saloon only Efficient Dynamics model, which is tuned for optimum efficiency. BMW also offers a hybrid 5 Series in the shape of the ActiveHybrid 5, which has a 300bhp, 3.0-litre, six-cylinder petrol engine assisted by an electric motor.

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The plethora of options is a massive ball of confusion, as we’ll go on to explain.


BMW 5 Series rear

To gain economies of scale, the new-generation BMW 5 Series is built on the same basic platform that sits beneath the BMW 7 Series (2008-2015), BMW 5 Series GT (2009-2017) and BMW 6 Series. BMW calls it a backbone strategy. The most obvious result of this is that the 5 Series is now larger than ever; although the wheelbase is shortened by 100mm compared with the 7 Series and 5 GT, at 2968mm it is among the longest in its class.

The shared foundations also mean the 5 Series comes packed with technology. Or at least, it does if your pockets are deep enough. Four-wheel steering, adjustable dampers and active anti-roll bars are all available on the options list.

Spoiler lip and trailing edges on rear lamps are both designed specifically to help achieve the 5 Series’ 0.28 drag coefficient

So what is the basic 5 Series? For starters, it uses a conventional monocoque construction instead of the hybrid construction of the previous model, while the body is a mix of steel and aluminium (bonnet, front wings and doors). The front suspension uses double wishbones and the rear a multi-link arrangement; both use steel springs and lots of aluminium components.

The new 5 Series Touring is bigger than its predecessor, too. The estate’s 2968mm wheelbase is 82mm longer and the overall length grew by 64mm to 4907mm. Visually, despite creases in the bodywork and a sloping roofline that’s designed to make the 5 Series Touring look sleek, its significant dimensions are obvious from every angle – albeit not in an unattractive way.

The front of the Touring, from the grille right the way back to the B-pillar, is identical to the saloon. The rear lights are unique to the Touring. Contour lines run through them and join above the number plate to make the tail of the car appear wider.

The M Sport package is available on all 5 Series models and includes sports chassis and body kit.


BMW 5 Series dashboard

As with exterior, the BMW 5 Series’ cabin is all about restraint. Beyond the joystick-style gearlever, there is little here that is likely to offend.

The Mercedes E-Class' dashboard is now dominated by two 12.3in large screens and the virtue of fewer and larger buttons, but once you’re familiar with it the 5 Series presents no problems to navigate. And for what it’s worth, in our opinion it is the BMW that has the more attractive appearance and upmarket feel.

There’s no need to insert a key to start the engine so you can leave the fob in your pocket, or insert it in a storage slot ahead of the gearlever

Ergonomically there is just one fault: the pedals are slightly offset to the right. In other respects the seating position offers adequate space and adjustment for most shapes, and the major controls are well sited.

But it is in the rear of the cabin that the 5 Series’ extended wheelbase pays most dividends, with more shoulder and legroom than the previous model. There’s enough to accommodate two full-size adults in comfort (three at a push), and enough to trouble the E-Class.

Luggage space of 520 litres is fractionally less than the class average, but by only a few litres; the E-Class holds 540 litres. Although the space is uniformly shaped, it is quite narrow between the rear arches.

The boot in the 5 Series Touring is a way off the best in class for load capacity. With a load bay that can take at least 560 litres, or up to 1760 litres with the seats folded, it can certainly swallow more than most would ever usually want to carry around. But the Mercedes E-Class betters it by no small margin, with a capacity of 695 litres (seats up) and up to 1950 litres (seats folded).

In general use, the 5 Series is a pleasantly convenient car to use thanks to touches such as the hydraulically operated cover that hides a compartment under the boot floor, a rear windscreen that can open independently of the tailgate and a rear bench that splits 40/20/40 as standard.

There is a generous amount of equipment as standard on the 5 Series SE including, dual-zone climate control, 6.5in touchscreen iDrive system with sat nav and DAB, front and rear parking sensors and auto headlights and wipers. Go up to Luxury and the 5 Series gets BMW's Professional Multimedia system which sees iDrive gain a 20GB hard drive and real-time traffic updates, while the range-topping M-Sport models get partially electrically adjustable front sport seats, M-Sport alloys, suspension and bodykit, plus dark chrome exhaust tailpipes.



BMW 5 Series diesel engine

Whatever you think of the way a BMW 5 Series looks and feels, there’s one thing that is virtually guaranteed to impress: the way it goes.

The best-selling 520d is a pleasant motor to use. It can become gruff if pushed very hard, but in general it has plenty of punch for overtaking and never feels overwhelmed by the 1625kg kerb weight, settling into an easy gait for cruising around at motorway and urban speeds. In 2013 BMW introduced a 518d to sit beneath it in the range, but we'd recommend the 520d instead, which returns the same economy, almost every time.

The 530d has a class-leading gearbox and engine

You’ll have to work the gearbox a bit for fast progress – many will opt for the eight-speed automatic – but the manual has the typically tight BMW shift, so it’s no chore to use.

The 530d 3.0-litre diesel’s headline figure of 254bhp is impressive enough on its own, but when it’s coupled to nigh on 400lb ft of torque, flat-lining from only 1500rpm, one can realistically expect fireworks.

They arrive in the order of a claimed 0-62mph time of 5.8sec, which is in the same ballpark as the Jaguar Jaguar XF 3.0D S and the Mercedes E-Class E 350 CDI.

With two turbochargers, the 535d engine has been comprehensively re-engineered and produces 309bhp. The performance for a diesel saloon car is extraordinary; if anything, the claimed 0-62mph time of 5.3sec undersells the real-world, on-demand response. Perhaps of more relevance, though, is that this new 535d is significantly more refined than any previous big diesel.

In these days of CO2-driven company car choices, the petrols sell in smaller numbers. This seems a shame given the investment made by BMW in downsizing its petrol engines. The 528i, now powered by a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine, offers 242bhp ft. This combination of small capacity and forced induction results in a 0-62mph time of just 6.2sec and fuel economy of 43.5mpg combined. There is also the 300bhp 535i and the 442bhp 550i petrol options to choose from. The BMW M5, with 552bhp from its twin-turbo V8, will get from 0-62mph in 4.4sec.


BMW 5 Series rear cornering

It’s important to note that when we make comparisons between the BMW 5 Series and its competitors in terms of ride and handling, we are talking about differences you could only measure in nths of degrees, when tested back to back on the same stretch of demanding road or ride-and-handling test track.

Note, too, that the 5 Series is, in general, an excellent car to drive; it is quiet, it is comfortable and it soothes miles away with the same crushing ease with which it approaches going around corners. We would very happily recommend a 5 Series to anyone who wants one to drive 50,000 miles a year and occasionally enjoy themselves while they are doing it.

Its a shame the adaptive dampers aren't standard

However, to maximise its potential it’s important to optimise the specification, of which the choices are many. And even then, in some areas the 5 Series is a touch weaker than its best rivals.

First, we’d avoid choosing anything larger than the 18-inch wheels. Smaller wheels are standard and, if you can bear their appearance, will be better still at providing a truly isolated ride. As it is, the 18-inchers mated to the standard (passive and non-adjustable) suspension let sharper road imperfections affect the cabin in a way that a Mercedes E-Class on 17s does not.

Adaptive dampers are optional on all models. With them fitted, small ripples are far better dealt with. Brake, turn (even modestly) and introduce a broken surface into the equation and the 5 Series fails to prevent noisy thumps with the same aplomb as an adaptively suspended car (even on 19in wheels) or an E-Class.

In SE spec and without the active chassis, the 5 Series also rolls more and has looser body control – surprisingly so at times, but hit the right specification (for example, the 518d with adaptive dampers but on 17in wheels we tried) and there's a lovely blend of ride and handling.

The BMW’s electrically assisted power steering is fine in its own regard (avoid the artificial-feeling Active Steer), but lacks the Jaguar XF’s fluidity.


BMW 5 Series

This is the area where the BMW 5 Series has the clearest advantage over its rivals.

Take the 520d, as many thousands of company users will. It is more economical than a Mercedes E-Class 200 CDI. The Audi A6 2.0 TDI may match the BMW’s economy figures, but the BMW is 0.6sec quicker to 60mph. Without options, the BMW is cheaper than the Audi, too.

Residual values are impressive thanks to solid demand for used examples

It’s a similar story with the estate. Not only is the BMW 520d Touring faster than its rivals, but it is also cleaner and consequently the most affordable car in its class to run. 

Moreover, the petrol engines are similarly class-leading in terms of performance. The 528i not only offers almost 40bhp advantage over a Mercedes E250 CGI, it also emits less CO2.

The entire 5 Series range is priced competitively, and the decent standard spec means there is no need to spend a fortune on options – although it is a shame that buyers must opt for variable damper control if they want the best balance of ride and handling.

Even so, given that it has fine residuals, economy and emissions, the 5 Series Touring does nothing wrong in this area.

Notes of warning? The more powerful diesels’ economy disappoints when compared with the 520d (and the new Audi A6), but still offer impressive figures given the level of performance on offer.


4 star BMW 5 Series

Be in no doubt, the F10 BMW 5 Series is a very accomplished car – arguably more for the breadth of its abilities than a strength in any single area. But the latest 5 Series is also refined, spacious, economical and (for the most part) comfortable. If you are looking for an all-rounder, it's hard not to recommend it.

The Touring model is an estate car that offers a blend of refinement, performance, usability, unruffled dynamics and high-quality cabin finish that’s hard to fault.

The new Five still feels a touch artificial rather than naturally right

And there is still pleasure to be had winding the 5 Series, regardless of bodystyle, down an appropriate B-road. Granted, the 5 Series feels most at home on a motorway, but it is not devoid of reward, provided you’re happy to enjoy a sense of fluidity rather than any immediacy. It’s a very usable, if not overly large, estate car.

You can’t fail to be impressed by the quality of the cabin and the amount of space on offer; the benefits of the 5 Series growth spurt can be clearly seen in the rear accommodation, if not the boot space.

More importantly, the 5 Series, especially in 520d form, makes better financial sense than any rival, and that makes it easier to overlook its shortfalls.

But somehow we are left wanting more. And the surprise is that we find ourselves wishing the Five was a little more engaging to drive. In standard SE trim there is more body roll than we expect, and yet the ride is not without fault. And the steering, although good, is obviously not hydraulic. While it is possible to remedy some of these issues with options, the new Five still feels a touch artificial rather than naturally right.

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

BMW 5 Series 2010-2017 First drives