Munich's new 5 Series is so much better when relieved of high tech options. Entry level makes a good case for itself too

Embarking on a schedule of autobahn pounding and climbing tight switchbacks in the southern German Black Forest in a new BMW 520i is prompting more questions than normal today.

With a 530i already one group test down, humbled by the Jaguar S-type, today's exercise isnt just about the 520i's merits over its rivals, or the previous incarnation. More a question of whether the range's foot soldier is better in bog-standard form, shorn of the £810 Active steering option, £1550 Dynamic drive package and £1350 six-speed auto 'box fitted to the model humbled by Coventry's finest just 48 hours before I caught the plane to Baden-Baden.

The steep climb up the thickly forested hills is a harsh test of the least-powerful motor that BMW will slot into the new Five. Essentially it's the same 170bhp 2.2-litre straight six carried over from the outgoing car, but all going through a newly developed six-speed manual 'box.

Even with a clutch pedal the 520i's struggling on these inclines. It needs stirring beyond 3000rpm to give adequate urge, which means there's constant downchanging whenever the gradients start getting serious.

Not a total disaster considering the precision of the new six-slot self-shifter, and at least there's no complaints when you do begin to ask the straight six to start grafting. Once you're into the sweet spot it's quick-revving, smooth and sonorous all the way to the rev-limiter.

When the road flattens out it's happier. There's still a frantic scrabble for a lower cog for the sort of overtaking that would be effortless in a 530 petrol or diesel. This 520i's high gearing is instantly apparent on multi-laners, too. The additional sixth cog acts as an overdrive ratio, designed to improve high-speed economy and refinement.

Three-figure autobahn work is showing some of the benefits of a Five free from an Active steering option though. The system's designed to give low-geared steering at high speed, improving the feeling of stability. Not so.

Our group-tested 530i needed constant nibbling at the helm to keep it on track, while the non-Active-equipped 520i steers truer and feels more unflappable even at what would be imprisonable speeds in Blighty.

Standard steering doesn't just have the upper hand on the autobahn either. Yes, the 1.7 turns lock-to-lock and the lightness the Active system gives you at urban speeds is a bonus. But we'd rather have the extra feeling of connectivity of the standard system and its added ability to telegraph messages from the road.

BMW doesn't even deem it necessary to offer the Dynamic drive option on the 520i, but we doubt you'l miss it. The standard car has more consistency to the way it copes with badly rippled surface changes and swift changes of direction.

BMW 520i ownership starts at £25,455 for the sole SE model. Add some fancy alloys, leather and an uprated hi-fi and you're knocking on to about £30,000. At least it's not too punishing on the wallet to run: 31.4mpg is sound and it gives you a 27 per cent company car tax burden, three per cent lower than the 530i.

But any inevitable comparisons between the two petrol models are invalid without taking into account the potentially brilliant 530d. But we prefer any of them without Active steering.

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Chas Hallett

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