New petrol engine is brilliant - as is the car itself

What is it?

Not just a brand new type of BMW with a completely different kind of agenda to any we’ve seen before, but one with a brand new petrol engine too; this is the new 535i Gran Turismo.

The 530d GT has already impressed with its blend of performance, refinement, quality and class, and most of all with its spacious levels of accommodation. Since the petrol-powered 535i has the potential to better its diesel cousin on two of those counts, this should be a damned convincing car.

Read our BMW 5 Series GT 530d first drive here

If you haven’t come across the BMW 5 Series GT yet, allow us to attempt to summarily describe it. With its raised ride height seating position, you might think of it as BMW’s answer to the Mercedes R-Class and Cadillac SRX. But you’d be wrong; this car has a more spacious second row of seats than either of those cars, no third row, no standard (or indeed optional) four-wheel drive and no conventional estate car silhouette either. Rather it has a roof line much more like that of a large four-door coupe, and a gently-sloping liftback with a two-stage opening.

Thankfully, the 5 GT’s new petrol engine isn’t so tricky to introduce. All new, it’s BMW’s first engine to combine high-precision direct injection with both mechanically driven variable valve timing and lift (Vanos and Valvetronic in BMW-speak) and a twin-scroll turbocharger.

Even though it’s only got one turbo, the new engine slots in where Munich’s twin-turbo petrol six might have in this particular model range, producing 302bhp and an incredibly accessible 295lb ft or torque, available all the way from 1200rpm to 5000rpm.

What’s it like?

Just as fascinating to drive - or even to ride in - as it is to contemplate. That’s because underneath the new 5 GT lies the same mechanical platform (BMW calls it a ‘backbone’) that underpins the current 7 Series, and that will go on to form the basis of the next 5 Series and 6 Series. And it makes this car a seriously sophisticated piece of kit.

As standard, this car comes with steel-spung double-wishbone suspension up front, an air-sprung self-levelling multi-link arrangement at the rear, and an eight-speed ZF automatic gearbox. Tick the options boxes for ‘Adaptive Drive’ and ‘Integral Active Steering’ (doing so will cost you just under £3500) and your 5 GT will also come with a variable-ratio, variable-assistance steering system, rear-wheel steer, active anti-roll bars and adaptive dampers.

The dampers are particularly interesting, BMW claims, because they’re the only ones in the world that can continuously and independently alter damping rates on both compression and rebound. And they can do so within less than 0.1sec.

All of those active systems could do more harm than good to this car’s dynamic performance were it not for the fact that they’re very effectively harmonised and marshalled using a four-stage control system called Dynamic Drive Control. This system has four stages; as the driver, you simply choose between comfort, normal, sport and sport+ modes, depending on the kind of roads you're travelling on and the kind of journey you’re hoping to have.

In comfort mode, the dampers switch to a control algorithm that allows more wheel travel and a gentler touring gait. The anti-roll bars configure themselves to allow a little more roll too, and also to set the car up for enhanced stability.

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The car’s rear-wheel steering system likewise favours stability over agility, and its steering itself not only lightens but ramps down its directness. The car’s throttle map, its gearbox control software and its engine ECU also programme themselves to suit laid-back progress. And thus the BMW 535i GT becomes refined, cosseting and pleasant to simply stroke along – more refined even than a 7 Series.

Cycle through to sport mode and all of those systems change again. The car becomes harsher-riding but more upright, wieldier and more pointy, and generally quicker in its responses. All those sophisticated components can do nothing to make the 5 GT feel any smaller on the road, and its sheer size and weight are the limiting factors when it comes to having fun with this car; it could never be a brilliant driving machine. Still, it feels game, precise and surprisingly fast for a two-tonner; 62mph comes up in a hot hatch-besting 6.3sec.

That turn of speed comes thanks to a simply excellent combination of engine and gearbox. There’s abundant torque throughout almost all of the usable rev range, and urgent performance on offer whenever you need it. The gearbox can occasionally feel slow to kick down in comfort mode, but its changes are always smooth. It’s even clever enough to change down and provide engine braking when slowing on the motorway and descending gentle slopes – sometimes before you’ve even realised that you need it.

Should I buy one?

As brilliant as this new engine is, you’d be hard-pressed to justify buying a 535i GT over a 530d GT. The diesel’s actually just as refined at the six-pot petrol in most situations, almost as fast and should go almost 10 miles further per gallon.

Still, our test of the 535i GT confirms that BMW has produced a car with an incredible breadth of talents here. A car with upmarket class, practicality, refinement and real dynamic deportment too. One that you’d chose to ride in before all other BMWs, and one that’s interesting to drive into the bargain.

Size is the only consideration that might put you off this car; it certainly feels more like a jacked-up 7 Series than a 5, and that may simply feel too big for many people on UK roads – especially those put off by the size and bulk of conventional SUVs. Still, it’s a powerfully appealing upmarket family car – and one that definitely merits further investigation.

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Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

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ThwartedEfforts 14 September 2009

Re: BMW 5-series GT 535i Executive

Rich boy spanners wrote:

I find I have a lot of respect for BMW technology, but zero liking for their designs. Seems to be an awful lot of good yet ugly cars around now, BMW and Skoda being the worst.

Don't think you're alone here.

A R Chen 14 September 2009

Re: BMW 5-series GT 535i Executive

My comments on this design & niche concept were unkind when this car was launched.

But having read your reports, this car has suddenly climbed near the top of my list as an executive express to be driven in, as well as to drive. Generous room for 4 adults is one of the main requirements I have and the 5-series GT appears to fullfill this rather well. Throw in the fantastic chassis and I would be willing to forgive the exterior design completely.

For me, having the petrol engine that could be revved well past 6,000 rpm still makes it my favorite, regardless of the advantages the 530d might offer.

Congratulations to BMW on their new model which actually makes a lot of sense without sacrificing pleasure. Pity about the styling though ...........

Rich boy spanners 13 September 2009

Re: BMW 5-series GT 535i Executive

simon955 wrote:
So much progress by manufactures make you wonder what the future holds.

I find I have a lot of respect for BMW technology, but zero liking for their designs. Seems to be an awful lot of good yet ugly cars around now, BMW and Skoda being the worst.