Underneath the light disguise of the BMW prototype you see here lies the seventh-generation 5 Series saloon – a car described as being new from the ground up and, as it has been since its inception way back in 1972, one that's crucial to the company's continued drive for greater volumes, profit and success.
The production version of the new 5 Series, codenamed G30, isn’t planned to be unveiled until October. However, we’ve now driven a trio of prototypes over some challenging roads in Wales – the very same network of coarse-chip blacktop that the head of BMW’s chassis development, Jos van As, and his team have been using recently to fine-tune the handling attributes of the new executive saloon, which will come up against some stiff competition in the form of the Audi A6, Jaguar XF and Mercedes-Benz E-Class when it goes on sale in the UK early next year.
Although BMW is holding back on many of the details of the new 5 Series until closer to its launch, it has provided us with an insight into its advanced new chassis, which is not only a brand new development but also comes with a new set-up aimed at providing the car with a broader range of attributes than ever before. “At one end of the scale, we’ve succeeded in making it more responsive and increased its agility," says van As, "while at the other end, it now provides greater comfort and refinement.”
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In terms of dimensions, the 5 Series has grown, if only slightly. The increases in length, width and height are incremental and mostly aimed at increasing rear seat accommodation. As before, BMW will build the new car with two distinct wheelbases, including a long-wheelbase version exclusively for the Chinese market. The simple taped disguise of the prototypes we drove hides a car with the same basic proportions of its predecessor. But while the appearance may be described as evolutionary, it adopts some more revolutionary measures in other areas of its design.
Key to the changes to the traditionally strong-selling BMW model is a new body structure first unveiled on the 7 Series last year. Known under the working title CLAR, a play on the words 'cluster architecture', it incorporates more aluminium within its floorpan and bulkheads than the earlier 35up platform used by the outgoing F10 5 Series. It also uses a greater number of aluminium castings than the earlier structure.
Although it does without the more expensive carbonfibre components used by its larger sibling, BMW claims the new structure and other weight-saving measures, including a lighter wiring loom, have resulted in a reduction in kerb weight of up to 100kg, depending on the model. That’s not all, though. CLAR also provides the new 5 Series with significant increase in torsional rigidity and the basis for a completely new suspension philosophy.
The new set-up, which will be largely mirrored on the next 3 Series, adopts a fully electric steering system, both in standard rear-wheel drive and four-wheel-drive xDrive models. There’s also a new mounting system for the steering that’s claimed to provide the rack with improved rigidity and therefore greater feel and increased feedback.
The new steering system is allied to completely reworked double wishbone front suspension that uses a greater number of aluminium components for a reduction in unsprung weight. Due to its inherent design and the fact that its lower arms are largely freed from supporting any lateral forces, BMW says the new set-up provides a more integrated solution for a sportier drive.
At the rear, BMW has redesigned its traditional five-link suspension, providing it with new geometry, lighter and stiffer aluminium components and newly developed mounting points. Together, the changes are claimed to provide more controlled wheel movement, improved toe-in properties and greater refinement through enhanced isolation from surfaces irregularities and coarseness.
For the first time, BMW will offer the 5 Series with all-wheel drive in combination with sports suspension and a 10mm reduction in ride height. You’ll also be able to order the new car with a combination of xDrive and BMW’s active four-wheel steering. Both are aimed at further elevating the 5 Series' reputation for dynamic excellence despite its continued increase in size.
Expect a price increase of around £1500 on the entry-level 518d, with a slightly higher rise on the 520d. This will be compensated for by an increase in standard specification.
What's it like?
We sampled three prototypes, each with a different suspension set-up and options. The 2.0-litre turbo 530i sDrive ran the standard steering and suspension, the 3.0-litre turbo 540i sDrive featured both dynamic damper control and four-wheel steering, and the 3.0-litre diesel 530d xDrive combined non-adaptive sports suspension and four-wheel steering. While these prototypes were running a final-specification mechanical package and provided a clear pointer to the direction the new model has taken, they were missing the usual quality touches you’d expect from a new BMW. As such, it would not be fair to definitively judge the new 5 Series just yet.
What is clear is the new model has progressed in a number of key areas. The various changes BMW has brought to the chassis certainly help to lift the 5 Series' game in the dynamics department. It’s now a more rounded car than ever before – one with a mesmerising range of abilities with the right options.
We also got to test a number of alternative software maps for the steering, highlighting the difficulty of hitting the right compromise to provide the sort of sporting attributes the 5 Series has become known for down through the years. By adopting what BMW describes as a full electric set-up, engineers were simply able to connect a laptop and alter the characteristics of the steering while on the move – something van As says has enabled his team to test a wider range of set-ups in a concerted move to broaden the new car’s dynamic abilities.
Find out more about the new BMW 5 Series with this video from our sister site, What Car?
The newly developed speed-sensitive system is an advance on that of the outgoing model, delivering greater feel around the straight-ahead, more consistent weighting in the first half a turn of lock and suppressing kickback with greater authority on lumpy surfaces. By any standards, this is first-rate steering, endowing the new BMW with great precision, feel and dependability. There’s an underlying calmness to its operation that impressed us greatly during our first drive.
There’s a superb feeling of balance and fluidity about the new BMW, too. The consistency and conviction of its actions provide it with great poise and a wonderfully secure feeling when hustled along. You can confidently thread the new 5 Series down a winding back road without any qualms about its ability to soak up lateral forces and keep gripping hard even at very high speeds. It is very fleet in its responses while at the same time delivering an engaging exactness to your inputs in rear-wheel drive guise. A new generation of dampers featuring altered valves and faster-acting software also ensure roll angles are kept well in check even on the standard suspension, which provides continuously variable properties.
The rear-biased apportioning of power of the xDrive system keeps the entertainment factor high while added to the overall feeling of security, especially on damp and undulating roads. While the apportioning of drive to both the front and rear wheels previously robbed the steering of some of its steering sensitivity, you can now combine xDrive with the four-wheel steering. Together, they provide a compelling combination of instant steering response and great traction, making for a deeply impressive car with true sporting handling characteristics.
Mirroring the changes made to the 7 Series, the new 5 Series also offers a wider range of driving modes than previously. Next to the familiar Eco Pro, Comfort and Sport settings, the optional Drive Experience function now includes a Sport Individual mode, allowing you to tailor the characteristics of the steering, engine and suspension to your liking. Additionally, there is so-called Adaptive mode, which is programmed to automatically adapt the characteristics to your driving style, even taking into account routes programmed into the navigation system.
And the ride? It’s safe to say this is the best-riding 5 Series yet. The new chassis imbues it with a more cosseting and controlled feel over any given road than its predecessor. It is very accomplished, whether coping with high-frequency bumps around town or more undulating topography at higher speeds out on the open road. It’s quiet, too. Indeed, tyre roar is very well suppressed, indicating it will be a brilliant motorway cruiser.
Should I buy one?
It’s too early to say just how the new 5 Series really compares with the executive class competition. While we’re now familiar with many of the changes made to its chassis, there’s still a lot of crucial information about the new BMW to come before we can confidently deliver a binding conclusion.
Based on our brief dynamic assessment, though, it appears BMW has succeeded in raising the already fine dynamic qualities of the 5 Series. The new model may be larger and more extensively equipped than its predecessor, but the adoption of a new lightweight platform and a number of significant chassis developments provide it with outstanding agility and the sort of handling flair to worry the competition.
If the impressive dynamic traits, particularly the inherent response found in the new electric steering system, of the various prototypes we drove in Wales find its way into production versions of the new executive class saloon, it will prove a very competitive contender in a class not known to be at all kind to mediocrity. Additionally, BMW has also managed to provide the new 5 Series with greater levels of comfort than the previous model. With thoroughly reworked suspension, it cossets occupants with improved chassis compliance and greater overall refinement when you dial up Comfort mode.
Together, this results in a broader range of abilities than we’ve seen from any previous 5 Series model. Still, we’ll need more time to say whether it is a better proposition than the latest Mercedes-Benz E-Class, the undisputed leader in the class right now.
BMW 530d xDrive
Location Wales; On sale Early 2017; Price £46,000 (est); Engine 6 cyls in line, 2993cc, diesel; Power 265bhp at 4000rpm; Torque 457lb ft at 1500rpm; Gearbox 8-spd automatic; Kerb weight na; Top speed na; 0-62mphna; Economy na; CO2/tax band na