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The BMW 5 Series is top of the mid-exec pack, but is there still room for a diesel saloon in everyday family life? We found out over seven months

Why we ran it: To find out if our favourite executive saloon also makes a great family car 

Month 1 - Month 2 - Month 3 - Month 4 - Month 5 - Month 6 - Month 7Specs and price

Life with a BMW 520d: Month 7

Saying goodbye to the 520d - 25th April 2018

For anyone worried about the future of the traditional saloon in a world increasingly dominated by SUVs, the latest BMW 5 Series offers some hope, being a brilliant all-rounder that’s hugely desirable in its own right and infinitely better to drive.

That was the conclusion, at any rate, when we put it through the Autocar road test, but is the 5 Series as impressive when you live with it every day, or are there times when it frustrates?

Over the past seven months, I’ve been finding out, with it not only serving as my commuter car, but being asked to perform the role of practical weekend wheels and to facilitate a couple of family holidays.

The model we chose to help us with our enquiries was the 520d diesel – the most popular version among the company car drivers that make up the bulk of 5 Series ‘owners’, due to its low CO2 emissions and correspondingly low benefit-in-kind tax bills. Not that we just blindly followed the crowd.

While most people prefer the aggressive looks of the M Sport specification, we stuck with the cheaper SE variant, which has smaller wheels that improve the ride, and still comes equipped with everything from sat-nav and leather upholstery to front and rear parking sensors and an eight-speed automatic gearbox.

Our car also had a long list of options fitted, including the advisable (Electronic Damper Control, for £985), the practical (split-folding rear seats, £335) and the just plain gimmicky (Gesture Control, £160). But on reflection, not specifying the £225 head-up display was a mistake, because the speedo isn’t particularly clearly marked when the 5 Series is in Normal mode, so checking how quickly you’re covering the ground requires more than just a glance.

True, switching to Sport also solves this problem, because in addition to subtly sharpening up the car’s responses and turning the instruments red, it brings a large digital speed readout. However, it’s annoying that you have to do this every time you start the engine.

What isn’t annoying is the way the 5 Series drives. It feels remarkably taut and responsive for such a big car, yet also manages to glide across poorly surfaced roads.

Indeed, the only slight criticism of its dynamics came from a colleague who borrowed the car to visit family in North Yorkshire at a time when snow was on the ground, and found himself feeling he’d probably spec his 5 Series with BMW’s xDrive four-wheel-drive system. But with the light dusting we got farther south, I never felt there was any lack of traction.

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In the past, BMW’s four-cylinder diesel engines have been a bit grumbly and prone to vibration when cold, but the latest 520d is so smooth and quiet that I’d question the point of upgrading to the six-cylinder 530d, even if it’s within budget. Engine refinement is certainly a lot better than it was in my previous long-termer, a Volvo S90.

What’s more, there’s an even bigger gap between the BMW and the Volvo when it comes to their respective infotainment systems. While the S90’s is rather slow to respond and forces you to take your eyes off the road, the latest iteration of BMW’s iDrive set-up is almost impossible to fault.

Its screen is touch-sensitive, so you can quickly punch a destination into the sat-nav when stationary, but it’s complemented by a rotary dial and some shortcut buttons that are far less distracting to use on the move, plus the menus are more intuitive and there’s none of the Volvo system’s sluggishness.

Perceived quality is another 5 Series strength, with the interior feeling as solidly constructed as it is plush. And while I find that taking my baby daughter for a ride in any car is a good way of getting her to sleep, the 5 Series seemed to work particularly well, perhaps due to the ambient lighting, which lets you choose from 11 colours to create a suitably relaxing atmosphere.

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Any complaints? Well, the boot is a little awkwardly shaped, although not to such an extent that it ever stopped me transporting anything I wanted to. And to my eyes the 5 Series looks a bit too much like the smaller 3 Series and bigger 7 Series; I miss the days of Chris Bangle when every BMW had its own distinct look.

But the fact the latest 5 Series is based on the same Cluster Architecture (CLAR) as the Seven is a real benefit because it incorporates aluminium, magnesium and titanium to help reduce weight by up to 100kg.

This is most obviously felt in fuel efficiency, with the 520d averaging 47mpg during my time with it, despite my daily commute involving plenty of congested urban roads. Meanwhile, on long motorway runs I found the car would top 60mpg without me trying particularly hard.

Okay, the latter figure still falls slightly short of the official average, but it was put into perspective for me recently when I swapped into a plug-in hybrid SUV for a few days and averaged just 24.4mpg in similar conditions.

Maybe we shouldn’t be so keen to jump out of our diesels – and our saloons – after all.

Second Opinion

While it alters the gearbox, throttle response and steering to maximise efficiency, the Eco Pro driving mode also shows you how many extra miles you’re able to cover thanks to your green driving. My record was racking up three extra miles of range over my seven-mile commute.

Darren Moss

Final report mileage: 9940

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Life with a BMW 520d: Month 6

A capable key - 21st March 2018

One of the options our 520d SE was specified with is the £235 Display Key, which lets you remotely check on things like the remaining range and whether the doors are locked. However, its most useful feature during the recent cold spell has been the ability to put the heater on a timer so that the car is warm when you climb into it. But couldn’t BMW let you do all this via a phone app?

Mileage: 9602

A drive in an Alpina - 7th March 2018

Last week, I briefly swapped the 520d for Alpina’s new D5 S, which was in on test. And while the D5 is faster and has more leather inside, above all it reinforced just how good the 520d is. It still has loads of poke and an interior that’s genuinely luxurious, plus a superb blend of ride and handling. Yet the test D5 was more than twice the price. 

Mileage: 7924

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Life with a BMW 520d: Month 5

xDrive is a neccesity, for some – 21 February 2018​

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If I were to spend my own money on a 5 Series, I’d specify xDrive. With family spread between Yorkshire, North Wales and Scotland, a lot of my time behind the wheel is spent on lanes covered with leaves, mud and snow. Although our rear-wheel- drive 520d SE is incredibly engaging, there are times when I feel jealous watching quattro Audis scythe past as I’m slipping and sliding about.

Mileage: 7776

Life with a BMW 520d: Month 4

Bergerac’s nice, but getting there in this is a birthday treat in itself – 31 January 2018​

“We’re going to France!” “ I exclaimed, grinning. “Oh, wow. Lovely,” returned my wife, lying. We were on the M20 at this point, at some god-awful time in the morning, nearing the beautiful port town of Dover. I’d managed to keep this surprise trip for my wife’s 30th birthday exactly that until now but, given the ferries from Dover go to only a handful of destinations, and most of them are in France, I thought now was a good time to spill the beans.

At least our eight-hour journey on the other side (I’d forgotten to inform her about that bit) would be carried out in what I was hopeful would be a superb mile-muncher: our BMW 520d. And it turned out to be just that. BMW’s 2.0-litre diesel engine offers all the performance you realistically need, it’s extremely quiet under load and at a cruise, and our trip down, which combined six hours of motorway plus a couple more on country roads, was covered with 44.1mpg on the trip computer come the end of it.

Which reminds me: the 5 Series can do country roads well too. Okay, so you’d get a bit more agility with an M Sport 5 Series on its larger alloy wheels, but our SE is more comfortable more of the time and is still capable of changing direction remarkably well for a hefty luxury car. It’s made even more enjoyable by the steering, which is precise and well weighted, and certainly helps build confidence when tackling tricky bends.

But, being an impeccable husband, there were yet more surprises for my wife, who after eight hours was beginning to dislike me very much indeed. We pulled into Bergerac airport and, after joking that we were going skydiving (not as funny as I’d hoped), she saw her two good friends,who had flown over without her knowing. Which brings us to another of the 5 Series’ strong points: its boot. It’s a saloon, yes, but there’s good access considering, and weekend bags for four went inside with room to spare. Which was good, because I’d booked us a vineyard to stay at and that extra room would be taken up by copious amounts of wine. It was only another half an hour or so to the vineyard, and I was feeling remarkably fresh.

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Frankly, eight hours in anything would take its toll, but my lower back wasn’t sore (you’ll need the optional lumbar support) and BMW’s class-leading iDrive infotainment system had once again proved why it’s top of the tree. Not only is it easy to use with its rotary dial and menu shortcuts, but the in-built sat-nav is easily oneof the most intelligent and easy-to- understand systems available.

Plus, the addition of Apple CarPlay makes the business of syncing and using your phone far more pleasurable – I’d wholeheartedly recommend specifying it.

All sounds pretty positive, doesn’t it? But the thing is, this latest 5 Series is among the best allrounders you can buy. In fact, the only real issues I had were with the cruise control, which was sluggish to keep speed up particularly steep motorway hills, and the sound of the indicator in the cabin. To be honest, we can probably discount that second one – I doubt many people will be bothered by it.

So when it was time to jump back in and drive to the UK at the end of a brilliant weekend drinking wine with friends (with a boot full of the stuff), the journey home didn’t seem so bad.

Mileage: 5246

Life with a BMW 520d: Month 3

520d meets a newborn’s approval – 10 January 2018​

Any new(ish) parent will tell you that if you’re struggling to get a baby to sleep, you should take them for a ride in the car.

But I find the 5 Series works particularly well, probably because it provides the motion babies like, while isolating them from most bumps and potholes and shutting out unwanted noise.

The ambient lighting, which lets you choose from 11 colours, also helps.

Mileage: 4322

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Life with a BMW 520d: Month 2

Qualms reading the 5 Series speedo – 15 November 2017​

Sometimes you don’t realise how dependent on something you’ve become until it has gone.

As I mentioned in my first report, I ran a Volvo S90 before the 5 Series and, in most respects, this experience serves only to highlight how much better the BMW is in key areas. However, one thing I really miss about the Volvo is its head-up display.

BMW does, of course, offer one of these. It costs £225. But this box on the options list wasn’t ticked when our car was being ordered – a mistake that I’d urge anyone currently considering a 5 Series to avoid duplicating.

Having to look down at the instruments from time to time might not seem like that much of a hardship.

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