Our test car came in exactly the sort of humdrum spec you’re likely to see flying up and down the motorways of Britain: an unassuming silver SE Auto, mercifully free from the avalanche of optional extras that usually come fitted to every car delivered by a premium manufacturer. Even stripped of this tinsel, though, the 520d feels great.
A new turbocharger, higher-pressure fuel injectors and tweaked balancer shafts have helped to free up an extra 6bhp and 15lb ft of torque, taking the 520d’s totals to 187bhp and a healthy 295lb ft from 1750rpm upwards.
These might sound like small gains, but given the ingredients of a four-cylinder diesel engine, heavy saloon body and automatic gearbox, the 5-series does an amazing job of feeling like more than just the sum of its parts. Our car came fitted with optional (£985) adaptive dampers, as well as 17-inch wheels, and this combination means it rides beautifully.
Whether you’re cruising the motorway, barrelling down a country lane or purring through town traffic, stick the 520d in Comfort mode and it’ll ease the burden of travel better than any of the other saloons in this class. Yet the pillowy soft ride doesn’t come at the expense of the rest of the dynamic package.
The steering is quick and precise, throttle response is sharp, and although you have to pay extra if you want shift paddles on the steering wheel (trust us, you do) the eight-speed ZF gearbox affords the driver a great level of control, banging quickly up through the gears when required, or slurring the changes to keep the revs down.
We’ll admit that the lighter, more agile 3-series is probably still the pick of the BMW range if you really want the best-handling car in this class. It’s just that bit grippier at the front, a tad more adjustable at the back and controls its body movements that bit better, but the 520d is a lot more refined than its smaller sibling.
You could drive the 520d all day long without feeling the strain, but you can’t say the same of the 3-series yet; it’ll get these upgrades next year.
Even in this relatively humble (and, more importantly, affordable) trim, the 5-series feels like a high-quality product. All you need to add to the spec list is adaptive dampers, as sat-nav, leather upholstery, cruise control, Bluetooth and DAB are all standard, and the materials and switchgear in the cabin are close to matching those of the plush Audi A6 for quality.