What Car? says...
Few cars have such a broad a range of talents as the BMW 5 Series. Larger and more comfortable than the company’s über-popular 3 Series, yet only slightly more expensive, it has been at the very heart of BMW's range since 'God were a lad'. In that time it has been considered so consistently the best that it's almost the default choice for those looking for a smaller luxury car.
For proof, just look at how the previous model (2009-2016) was a regular winner at our annual What Car? Car of the Year Awards, while the current model picked up the overall Car of the Year title in 2017.
Part of the reason for this sustained success is that BMW has done a great job of keeping it up to date. Our favourite luxury saloon was treated to a comprehensive facelift in the latter half of 2020 that gave it LED headlights as standard (with super bright adaptive LED headlights as an option), a larger, more imposing grille, a more aggressive body kit and a smattering of extra standard equipment throughout the range.
But of course, the 5 Series isn’t popular just because of frequent updates – another reason people like the 5 is because it offers buyers plenty of choice For a start, there are saloon and estate bodies (click the link to read about the 5 Series Touring), frugal four-cylinder diesel engines (that feature mild-hybrid tech), gruntier six-cylinder diesels, smooth six-cylinder petrols, the option of BMW’s xDrive four-wheel-drive system and even a couple of plug-in hybrids. Oh, and there are the sportier M versions, which include the M550i xDrive as well as the absolutely bonkers 616bhp BMW M5 Competition; a thoroughbred performance car and a very different animal, which we’ve reviewed separately.
Of course, its main challengers also have their merits and produce a range to suit various budgets and requirements. So, is an Audi A6, Jaguar XF or Mercedes E-Class an even better choice than a current 5 Series? Read on over the next few pages to find out, where we'll also tell you which trim level and engine in the 5 Series' range makes the most sense.
And don’t forget that you can save pots of cash when buying a 5 Series, or any new car of your choosing, with our What Car? New Car Buying service; click the link to see all our latest deals.
Performance & drive
What it’s like to drive, and how quiet it is
Engine, 0-60mph and gearbox
The diesel 520d is punchy enough for most people and is our pick of the range. If you don't believe us, check out its claimed 0-62mph time of just 7.2sec; this is plenty quick enough to whisk you up to motorway speeds without any fuss. Performance is roughly on a par with the rival Mercedes E-Class 220d's, although in terms of real-world driveability (as opposed to outright 0-62mph acceleration), the Audi A6 40 TDI has a slightly wider performance window and is fractionally more flexible as a result.
If you want more grunt, the brawnier six-cylinder 530d has it in spades; it’s effortlessly quick and is so smooth (thanks to those two extra cylinders) that you quickly forget there is a diesel engine lurking under the bonnet. It has all the power you’d ever need. However, there will always be those who want the ‘ultimate’ iteration of 5 Series (aside from the outrageous BMW M5), and for that reason BMW offers the M550i. It’s a softer and more cosseting car than the race track honed M5, yet with a 523bhp 4.4-litre V8 under the bonnet and a 0-62mph time of just 3.8 seconds, it is still quick enough to embarrass most supercars. The only other petrol engine in the range, the 520i, is the least recommendable – it needs revving hard to achieve its best and is only fractionally cheaper than the brilliant 520d.
But what if you desire efficiency but want to avoid diesel? Well, the plug-in hybrid 530e will suit you; it teams a 2.0-litre petrol engine with an electric motor to increase fuel efficiency and reduce emissions. With a claimed 0-62mph time of 5.9 seconds, it is capable of an impressive turn of speed, and yet when driven in electric mode, you can bimble around town in near silence (more on this later). It is available with rear or xDrive four-wheel drive, whereas the more expensive 545e is available only as an xDrive model. We’ve yet to try this version, but it certainly looks impressive on paper; with a turbocharged 3.0-litre engine and an electric motor, it produces a whopping 388bhp and will accelerate from 0-62mph in just 4.6sec. Both plug-in hybrids have similar official WLTP electric ranges: a maximum of 34 miles for the 545e and a maximum of 37 for the 530e. That’s roughly the same as you’ll get from a Mercedes E300e.
Suspension and ride comfort
On the standard passive SE suspension, the 5 Series is supple enough around town over big bumps, but there’s a bit of an underlying shimmy through the car on anything other than super-smooth roads. If you do lots of motorway miles, you’ll probably find this quite annoying. Sticking with the SE trim's standard 17in wheels (or 18s on more powerful versions) helps to minimise the problem, but adding bigger wheels with run-flat tyres exacerbates it. M Sport suspension is quite stiff for what's supposed to be a luxury car.
On M Sport models (excluding 520i and 520d models) you can specify optional adaptive Variable Damper Control. However, this is only available as part of the optional M Sport Pro Pack and is, therefore, a rather pricey option. The Pack also introduces massive 20in wheels (the 530e gets slightly smaller 19s), so despite having adjustable dampers, the low-speed ride it offers is no smoother than the standard suspension. Therefore, we’d just stick with the latter and the smallest wheels available.
Unlike BMW's traditional strapline, we'll stop short of classing the current 5 Series as 'the ultimate driving machine', but it certainly snaps at the class champion's heels. That's the Jaguar XF, by the way, which has delicate and informative steering that the 5 Series can't quite match. The 5 Series' steering is accurate and nicely weighted, though, and more intuitive than the Audi A6's and Mercedes E-Class's.
The 5 Series doesn't have quite as much front grip as its key rivals, either. But drive it at eight-tenths – exploiting its sublime rear-wheel-drive balance, rather than leaning too heavily on its front tyres – and there’s still plenty to savour about pedalling it down a snaking A-road. As you might imagine, going for the xDrive version (four-wheel drive) improves traction considerably in the wet.
Noise and vibration
The 5 Series does a brilliant job of keeping wind and road noise at bay, even at high speeds; it's designed very much with fast, German autobahns in mind, after all. For library-quiet cruising manners, though, avoid M Sport trim (aside from the 530e, which has 18in wheels, every other M Sport trim equipped 5 Series gets massive 19in items) and run-flat tyres, which drone and slap more over expansion joints.
The type of noise your 5 Series makes depends, in part, on which engine you go for. The M550i petrol is the best, sounding deliciously smooth and sweet even when you hoof it. The six-cylinder 530d diesel is remarkably muted, merely taking on a pleasant growl when you work it harder. Our favourite engine, the 520d, isn't as hushed as the A6 40 TDI’s under acceleration, but it pipes down once you're cruising. Meanwhile, the 530e is the quietest 5 in the range. When there’s enough juice in its battery for it to run on electricity alone, it’s almost mute, and is far from noisy even when its 2.0-litre petrol engine (shared with the 520i) chimes in.
All engines come with a superb eight-speed automatic gearbox, which is never anything but ultra-smooth through every gear.
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