You’re certainly not short of engine options with the BMW 5 Series. Nearly all buyers are better off with a diesel, and the 2.0-litre (520d) is punchy enough for most. It can whisk you up to motorway speeds without fuss and rarely needs working hard. Performance is roughly on a par with the rival Mercedes E 220 d.
If you want more performance, we’d recommend the brawnier 530d; it’s effortlessly quick and, in the real world, just as rapid as the more powerful 540i petrol. In fact, the 540i is the most powerful 5 Series you can buy, just short of the full-fat M5, which arrives later this year. It’s brilliant to drive quickly and has a sporty exhaust note, even if it’s not quite as sharp as the Jaguar XF.
The lesser 530i needs plenty of revs to get the best out of it, so is the least recommendable engine in the line-up.
For those living in congested cities, the plug-in hybrid 530e iPerformance is also a tempting proposition. With a 29-mile electric-only range, short commutes can be completed without the assistance of the petrol engine, which should greatly reduce daily fuel bills. However, on longer journeys you’re unlikely to see the benefits of the electric motor, and the added weight of the hybrid system – equal to about 100kg - slightly blunts the car’s handling. You also get a choice of driving modes which either maximise the electric driving range, hold the battery at a pre-set state of charge or mix the two depending on your preference.
All versions of the 5 Series have an eight-speed automatic gearbox that’s one of the best of its type, shifting quickly and rarely dithering at junctions and roundabouts. Alternatively, you can take control yourself via paddles mounted behind the steering wheel, although you’ll rarely feel a need to.
BMW 5 Series ride comfort
The way the BMW 5 Series rides depends largely on whether you go for the standard suspension, the stiffer M Sport version, or do what we’d suggest and tick the box for the optional adaptive set-up, called Variable Damper Control (VDC). This isn’t cheap, but it's definitely worth the extra.
Without it, the 5 Series is supple enough over big bumps around town, but there’s always an underlying shimmy through the car on anything other than super-smooth roads, particularly if you opt for 19in alloys, M Sport suspension or run-flat tyres. If you do lots of motorway miles, you’ll probably find this quite annoying.
Cars with VDC are even more forgiving at low speeds, and they ride in a much more sophisticated fashion along pockmarked British A-roads and motorways – especially if you press the Comfort button next to the gearlever. And the good news is the settings are the same whether you opt for SE or M Sport trim. In fact, few cars in any price bracket ride better. Still, even with the VDC suspension (which is also included as part of the Adaptive Drive option) it’s best to steer clear of really big alloys or run-flat tyres. It’s also worth noting that the plug-in hybrid 530e iPerformance never rides with quite the same aplomb as its conventionally powered brethren, even on VDC suspension. We suspect this is down to slightly firmer springs that are designed to support the extra weight of the batteries and electric motors. Indeed, it can send a judder through the car if you driver over potholes or large ruts in the road.
BMW 5 Series handling
The words ‘capable’ and ‘clinical’ spring to mind when describing the way the 5 Series handles. How it controls its hefty body through corners is truly remarkable, and there’s so much grip you’d swear you were sucked to the road by a big magnet. Again, though, the 530e iPerformance model loses a few points here, because of its extra bulk the car leans more into fast corners. High-speed stability is also extraordinary regardless of which model you choose; a 70mph cruise feels like you’re bumbling along at about 40mph.
Mind you, the rival Jaguar XF is more rewarding to drive quickly along a snaking country road. That’s partly because it has quicker steering, but also because of its more playful handling. The optional Integral Active Steering helps makes the 5 Series a better all-rounder by allowing the rear wheels to help out with the job of steering – at slow speeds they turn a few degrees in the opposite direction to the fronts, which offers a better turning circle, while at high speed they turn in the same direction, to aid stability. Having xDrive (four-wheel drive) also improves traction in the wet, but neither is by any means essential.
BMW 5 Series refinement
The 5 Series does a brilliant job of keeping wind and road noise away from your ears even at really high speeds. The 5 Series is a car designed very much with German Autobahns in mind, after all. For library-quiet cruising manners avoid 19in wheels and run-flat tyres, though.
Beyond that, the noise level depends on which engine you go for. The quietest and smoothest is the 540i petrol, but the six-cylinder 530d is still remarkably muted and merely takes on a rather pleasant growl when you work it hard, which you rarely need to do. Meanwhile, the best-selling 520d is quiet and smooth most of the time, if a little coarser than the rival Audi A6’s 2.0-litre diesel engine. And the 540i is quiet until you put your foot down, at which point you hear its pleasant sound at higher revs.
Around town the 530e iPerformance is the quietest car in the line-up, as its electric motor endows it with a level of low-speed refinement that conventionally powered rivals can't hope to match. However, once the batteries are depleted, it’s hard to ignore the rather gruff sounding 2.0-litre petrol engine, especially if you put your foot down.
All engines come with a superb eight-speed automatic gearbox that has a bit of a split personality; squeeze the accelerator pedal and the shifts are smooth, but jump on it hard and they’re incredibly fast.
Decently quick and nicely refined when mooching about town, but needs plenty of revs to get the best from it. We’d avoid this petrol engine and go for the 520d, instead.
This six-cylinder petrol is the fastest 5 Series on paper, but in the real-world the 530d diesel feels just as quick and is much more economical. Comes with four-wheel drive as standard.
Our pick 520d
This may be the entry point to the 5 Series range, but it has the best balance of performance, price and running costs. It's also refined and comes with BMW's excellent automatic gearbox as standard. Four-wheel drive is an optional extra.
520d Efficient Dynamics
We’ve not driven this version yet. Despite being more efficient than the regular 520d, it’s unlikely to be very different to drive because it has the same power output.
Begins the move from four cylinders to six, and steps up refinement in doing so. It makes the 5 Series quick, too, but unless this is a priority, we’d stick with the 520d – it’s cheaper to buy and run, and isn’t exactly slow, either. Available with four-wheel drive (xDrive) as an option.
A four-cylinder petrol engine and electric motor combined, but the 530e can be driven for up to 29 miles on electricity alone. This silent progress befits the 5’s luxury remit very well, but the little petrol engine can struggle when all the charge is gone. However, with emissions of just 46g/km of CO2, it’s a company driver’s dream.