New Car Review - 2004 BMW 530i


PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)

DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD
WITH CAREY RUSS

In its seven year production run, the fourth-generation BMW 5-Series, code-named E39, garnered accolades from the press and buying public alike, and was considered by many - even many competitors - to be the benchmark in the mid-luxury sports sedan class. That's a tough act to follow, but the fifth-generation ``E60'' 5-Series, new for 2004, improves on its predecessors in every way.

Note to anyone thought the 5-Series mix of performance and luxury comfort would be diluted in the E60: forget it. The new 5-Series takes advantage of new technologies and construction techniques to make it the best yet. As before, three models are offered, designated by engine displacement. The 525i and 530i have inline six-cylinder engines; the 545i has a V8. The sixes are slightly-modified versions of the powerplants familiar from the E39. Although the later E39 540s had a 4.4-liter V8, and the 545 also has a 4.4-liter V8, it's not the same engine. It's the high-tech engine from the premium-class 745i, with ``Valvetronic'' electronic valve lift control for optimum performance.

I've just finished a week with a new 530i. There was little in the E39 that I ever viewed with disfavor, but the E60 is a definite improvement. BMW has used new technologies for more than incremental improvements to its ride and handling, even with the sports suspension. Ditto for the engine - although the power is the same, on paper, it is delivered better, with improved torque at the speeds that will commonly be used. It combines sports performance with luxury comfort in the manner that has made BMW's reputation, with fuel economy that was once the province of small, uncomfortable economy cars.

APPEARANCE: Following in the footsteps of the newest 7-Series sedans and the Z4 roadster, the new 5 is more angular and flashier than its rather conservative predecessor. It's also slightly larger in every dimension, but its styling actually de-emphasizes its size. Its broad-shouldered contours come largely from the 7, with the pointed-oval twin-kidney grille most influenced by the Z4. Bright trim above the headlamps and taillights is the most distinguishing feature. Sharply delineated lines separate its various parts. It is still discernibly a BMW, with twin kidneys at the front, a rather plain rear panel, and unadorned sides with fender flares just large enough to understate its performance potential. A strong shoulder line moves back from the top of the headlights and bisects the taillights. Unlike the 7-Series, the trunk of the 5-Series does not appear to be a separate mass, but is integrated into the overall design.

COMFORT: BMW's interior designs have been much-copied in the industry, and so the Bavarians move on to break new ground with the E60 5-Series. Its interior styling mimics the exterior, with curved shapes offset by well-defined lines. Leatherette is standard for the 525 and 530, with leather optional. The Sport Package adds firmly supportive power front sport seats that are designed for long-term comfort. Driving is paramount - the steering wheel adjusts for both reach and tilt, and has auxiliary controls for cruise control and audio systems. The shift lever placement is near-perfect. The hood shading the main instruments is supplemented by a second hood in the center of the instrument panel, over the LCD display for the systems controlled by the ``iDrive'' control behind the shift lever on the center console. The 5-Series's iDrive has been simplified from that of the 7, and it is relatively simple to use - which is good, as it controls the climate and audio systems as well as providing trip computer information. Front seat passengers have a touch more room than in the E39; rear seat passengers have noticeably more room, and the trunk is 26 percent larger.

SAFETY: Active safety features of the 2004 530i include powerful four-wheel antilock vented disc brakes with dynamic brake control, dynamic stability and traction control, and first-rate acceleration, braking, and maneuverability. Passive features include the latest airbag technology for front, front side, and front and rear side head protection bags.

ROADABILITY: Half of BMW's reputation was founded on excellence in chassis dynamics. If it didn't actually invent the sports sedan, BMW has made the category its own. Since its inception in the 1970s, the 5-Series has been the class benchmark, and the 2004 edition will only make life more difficult for the competition. Rigidity of the unibody structure has been increased, and more use of aluminum for suspension, body, and subframe components decreases weight, especially important unsprung weight. As always, a sport suspension package is offered, and my test car was so equipped. Firmer springs and shocks and larger wheels with lower-profile tires (245/40 WR18 vs. 225/50 VR17), usual for such an upgrade, are complemented by active roll stabilization (the standard anti-roll bars are replaced by hydraulically-activated devices to ensure flat cornering) and active steering, with which the steering ratio is varied electromechanically depending on speed, steering lock, and other conditions. Active steering allows a light touch when squeezing into a tight parking space and excellent high-speed stability - no compromises. Despite the firm suspension calibration and the stiff sidewalls of the ultra-low profile run-flat tires the ride is remarkably comfortable - and cornering ability is first-rate. Mix the new 530i's excellent chassis and near 50 / 50 weight distribution with its smooth engine and the only bad news is for any competitors.

PERFORMANCE: The other half of the BMW reputation is from its engines. Bayerische Motern Werke - Bavarian Motor Works - built aircraft engines long before it made complete cars, and the inline six-cylinder has been a specialty since the late 1920s. The 530i's dual overhead cam, 24-valve 3.0-liter example incorporates all the company has learned. Basically the same engine as was found in the previous 530i, with ``VANOS'' variable valve timing on both intake and exhaust cams and the same 225 hp and 214 lb-ft of torque, it has all of the silky smoothness inherent in that design, and excellent power characteristics as well. The E39 was criticized for being a touch weak at low engine speeds. New exhaust and variable-length intake manifolds take care of that problem very well, with a healthy boost to low- and mid-range torque. There is good power between 2,000 rpm and the 3,500 rpm torque peak for relaxed cruising. Rev it higher, and there is an almost turbo-like rush of top-end power. ``Only'' 225 horses? Don't worry, they're large, healthy Bavarian horses. That power is transmitted to the rear wheels by a six-speed transmission, with manual standard and an automatic available. (The SMG from the Z4 will be offered at a later date.) The manual box has excellent linkage and a good choice of gear ratios, with sixth being either supercruise (if you're in Germany) or ultra-economy (here in the US). Fuel economy is exemplary - according to the computer 18 mpg in stop-and-stop traffic, 22 in a spirited second- and third-gear backroad romp, and 30-plus on the highway. In one ten-mile section of freeway, at 65 to 70 mph, it maintained 39 mpg.

CONCLUSIONS: BMW raises the stakes in the mid-level performance-luxury class with the new 2004 5-Series.

SPECIFICATIONS
2004 BMW 530i

Base Price $ 44,300
Price As Tested $ 55,795
Engine Type dual overhead cam 24-valve aluminum alloy inline 6
Engine Size 3.0 liters / 182 cu. in.
Horsepower 225 @ 5900 rpm
Torque (lb-ft) 214 @ 3500 rpm
Transmission 6-speed manual
Wheelbase / Length 113.7 in. / 190.6 in.
Curb Weight 3472 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower 15.4
Fuel Capacity 18.5 gal.
Fuel Requirement 91 octane premium unleaded gasoline
Tires P245/40 WR18 Dunlop SP Sport
Brakes, front/rear vented disc / vented disc
Suspension, front/rear independent double-pivot strut / independent multilink
Drivetrain front engine, rear-wheel drive

PERFORMANCE
EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 20 / 30 / 25
0 to 60 mph 6.6 sec (mfg)

OPTIONS AND CHARGES
Cold weather package
$750
Premium Package - includes: leather upholstery, gloss wood trim, integrated garage door opener, auto-dimming rear-view mirror, power lumbar support $2,400
Premium Sound Package - includes: Logic 7 audio system, 6-disc in-dash CD changer $1,800
Sport Package - includes: Star Spoke alloy wheels, performance run-flat tires, power front sport seats, sport suspension, active steering, active roll stabilization, shadowline trim $ 3,300
Electric rear sunshade $ 575
Fold-down rear seats with ski bag $ 475
Park distance control $ 700
Xenon headlamps $ 800
Destination charge $ 695

Complete specifications on the 2004 BMW 5 Series 530i Sedan and other vehicles are available at the New Car Buyers Guide!

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