By Mitchell Weitzman
“They’re doing a 5-series event at an F1 track?” Was my first thought of BMW’s Back to the Track event, starring the new G30 coded 5-series, at, yep, the Circuit of the Americas, a full-blown Formula 1 race circuit. This isn’t for a new M5. It could be out of it’s element I thought, why not have this in Palm Springs or Miami? Nope, COTA will suffice.
Now for the real fun. BMW invited out some talent out to show us a good time, in the form of Adam Andretti, yes, one of those Andretti’s, overall Le Mans winner Davy Jones, former F1, INDYCAR, and CART driver Roberto Guerrero, do-it-all open-wheel and sportscar man Shane Donley, and legendary track day instructor and racer Mark Wolocatiuk. Their mission? Drive as hard as possible and as close as possible.
So there I was, on a plane to Austin, Texas to drive the new 5 series. I want the new 5 to be good, of course. As comfortable as it was, I was always underwhelmed by the prior 5er, favoring older models in its stead, finding it somewhat boring with little engagement.
So what has changed? It’s a new chassis featuring lighter metals like aluminum and magnesium (no Carbon Core present here), and the new engine family migrated over from the 330i and 340i. There are several autonomous features as well. One such is a lane assistant that will keep the car in your lane providing micro steering adjustments as it scans for visible lane markings and hooks up to following the car in front. When coupled with adaptive cruise control, which will brake and slow down to a complete stop if the car in front does, and then speed back up to your set speed; It’s the closest to autonomy this side of a Tesla. There’s even a ‘display’ key that looks like an old small phone with a tiny touchscreen. With the right package, you can tell the car to pull into or out of a parking spot while standing beside the car, mostly for showing off to your friends. Gesture controls have been passed down from big brother 7 as well. I don’t see the practical use of them as it means taking your hands off the wheel, but I’m sure your date and her friends will be impressed. My favorite tech comes in the form of a 360-degree camera with many many viewing angles. Honestly, there is no excuse anymore for curbing a wheel here. And of course, none of this is standard.It has simply become a tech lover’s delight.
Seeing the new 5 for the first time in the flesh, it is a handsome car. It is practically a scaled-down 7 series, which debuted just over a year ago, but the proportions are spot on with added surface tension that the old model so sorely lacked. It’s all much more pointier, each end tapering to an aggressive and angular, well, point. The optional M-Sport package is a must with it’s added visual drama from the gaping three intakes on the front bumper. It looks quite good in signature Alpine White, but also in darker hues too. The unique Carbon Black is also an option which I would recommend. The interior is the runaway winner for most improved aspect of the G30 though. The atmosphere inside gives off a vibe of flying first-class, with soft materials throughout and a thoroughly cohesive and modern design. The seats are impressive too, being highly supportive with the bolstering, but sumptuously comfortable at the same time. With the seat massage optioned, you can control where you want it to work. ‘Hip Activation?’ Sure, let’s give that a go. These are my new favorite BMW seats. Nestled in the cabin behind the wheel I can’t help but feel cocooned as if the interior is neatly wrapped around me. And this is a good thing, a very good thing. Nice steering wheel too.
The biggest question though, it’s main crucible, is how the bloody thing drives. I won’t make you wait, it’s good. Yes, this part of the car is good, that part is nice; it’s all nice and good, and I can’t think of two better words to describe it. It’s almost frustrating how competent the new 5 is in all aspects. But it does run just short of being brilliant and so never quite ventures past the good and the nice. My main gripe with modern BMW’s, and that means every single one, has been with what they still insist on calling ‘steering.’ Since the introduction of electric power steering, the feel and connection that made a BMW the ultimate driving machines they were sorely missed. It has gotten better, but every time I get behind the wheel of my 2003 330i it reminds me it’s still has got a way to go. However, with the new 5, it’s by far the best it’s been. It’s still on the lighter side, but it’s so damn direct it nearly doesn’t matter anymore. I’ll say it here, the new 5 has the best steering of any new BMW. Better than any M-car even. Gone is the confusion that plagued the earlier iterations of this system. It’s a hope that the next generation cars will once again have some of the best (steering) racks in the game.
I did sample both the 530i and 540i. Guess which one I preferred? It’s hard to beat an inline-six. Though this new 4 pot is much improved over the one found in the old 528i. Where that engine could fool some for being a diesel with its clatter, the newly designated B48 is a much more refined piece of turbocharged metal, being quieter and smoother. Power outputs are about identical but it does feel ever so slightly more urgent. It’s a perfectly, and here it is again, good motor.
The 540i, with it’s larger, smoother, and powerful B58 3.0L inline-six, force-fed oxygen by a twin-scroll turbocharger is my pick of the range. With 335 horses, up from 300 on the old 535i, it feels easily as fast as the old 550i even. The performance is simply astounding. Makes a good noise too, how a BMW should sound with 6 pistons pumping up front. Pretty sure it’s making more than the advertised 335 trojans…The 8 speed ZF ‘box changes as smooth and quick as ever, with cat-like responses coming from the wheel-mounted paddles.
Handling? With that impressive steering, point the car in the direction you want it to go and the 5er will follow obediently. It’s nearly scary how quick this can be driven without any real fuss in a car this large and heavy. I didn’t experience any understeer as we didn’t get a chance to drive it hard enough, but I’m sure it will eventually if you really try. At a brisk pace though, it’s remarkably neutral, with quick transitions and responses to steering input. Good car, this. Oh, and brakes feel quite adequate as well.
And the stupendous Circuit of the Americas? What a track! It has a lovely combination of fast esses and sweepers, but also great hairpins and a few with a neat double-apex. The run up to turn 1 is something TV cannot capture. The elevation change is immense, pitting the bottom of the your stomach as you begin to ascent at full-throttle before cramming the brakes down for the sharp left-hander. In pictures, it all looks flat, but there are a ridiculous amount of undulations and the elevation changes in the track surface. The curbs also appear monstrous when tackling them. It also feels narrower than on the telly as well. I want to go back. I must and I shall.
Now for the real fun. BMW invited out some talent out to show us a good time, in the form of Adam Andretti, yes, one of those Andretti’s, overall Le Mans winner Davy Jones, former F1, INDYCAR, and CART driver Roberto Guerrero, do-it-all open-wheel and sportscar man Shane Donley, and legendary track day instructor and racer Mark Wolocatiuk. Their mission? Drive as hard as possible and as close as possible. Shane spotted my polo sporting the Senna ‘S’ and invited me to ride with him. Wise choice that, as we were the last car in our pro train, meaning I got to watch the cars in front sliding all over. You really don’t have a true perception of speed until you ride with a pro. I thought I was fast? Think again. Here, on their limits, the 5’s didn’t show any signs of real understeer, instead preferring controllable oversteer as I glance over and see Shane cranking the wheel to opposite lock in a slide before quickly unwinding it back. And it’s smooth, graceful, an art be it. Brakes haul us down immensely fast and the 540i’s power pins you back in the seat right after. And how oh so close we were to each other; the next car was probably 5 feet or less in front in some of the corners. In front there’s Andretti sliding around like he put oil on the rear tires. Two laps and we come back in when Shane asks me, “How was that?” “Freaking fantastic,” was my boyish response.
So that was the end of our trip there in Austin.
But how is the 5 on an actual road? Yes, since the trip there I have driven the 5 on city roads and it is supremely quiet, smooth as freshly applied carnauba wax, and a joyous place to be confined in. The ride is great, absorbing bumps left and right. It’s a better car than the old 5. Though, I will say that after my initial admiration of the new car’s improved styling, seeing it more and more in the flesh, it has slightly worn off me. Attractive? Very. But it’s still a little too…beige somehow.
How does it stack up? Here lies the problem. Like I said earlier, it’s almost too good. It does every essential function so, well, good, that it almost lacks character as it has no real standout feature that sticks to memory like the V8 in an E92 M3. Despite ticking every box possible, it somehow is missing that certain sparkle that separates the great cars, from the totem of great cars. Who am I kidding though, I can’t say it’s perfect, nothing is perfect, I’m supposed to nit-pick and find faults. It’s not good, it’s great. You want a premium luxury sedan? Buy the new 5.