"Not big… Same, same!" Dom Pedro wouldn't take it. Even after I pointed out the 535i badge at the rear of the car, the Portuguese farmer, with a dismissive smirk, maintained that this car was no bigger than his 3 Series estate. He, together with his son Alvaro, had pulled up next to the decrepit motel along the scenic coast of Cascais, beside which a few of us were waiting for a photo session with the 2011 BMW 5 Series.
But after he left, or was rather dragged away by his visibly embarrassed son, I could see why I wasn't able to convince him that this car was indeed a 5 Series. It's because Adrian van Hooydonk and his design team have succeeded in completely undoing what Chris Bangle did to the E60 seven years ago. Although at 116.9in the F10's wheelbase is longer than any of its competitors, the de-Bangled car looks much more compact — so much so that you could well mistake it for a 3 Series.
And it's too early to say whether it was such a great idea to completely bypass the previous generation and look to the 1995 to 2003 E39 for design inspiration. After all, BMW officials themselves admit that out of the 5.5 million units sold overall, the E60 was their best-selling model in four of the last seven years.
Hey, good lookin'
But, irrespective of whether it was a good idea or not, the new 5 Series is a fine looking saloon. In fact, a lot better looking than the Mercedes E-Class, Audi A6 or the ageing Lexus GS. The car follows a design principle that BMW aptly calls assertive modernity.
The kidney grille inclines forward and is upright and more rectangular compared to the previous model's sloping grille. The headlights resemble those in the current 3 Series and do not stretch back to the sides as much as in the earlier version. Similarity to the smaller sibling can also be seen in the prominent crease on the flanks that starts just behind the front wheel arch and flows back parallel to the beltline, through the door handles all the way to the tail lights. The designers have retained BMW's signature Hofmeister kink, the low forward bend in the car's C pillar. The rear has also been thoroughly revised, with the tail lights featuring three glowing horizontal bands, similar to the ones in the new 7 Series and the Gran Turismo.
The interior layout has also been reworked, with the centre console now tilted towards the driver. All materials used are of the highest quality, and everything, from the perfectly stitched leather seats to the door handles and the flowing lines of the dashboard, exudes class and luxury. A chrome bar runs along the instrument panel and merges with the door lining in a sweeping line that highlights the rest of the wooden trim above it. On the steering wheel are multifunction buttons including the cruise control functions. Switches and controls are placed in an uncluttered and logical layout and displays in the instrument cluster are finished in what BMW calls a Black Panel. All models get an LCD in the dash displaying navigation, audio and climate control information.
Our test car had the 10.2in screen from the 7 Series. However, cars which don't have sat-nav will only get a 7in display. And the latest generation of BMW's iDrive controller makes navigating through the system a breeze.
There are enough storage boxes inside besides the two cup holders and the cubby hole under the front armrest also has connection points for USB and iPod.
While the driver and the front passenger get superb power-adjustable, heated and ventilated bucket seats, the conventional bench seat at the back isn't much to write home about. It's nothing more than a space with just enough legroom. That's why BMW asserts that this is a more driver-orientated car than the 7 Series.
Ultimate driving machine?
The model I get to drive is the 535i, which has BMW's new N55 single turbo inline-six unit under its chiselled bonnet. Despite shedding a turbo, the new engine has the same displacement as the previous twin-turbo version and also manages 306bhp and 400Nm of torque all the way from 1,200 to 5,000rpm.
The car is quick right off the start and gains momentum in a smooth, uninhibited fashion, thanks to the eight-speed automatic transmission straight from the 7 Series. Even the gear shifter is exactly the same as in the flagship saloon. Although eight gears might seem like two speeds too many for a 3.0-litre straight six, the car's progress is precise and smooth on the highways, and the only time it seems a bit confused is in city traffic, where it hunts for the correct gear too often.
The new 5 Series also gets electric power steering for the first time, with an optional active steering mode. The turning radius is reduced considerably thanks to rear-wheel steering and the feedback and weight varies according to the speed. Integral active steering further increases the car's agility by turning the rear wheels in the opposite direction to the steering angle of the front wheels at speeds of up to 60kph.
However, on the drive along the winding coastal roads up the spectacular route to Sintra, a laid-back town west of Lisbon, the steering feels too light for my liking. But I later realised that I had kept the driving dynamics control on Comfort, and that choosing Sport or Sport+ drastically alters the way the steering feels.
And what better way to test those modes than five laps around the famed tracks of Circuito do Estoril? Although our speed is restricted due to heavy rains, the 5 Series proves great fun on track. Flicking it to the Sport+ mode increases the enjoyment as it backs off the traction control and allows controlled power slides on sharp bends, as the front double wishbone suspension and the rear multi-link set-up make sure that you don't beach yourself. The only flip side is that even when you flog it, all you can hear is a distant, muted growl from the engine. So expect that much less of an adrenaline rush.
The new 5er is also packed with most of the features found in the 7 Series, like a head-up display, lane departure warning and blind spot warning apart from automatic high beams, adaptive cruise control and a forward-facing night-vision camera. The parking assistant feature, which identifies and steers the car into a parallel parking spot while the driver controls just the brake and accelerator, was demonstrated during a video presentation, but the cars we were given weren't equipped with this feature. Anyway, BMW assures us that it will be incorporated when the new 528i and 535i reach our market by the end of March. We'll get the 407bhp V8-powered 550i sometime later in the year.
Bangle butt or not, flame surfacing or not, the 2011 BMW 5 Series is a great saloon in its own right. And with many features that were available only in larger cars until now, it's definitely going to give the competition sleepless nights.
That said, whether the F10 will be as successful as the E60 remains to be seen. Because, I now know, it won't be easy to get people like Dom Pedro to change their mind about how a 5 Series should look.
Specs & rating
- Model: 2011 BMW 5 Series
- Engine: 3.0-litre inline-six
- Transmission: Eight-speed automatic
- Max power: 306bhp @ 5,800rpm
- Max torque: 400Nm @ 1,200rpm
- Top speed: 250kph
- 0-100kph: 6.1sec
- Price: TBC
- Plus: Striking new design, great to drive, gizmos
- Minus: Rear seats not that great