2012 BMW 5 Series Driving Impressions

We drove the BMW 550i, the 535i, and the brand-new 528i, and were were stupefied by how competent and balanced these mid-size performance sedans really are. All three had exceptional poise and pace, and some interesting surprises.

The 550i's front/rear weight percentage was the most nose heavy with its big V8 at 52.5/47.5 percent, with the 535i coming in at 50.9/49.1 percent, and the 528i at 49.4/50.6 percent with its lighter engine. Surprisingly, these seemingly insignificant differences produce better balance and less understeer in the 528i, the best handling of the three.

So what does maximum driving performance in these 5s have to do with day-to-day driving? Absolutely everything. Any true emergency maneuver in normal traffic demands near maximal use of a car's balance and grip. Driven on the racetrack, we found the two 535i and 550i to be extremely controllable at massive levels of acceleration, stopping and cornering. They will provide responsive performance in accident avoidance maneuvers. But the 528i's lightness resulted in exemplary quickness and agility, which was noticeable in more everyday driving.

The 5 Series uses a superb 8-speed automatic transmission. Combined with weight-saving provisions, including aluminum doors, hood, front side panels and suspension components, the transmission improves fuel mileage, in part, because gears seven and eight are both overdrive.

Fuel economy for the BMW 528i is a stellar EPA-estimated 23 City/34 Highway. The 535i scores 19 City/28 Highway; the 550i V8 gets 15 City/22 Highway.

The 528i and 535i are furnished with BMW's first-ever automatic stop/start system, which stops the engine when the car is not in motion, conserving fuel. Unfortunately, at each restart, our 528i shuddered noticeably each time the engine restarted. Stop/start is a very smart idea, but some systems from other manufacturers perform more seamlessly.

Zero-to-sixty for the 550i, 535i, and 528i are, respectively, 5.0 seconds, 5.7 seconds, and 6.2 seconds. While the 550i is the obvious choice for real speed, the 528i's strong handling, fine fuel mileage, adequate acceleration and attractive base price will attract many, including us.

Much as we admired the new 8-speed transmission's quick shifts and energy efficiency, its shifter is needlessly iconoclastic. It has a P button on top for Park and an unlock button on the left side. To get out of Park, you depress the unlock button and move the shifter forward or backward for Reverse or Drive. Sounds simple enough. You can only go from Drive to Reverse, and vice versa, by first pressing the unlock button. If you move the shifter left, you get manual selection of the eight gears. To return to Park, you press Park on the top of the lever. It takes a bit of training and a goodly number of false starts. Like other German carmakers, BMW believes it's important for you to do things their way, even when there is nothing about it that is superior to a conventional PRNDL auto-shifter. On the plus side, the manually selected 8-speed did its best to give us the shift we wanted.

The 5's steering is electronic, variable ratio and feels seamless and precise. And breaking with BMW practice, the new front suspension eschews struts in favor of multi-link arms.

To heighten controllability and give the driver an improved platform, available dynamic damping control constantly adjusts shock rates to match the current road surface. The system is so fast that when a front wheel hits a pothole at highway speed, the rear shock absorber will be prepared for it before the pothole arrives. In addition, active roll stabilization curtails body roll in hard cornering, giving the driver heightened command. BMW's advanced electronics work well. Additionally, all-wheel drive is available in all 5 Series models.

The latest BMW brake system interacts with the other electronic stability control systems, pre-setting the brakes in heavy braking, drying the brakes in wet driving, and compensating for brake fade in vigorous driving. The brakes also have a hybrid-like regenerative-energy feature; they capture electric energy generated during braking and send electricity to the battery. This reduces the net amount of time that the engine must drive the alternator producing charge. This cuts the amount of time the engine must drive the alternator belt, heightening fuel efficiency.

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