BMW’s Latest 5-Series

2011 BMW 550i.

Sometimes being the middle child means you end up feeling as though you’re ignored. Just ask Jan Brady from The Brady Bunch. The middle daughter in the fictional TV sitcom family sometimes took a back seat to her older sister Marcia, or the youngest one (“in curls”) Cindy.

The BMW 5-Series sedan sometimes gets the middle child treatment. Not as sporty as the 3-Series, nor as luxurious as the big 7-Series, the various mid-size BMWs through the decades have often lived in the shadows of their siblings. (Yes, there’s now a 1-Series at the bottom of the size range, but for sake of argument we’ll still call the 5-Series the middle model.)

The latest redesign of the BMW 5 came along earlier this model year, and is arguably the best-looking one yet. The previous example tried a little too hard to be bold, but this car has smoother lines and shapes, yet it’s still quite striking.

As always, there are several variations in terms of engine size. In the U.S., the entry car is the 528i, which gets you a 230 horsepower inline six cylinder engine and an 8-speed automatic transmission. This is by no means a “stripper,” but it does provide a version of the 5-Series at an attractive price of admission, $45,025.

Most dealers will prefer to stock the upper models, starting with the 535i. Its twin-scroll turbo inline six cylinder engine puts out an even 300 horsepower, and comes with more standard equipment as well. You can also forego the automatic transmission with the 535i and shift your own gears with a 6-speed manual. (Manual gearboxes are a BMW tradition and they will continue to offer them, even if very few buyers actually want them.)

The top of the line in terms of the model range is the 550i, packing a twin-turbo V8 under its hood, good for 400 horsepower and loads of torque. Some of the traditional BMW lightweight fun goes away with this larger engine, but you can actually get your 550i with the manual gearbox if you like.

I spent a week sampling a 550i xDrive, which not only has the V8 but BMW’s advanced all wheel drive system as well. A bit of overkill in our mild climate, but I’m going to bet that those in the Midwest and Northeastern states are increasingly demanding all wheel drive as an option, so companies like BMW are acquiescing.

While this particular car was shockingly expensive and carried every option (to the tune of a bottom line sticker north of $70,000) it was nonetheless a great example of how nice a car the 5-Series is. Very comfortable, quite roomy, and if you so desire, loaded with the latest technology that enhances safety and the driving experience.

BMW is known for its crisp handling and responsive steering, and in that regard the new 5-Series doesn’t disappoint. I imagined that the added weight of the all wheel drive system would make the 550i feel cumbersome, but to my delight that was not the case at all.

You can definitely feel the weight in the fuel economy, however. The official EPA ratings for the 550i xDrive are 16 city and 24 highway, for a combined figure of 18. In my usual mostly-city driving (with short freeway stints here and there), I averaged a disappointing 13.2 miles per gallon. Obviously the lesser models, with their smaller inline six engines, would do much better on each tank of premium unleaded gasoline.

I think if I were in the market for a 5-Series, I’d go for the 535i, perhaps with the manual transmission. It’s modern in every way, yet still has that great packaging and road feel that’s made the 5-Series so enjoyable to drive over the years.

Besides, from what I remember, Jan Brady turned out to be quite a stunning young lady after all.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 8 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net Twitter: @dave_kunz

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