High Five

BMW fans can relax and stop fretting: The redesigned 5-series sedan delivers.

BMW HAS CAUSED a stir during the past two years with its radical makeovers of the 7-series sedan and the Z-series sports car. Both fans and detractors of those new-look BMWs wanted to see what BMW would do to the 5-series, one of the most admired and copied luxury cars in the world.

The new 5, launched earlier this year, is finally arriving at U.S. dealerships. It's not as blocky as the 7-series, nor is it as curvy as the Z4. In fact, the new 5 is elegant and understated, except for the distinctive silver "eyebrows" over the headlights. The 2004 5-series is basically what the old car was: the quintessential European sedan for driving enthusiasts.

That should bring sighs of relief from BMW loyalists worried by early, unflattering photos of the new car, and by the infamous complexity of the "iDrive" system — pioneered on the 7-series — that controls various functions.

The good news about the new 5 is that the redesigned car continues to deliver what people want from a BMW: agile cornering, refined road manners and effortless acceleration.

BMW has raised prices somewhat on the redesigned 5-series but has kept the car in roughly the same price band as before. The new 525i starts at $39,995 including destination charges, up from $38,295 for the 2003. The 530i starts at $44,995, up from $41,795, and the V-8-powered 545i will start at $54,995. More-powerful and more-expensive variants of the 5 series will come along.

I drove two versions of the new 5, one a European diesel model and the second a gasoline-fired 530i built for the U.S. Through a stroke of good luck, I was able to run the European diesel car on a route that included Bavarian mountain roads and a stretch of unlimited-speed autobahn. My U.S. test car, equipped with a six-speed manual transmission and a sticker price of $56,145, got a workout on a trip from Detroit to the shores of Lake Michigan and back.

The team that designed the new 5-series confronted a challenging task. In performance and styling, there wasn't much wrong with the old car. But the old 5-series didn't have much room in the rear and had an inadequate trunk for the U.S. market. "We always heard the old 5-series is a wonderful car, but it's like a very tight suit," says Walter Wohnig, project director for the fifth-generation 5-series.

The 5-series also needed a tech overhaul to keep up with the Johanneses in its $40,000-and-up class, where Mercedes-Benz's new E-class has set a high bar.

To fix the tight-suit problem, BMW made the new 5-series 2.6 inches longer and 1.8 inches wider than the old one, resulting in almost 2 inches more rear leg room and 26 percent more trunk space. BMW says the new 5-series will accommodate four guys and their golf bags.

I didn't get a chance to test the four-golf-bags theory, but I did consign relatives who are over 6 feet tall to the aft seats-and all expressed surprise at how much room they had.

As the driver, my job was more pleasant. The combination of the 530i's 225-hp, 3.0-liter six-cylinder engine and the six-speed manual transmission results in nimble acceleration and quiet highway cruising. Cars priced at thousands less have more horsepower than the 525 and 530, but BMW isn't selling brute power here. It's selling a sporty, very European balance of power, handling and comfort.

For people who like to let the car do the shifting, BMW has now matched the industry standard in this segment, with a six-speed automatic transmission. The 530i automatic is expected to average 19 mpg in city driving and 28 on the highway. The manual version is expected to average 20 mpg in the city and 30 on the highway.

My test cars both came with BMW's new "active steering" technology, sold as part of a $3,300 sport package along with 18-inch wheels and a roll-stabilization system. For active steering, the rack-and-pinion mechanism is augmented with a computer-controlled servomotor system that modulates the amount of force on the front wheels at both low and high speeds to keep the car on track.

In practice, this means that tight parking-lot turns require only about a 180-degree rotation of the steering wheel. On a twisty mountain road at a spirited clip, you can feel the active steering holding the car on line. It's designed to help maintain control in emergency maneuvers as well. BMW calls this "driver-independent steering intervention."

Active steering, coupled with traction and stability controls, makes the new 530i unflappable in most normal driving situations. In case of trouble, the new 530i has a new airbag system that protects the heads of passengers in a rollover.

Competition in this segment is increasingly about technology, and the new 5-series comes with plenty of newfangled hardware as either standard or optional equipment. Some of the technology is hidden from sight, such as the aluminum front end that allows the new 5-series to keep its weight down despite its larger size.

Other gadgetry is in your face, such as the iDrive system, with the big silver knob in the console between the front seats and the dashboard screen that goes with it. Fortunately, Wohnig and his team didn't just plop the confusing iDrive system used in the 7-series into their car. Instead, they significantly simplified the screen menus. Tuning the radio in the 5-series is a breeze compared with doing so in the 7-series, because the 5-series iDrive screen lays out the station presets in a cascade format patterned after the tuning displays on old radio sets. Buttons on the steering wheel allow you to tune the radio or change a CD track without touching the iDrive knob.

However, the entertainment system is one of two problems with the 2004 5-series. BMW executives may be tired of hearing this from American critics, but situating the six-CD changer cartridge (part of the $1,800 premium sound package) in the far recesses of the glove box isn't state of the art, and it's not that big an improvement from putting the changer in the trunk.

I couldn't load up six CDs for a road trip from the driver's seat. I had to stand on the passenger's side, crane my neck into the glove box to locate the changer, insert the CDs in a cartridge and then fumble the cartridge into a slot I could barely see.

The other flaw: inadequate cupholders. But griping about German cupholders is pointless. If sipping Big Gulps is that important to you, buy a minivan.

The more likely alternative for consumers interested in the 5-series is the Mercedes E-class. Once, the contrast between these two was clear. The E-class was sedate and plush, and the 5-series was sporty.

Last year Mercedes moved the E-class a couple of steps toward the sporty end of the spectrum. This year BMW has made the 5-series more comfy. Still, the 5-series retains its edge as the lighter, more agile of the two.