Test Drive Notes Library
- There’s little not to like about an $82,000 luxury sedan that does just about everything well, and some things extraordinarily well.
- Drivetrain. The engine/transmission combination in the 540i could almost be described as beautiful. That assumes you are able to find beauty in an inanimate, fossil-fuel ingesting, oily collection of auto parts. But if you can, you’ll find the smooth, powerful six-cylinder twin turbo engine, combined with the undetectable and perfectly timed shifts of the eight speed automatic a thing of mechanical beauty. As Linda Richman would say on SNL’s Coffee Talk, “like buttah.”
- Easy to drive smoothly. Unlike some highly powered cars, you can easily drive the 540i without installing a Dramamine dispenser for your passengers. If you stomp on the pedal, at any speed, it’ll fly. But in day to day driving, and in traffic, it’s very easy to modulate the gas pedal and brake in this car for smooth starts and stops. The brakes, by the way, are excellent at all speeds.
- Quiet. BMW did a great job insulating the 540i. Road and tire noise are barely detectable. The engine is quiet, except when you really step on it. And even then, it’s a pleasing thrum. It’s a serene environment in which to travel, fully isolated from the hoi polloi in their $50,000 Audis.
- Luxurious interior. The materials inside are top rate. Lots of soft surfaces on everything you touch. The leather and stitching looks rich. The seats adjust about a million ways (thanks, we presume, to the $1,600 Luxury Seating Package). Seats are firmly, Teutonically comfortable, rather than Lincoln-soft. But you can sit in them for a long time. Or at least until the BMW salesman asks you to please get out of the car, and look at something more in your price range, like a used X1.
- The iDrive is improved, with a larger, more horizontal screen, that lets you quickly scroll sideways through the major menu areas and pick one. Sub menus have been edited and simplified. The screen is good and bright, making it easy to see at all times of day. BMW has added a very good heads up display, which gives you key information in projection form, in front of the driver (it appears as though it’s floating on the hood as you look at the road) so you don’t have to take your eyes off the road. The heads up displays your speed, the speed limit, your navigation system’s next turning directions, and key iDrive info, like who is calling. Easy to use permanent knobs for climate and volume, and memory buttons that can be attached to anything the iDrive controls (a satellite radio station, a home address on the navigation system), suggest that the ergonomics were well thought out in this redesign.
- Ride and handling. The ride is smooth and very well controlled. You get a fleeting sense that you just drove over a pothole, but you’re not jolted by it. Our test car came with the dynamic handling package, which includes active dampers that automatically adjust to road surfaces, making the ride even smoother. The 540i’s ride is now much more that of a luxury car than a sporty car. I guess if you’re spending 82-large on a car, BMW figures you’re probably ready for some pampering. But those looking for the sporty road feel of their BMW of old will find the 5-Series has passed them by.
- Easy parking. While the 540i is a pretty large sedan, the 360 degree view provided (split with the straight backup camera on the wide video screen) makes it easy to know where the outside of the car is. Add to that the sonar and automatic parking assistant features, and you won’t ever have to go into the restaurant and ask the Maitre d' to help you parallel park your carriage.
- Virtual Instrument Cluster is cool. Instead of actual analog instruments, the instrument panel is a high-end video display that projects the instruments for you. They don’t look the slightest bit fake. But because they’re virtual, you can modify and customize the display.
Test Drive Notes Library
- Low seats. Even with all of the adjustments, it still feels like the seating is rather low in this car. That’s even more true in the back. So passengers will find themselves falling down into the car a bit, and climbing back out of it. We wonder if — with customers flocking to higher riding crossovers — BMW will find itself a bit out of step with today’s buyers.
- At least one of us never got comfortable in the driver’s seat. Despite the multitude of adjustments, something about the height of the roof and physics of the seat itself made a truly comfortable driving position allude this particular Producer, who shall go unnamed. But we’re guessing Berman is an outlier, and most people will have no trouble making themselves comfortable in the 540i.
- Gas mileage. If you’re spending this kind of money, you probably don’t care about a few miles per gallon. But in more-city-than-highway driving, we averaged a little less than 20 MPG. EPA says you should get 24 combined, which is not bad—if you achieve it. Those who are more concerned about fuel economy and environmental impact could opt for the 530i, with BMW's well-regarded 250 hp four-cylinder engine.
- Gesture control is a gimmick. You can point at the video screen, circle your finger to the right, and have the audio system’s volume increase. Sometimes. Sometimes the system ignored our gestures. OK, it was right to ignore that one gesture. But aside from its lack of reliable response to our gestural inputs, we found ourselves watching the screen to see if it responded — which defeats the purpose of not having to take your eyes off the road. After trying the gesture system, we found it much easier to use the steering wheel or dashboard volume controls.
- The price of options. In the end, the price of the 540i is comparable to its primary German luxury competitors. But it does seem a bit galling when you read the option’s list. The base price of our 540i is $56,450. But add the blue metallic paint for $700, the leather dashboard for $1,000, the Cold Weather Package for $800, the Driving Assistance Package for $1,800, the other Driving Assistance Package (Plus) for $1,400, the other-other Driving Assistance Package (Plus II) for $1,700, the Dynamic Handling Package for $3,200, the Luxury Seating Package for $1,600, the M-Sport Package for $2,600, the Premium Package for $1,950, the B&W sound system for $4,200 and a few thousand more in other odds and ends, and you’re at $82,610. Of course, those are options, some of which you can live without. But those option packages also include things you absolutely need, like forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking, blind spot monitoring and lane keeping assist. We wish stuff like that was standard, especially in a car that starts at nearly $60K.
Get the Car Talk Newsletter