BMW 5 Series (2004)

"While the 5 Series remains a very nice car to drive, the bag of chisels BMW took to the exterior does this superb car a real disservice."
Good: more interior room, driving experience.
Bad: iDrive system, styling.

The best place from which to enjoy the redesigned BMW 5 Series is the driver's seat. That way, you don't have to look at it.

While the 5 Series remains a very nice car to drive, the bag of chisels BMW took to the exterior does this superb car a real disservice. We realize that styling is subjective. But we were unanimous at Car Talk that, if any of us ever acquired one of these, it would be despite the styling, not because of it.

There ARE reasons to drive the new 5 Series. As always, it handles beautifully, has a sweet 3.0-liter, in-line six-cylinder engine (as tested, in the 530i), and is still focused on the pleasure of the driver. And there are improvements from the last rendition. The interior space has expanded, with rear seat room in particular getting a boost; the trunk is bigger; and the interior has been stylishly updated. Prices are about the same, starting at $39,800 for 525i, $44,900 for the 530i, both with six-cylinder engines, and $55,000 for the 545i, with a 4.4-liter V8.

This is still among the best cars on the road when it comes to driving pleasure. If you enjoy driving, you'll enjoy driving the 530i. Acceleration is brisk; the sound of the engine is sweet; and the car tracks, corners and brakes exceptionally well. Despite its sporty makeup, it's also plenty comfortable. A few passengers complained about the seat comfort, but when you buy a BMW, who cares about the passengers, right? We actually found the seats comfortably firm and supportive.

There's a little more isolation from the road than in the previous 5 Series. Some may welcome that, others may not. But regardless of any minor critiques, the driving experience of the 5 Series is among the best.

The interior benefits from more room. The old 5 Series was criticized for being tight inside, especially in the back seat. There's now more shoulder and hip room in the front, and the rear seats are now roomy enough for comfortable long trips. The seats themselves are beautiful and made with top quality leather. The interior feels more spacious because the dashboard and console have been redesigned and seem to provide the driver and front-seat passenger with more space. The plastic components seemed a little cheap for a car that starts at $45,000.

Here's the other crime committed by BMW. It took the hated iDrive system from the 7 Series, and foisted it upon 5 Series drivers. Granted, an attempt was made to simplify it—instead of eight directions, the mouse wheel behind the stick shift now has only four. But it's still an awful attack on thoughtful ergonomics. Obviously, someone at BMW decided that to distinguish the brand, they had to be out front in electronic gadgeteering. So it implemented a hierarchical, computer-style controller for the entertainment, ventilation, navigation, and other systems.

First of all, it's confusing as all get out. But even if you get used to it after a while, it still REQUIRES you to take your eyes off the road to perform tasks that a tactile button used to perform. In a nod to all of the complaints BMW got on the 7 Series, BMW has taken some of the most common items, such as temperature control and radio volume, and given them separate, more traditional switches. That's good. But BMW should go even further, and limit iDrive to stuff that is used occasionally. Limit it to navigation, ride control, door lock settings, and interior lighting delays...stuff like that. It's dumb to use it for the minute-by-minute stuff people do in their cars. It's annoying, and BMW ought to stop being so damn stubborn and get rid of it.

Sorry... we got kind of worked up there. Otherwise, ergonomics are fine. Meaning, the window switches, windshield wiper switch, and headlight switch are all very well located.

Whoa boy. And we were just calming down from the iDrive rant. BMWs have evolved nicely over the last 30 or 35 years. They've always been nicely understated, slightly racy, slightly muscular, and very clean looking. They've always been artistic representations of the credo that form follows function. So what happened? Somebody at BMW decided it was time for some radical change. But what about the customers? They never asked for radical change. Tough! You Vill Like Zis Car! What did we get? We got an angry headlight treatment that looks like it was stolen from Pontiac. Ironic, now that even Pontiac has decided its cars look too boy-racer "Pontiac." We got the taillights off a Subaru Impreza sedan. And we got the curvy side-body panels that made their first appearance on the 1996 Ford Taurus that everybody hated. The result is that a once beautiful car now looks-from many angles-like it has fallen out of an ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down. It's sad, really.

If you're buying a BMW, be prepared to take it to your BMW dealer and pay BMW dealer prices for maintenance and repairs.

BMWs have been about average to better-than-average in terms of reliability. Certainly they've been durable. But like some other German automakers, BMW is now loading its cars with more and more electronics. We had several electrical oddities with the new 7 Series last year, and it wouldn't surprise us if some of those gremlins popped up in the 5, too.

The 5 Series is a nice car to drive. Nobody would deny that. But this car is disappointing because the 5 Series was always a beautiful car to look at. At least its owners (and there were plenty of them) thought so. Sure, it could be made a little bigger to give it some more rear seat room and trunk room. It could be updated a bit, made a little more modern. But someone went nuts on it. It looks angry and aggressive, rather than sporty and impressive.

Here's what BMW did wrong, in our humble opinion. Look at Honda. Every time it redesigns the Accord, it makes it more of what customers want. Do customers want more legroom? Honda gives them more legroom. Customers want more comfortable seats? They're given more comfortable seats. This way, Honda keeps over-satisfying its existing customers and those customers, by word of mouth, bring in new customers.

Instead of giving existing 5 Series customers more of what they wanted in the new 5 Series (such as more rear seat room, an updated interior), BMW gave them a bunch of stuff customers never asked for, like an aggressive, angry exterior, and a moronic interior control system called iDrive.

We could be wrong, and it'll be interesting to see if this sells in big numbers. But we're no longer coveting the 5 Series. At least not until the next redesign.

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