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March 10, 2004

Review: 2004 BMW 530d

Every Terminator movie has a scene where Arnold Schwarzenegger gets hit with everything the enemy has.  His skin and human attachments rip off, revealing the glowering, gleaming metal underneath.  Imagine that happening to a car, and that's how the new BMW 5 series looks like—as if the attractively beady-eyed countenance of the old 5 gets blown off and out comes The Cyborg.  The angry eyebrows of the front headlamp clusters lead to a pronounced nose section and sharply creased flanks.  The shutlines are all trapezoids and the rear continues the bulky, angular theme.

The 5 is an assault on the senses that takes some getting used to.  Its personality is strong but pleasantly so.  The inside is just as powerful, with strong shapes assuaged by the best possible material choices.  The door panels, for instance, feature sharp cuts of soft-touch plastics interspersed with the aluminum door pull and brown leather panel.  Gauges are elegant, easy-to-read affairs, with no electronic-lighting gimmickry.  One neat touch is the cruise-control indicator, a small white notch that rotates into place around the rim of the speedometer to show the preset speed.

The most prominent interior feature is the infamous iDrive system.  Audio settings, environmental controls and information are called up when you twist or push the big knob on the center console.

BMW Philippines Communications Director Lito German compared the iDrive to the personalization capabilities of a mobile phone.  Setting up one's preferences on a new mobile will drive you mad the first few days you use it, but after that, you pretty much just leave it alone because it's exactly the way you want it. That made perfect sense to us.  Do you want Maximum Aircon to mean a cool breeze, or a blast from the Arctic?  You can set it once on the iDrive's menu, and it'll behave that way next time you punch that Max button.  Do you want the doors to lock when you start the car, when you go faster than 5 km/h, or only when you push the lock button?  Trivial matters, perhaps, but all of these add up to having everything just the way you want it.

This "iDrive light" removes some of the customization options available on the bigger 7 such as adjustment of suspension settings.  Not that we really missed that.  One cool feature is the service indicator telling you just how many km you have left on your engine oil, filters and brake pads.  Take a lot of high-speed runs and you will see the brake pad indicator quickly report diminishing life.  The iDrive, like so much on this car, is geared towards the driver, but it will amuse the front passenger, particularly women, no end.  Better than a Gameboy on a long trip.

Sitting in a 5 is memorable enough even before you turn the key.  But the real experience begins when you start her up.  Steering wheel and seat, which have retracted for ingress, reposition themselves to your preferred position. Everything needed for driving is power-adjustable and can be saved in a preset memory; even the headrests move up and down via motors.

Then the big inline-6 diesel grumbles to life with hardly any noise or vibration.  You’ll hear the engine rattle only when you open the front windows and poke your head out.  That the new 5 was initially available only with this engine speaks something about the company's confidence in the oil -burner.  The heart of the 5 is as formidable as the exterior would have you expect.  There are the usual modern-diesel accolades: quiet, can't believe it's a diesel, and so on.

This one goes beyond that by dishing up rocket-ship acceleration.  Press down firmly on a clear piece of road and prepare to have the car propelled forward at warp speed.  You might miss the spine-tingling soundtrack of a gasoline inline-6, but you'll have much more in return for it.  How does 218 bhp and 500 Nm of torque sound?  218 bhp is quite good, but let's put that second number into perspective.  It's more than double that of the next lower engine available on the 5, the 2.5 liter inline 6.  500 Nm is closer to what you’d expect from a big-block V8 of at least 5.0 liters.  Even the V-12 Ferrari F50 has about 30 Nm less than this car.

Since torque equals acceleration, this translates to quickness at any speed.  0-100 km/h takes a mere 7.3 seconds.  All the torque is channeled to the rear wheels, with the six-speed automatic providing seamless transitions from one gear to the next.  Prompt kickdowns and revving to near redline are part of the gearbox’s programming.  What's not supercar-like is the fuel mileage: 9.56 km/liter including runs at top speed will give even a Corolla a run for thriftiness, and that's with cheaper fuel, too. A plethora of chassis electronics—ABS, CBC, ASC, DSC, DTC, DBC—keeps wheelspin in check, and the car pointing the right way forward.

The 530d absolutely will not stop—accelerating that is—until you reach its top speed.  With most mortal cars, top speed is a theoretical value that's graphed on some asymptotic scale, with quick progress at first, then a slow struggle as speeds build up.  The 5 has no trouble at all reaching its top capability of 243 km/h.  If you lived in Germany, you can drive to work and max it out every day. Or even if you lived in Lipa, Batangas, at the far end of the Star Tollway.   You won't even frighten the wife and kids, as the ride feels composed at speed, even on the less than glassy surfaces of our local autobahn.

You won't frighten yourself, either, as the other equally important aspect of going fast, the ability to slow down, is looked after by the massive disc brakes at all four corners.  A prod on the firm brake pedal is enough to quickly slough off speed back to sane and traffic-friendly double digits.

The 5's capabilities don't end with the impressive straight-line performance.  Even at parking lot speeds, you can appreciate its key technical feature, the Active Steering system.   (I wonder why the Germans didn't come up with an acronym for that.)  The usual variable-assist power steering, such as the electric type on the Z4, merely varies the amount of effort for turning the wheel, making it lighter at slow speeds and firmer as you go faster.

Active Steering actually varies how much the road wheels turn for a given turn of a steering wheel.  In other cars, you'll notice that, when taking a 90-degree corner at a slow speed, you have to twist the steering wheel through more than 180 degrees.  If you keep your hands at 9 and 3 o'clock, your arms will end up crossed and you'll have to let go with one hand to complete the maneuver.  With Active Steering, your arms won't even cross and you'll find the car making the turn.  This quick steering ratio obviously won't do at high speeds, as the smallest movement of the steering will have the car pitching into the next lane.  AS suitably lessens the ratio as the car's speed climbs, for a reassuringly stable feel even up to the car’s terminal velocity.

It certainly works, but does it feel artificial?  In slow corners, you feel the system adjusting, the planetary gears and servos doing their dance at the other end of the steering shaft.  It's a bit disconcerting at first, as if the car can read your intentions.  After a day of oversteering the car in some corners, you’ll soon be appreciating the variable inputs.  Minimal body roll, neutral handling, compliant suspension and the sticky 16-inch Pirelli P7s all conspire to make the 5 corner with absolute confidence.

Then there are the other features that make driving easier—the swiveling xenon headlamps, active parking brake that prevent the car from rolling backwards when on an incline, front and rear parking sonar.  If only it could vacuum itself, then it would be the perfect sedan.  The 530d may look like it materialized from the future, but it is a technological and performance tour de force that exists, quite fortunately for us, very much in the present.

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