As a fan of the midsize luxury sedan class, it’s sad to see how many manufacturers have given up on the segment. The German trio still has their stalwarts, but Japan gave up in 2020 (RIP Lexus GS), the only American still in the ring is the Cadillac CT5, and its outlier status is accompanied by newcomer Genesis with the G80.
It’s a dying class, which is why your author was especially pleased to spend the Memorial Day weekend with a longstanding headliner of the German luxury sedan genre: A 2021 BMW 5-Series.
The G30 5-Series has been with us since the 2017 model year and experienced its first refresh for 2021. With its larger headlamps and grille, the 5-Series is migrating toward BMW’s new take on its traditional kidney grille, though is spared a ridiculous visage like on the new 4-Series. It’s not offensive to look at but does nothing to look particularly interesting. But plain is okay for an executive sedan. The rental was especially boring in Black Sapphire Metallic, which you might call dark gray.
Said paint is a $550 option on a mostly entry-level 530i xDrive. The 530i forms the base of the range at $54,200, whereas the all-wheel-drive version (this tester) asks for $56,500. The 530e models are plug-in hybrids that add 40 more horsepower to the base 2.0-liter’s 248. A rear-drive 530e asks $55,550, while xDrive is $57,850. The only way to get six cylinders is with the 540i, where the twin-turbo 3.0 inline-six (335 HP) starts at $59,950 and is $62,250 as xDrive.
That $56,500 base price is a bit misleading because lots of things cost extra on the 5-Series. Heated seats are a prime example, which are offered within the $600 Convenience Package that includes a powered tailgate. Both of these features should be standard in this class. With paint, seats, and destination the car you see here retails at $57,550. For that ask, the buyer receives a German-made car with consistent panel gaps, if not remarkably tight. Trim alignment around the exterior is excellent, though there is cost-cutting visible with how many chrome trim pieces are used, especially around the rear side windows.
With regard to the paint quality, plenty of orange peel is observed around all doors, especially on the area below the windows. The orange peel would have been less noticeable in a lighter color but showed through in the dark graphite finish.
A Mazda 3, for example, has a much better paint finish than the 5-Series. Grabbing the door handle one notices it’s made of a cheap-feeling plastic that is not nicely finished. Exterior door handle action is a bit rough, with accompanying plastic sounds. When the door handle is extended fully outward, unfinished materials are visible on the inside. All doors close with a reassuring thud. But when it comes time to exit the 530i, using the interior door handle nets plastic click-clack noises. It sounds rather cheap.
Like most modern cars on dealer lots, the BMW’s interior is a cave of black. The only materials that aren’t black include the “wood” trim and the “metal” across the dash and doors. Neither are real and unfortunately neither are convincing in their efforts. The wood in particular looks artificial because the grain is too consistent, and it’s covered in a high gloss finish. Other wood materials are available, but cost extra or are buried in packages. The metal look trim across the doors has a sharp edge underneath where it’s not finished properly.
Textures vary across the cabin, from the firm rubber of the dash to the black glossy plastic of the vent and center stack surrounds. Nothing feels particularly nice, but the glossy black trim deserves a special mention: It gets a greasy look after being touched and collects fingerprints and dust like nobody’s business (see photo). Everything feels solidly put together, apart from the protruding center screen which flexes and creaks if touched. The front of the (touch) screen gets quite hot, and BMW installs special vents to direct air to the back of it at all times.
Parts of the interior less often touched have an especially cheap feel. Notables are the glovebox lid and the overhead console plastic that contains lighting and sunroof buttons. Surfaces like the seats and door panels are finished in BMW’s take on faux leather, a vinyl called Sensatec. It’s not convincing as leather because it’s too firm, but actual leather is available for $1,500. Seats themselves are adjustable in a myriad of ways, with niceties like power height adjustment for the headrest, and power side bolsters. There’s also a manual adjustment for the thigh extension cushion.
Legroom is plentiful in the front and more than adequate in the rear. Rear seat passengers sit behind a six-foot front seat occupant with knee room to spare. Cargo space in the trunk is on par with the class, though it lacks any grocery bag hooks or cargo management nets to keep items from rolling within the cavernous expanse. Other missing items include a rear sunshade and ventilated seats. Upon building this car on the BMW configurator, it appears ventilated seats are not available on this trim.
With all the aforementioned seat adjustments, your author still couldn’t get comfortable behind the wheel. Back and side support was fine, and the headrest was nicely placed. But the seat cushion was too flat and a bit on the firm side. Even though there was plenty of thigh support, there was also numb bum after a two-hour highway jaunt.
Speaking of jaunts, out on the open expanses of I-75 the 530 proves itself a capable cruiser. The throttle pedal is responsive and easy to learn and modulate. The 5-Series presents itself as an easy car to drive, where anyone can hop in and go (caveats below). Steering is not as engaging as one expects from an Ultimate Driving Machine BMW and feels a bit rubbery and dead. The eight-speed ZF transmission is excellent and slides through the gears quickly and efficiently as long as the car is not in Sport mode. Brakes were strong, but there was a pulsation through the pedal on this 20k mile example and felt like it needed work on the left rear rotor.
Modes of Comfort, Sport, and Eco Pro adjust the steering weight and throttle pedal response, but don’t actually make a performance difference. Within their standard settings, they’re also individually adjustable as far as characteristics. Sport mode in particular is unsuitable for highway travel, as it holds the car a gear lower than it should be even in steady-state cruising on a flat surface.
The large sedan travels nicely along the interstate and soaks up bumps in a controlled manner. The cabin is quiet inside, with no notable wind noise to speak of at high speed. Some tire and road noise comes through but is well controlled.
On hilly back roads, the 5 is not as happy. The softer suspension setup allows for roll during aggressive driving. And even though the grip is excellent with the xDrive setup, it’s impossible to hide the 3,878 pounds of the 530i. The use of Sport mode in such situations merely makes the steering heavier and the throttle firmer, while causing harsher gear changes.
Though a 5-Series might serve reasonably as an occasional back road companion, it comes up short in the power department. The heft of this large car is motivated by a 2.0-liter inline-four, good for 248 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque. Foot down after a corner, the 530 simply lacks the grunt to force itself forward with gusto. Each horse under the hood must pull around 15.63 pounds, and you feel it. BMW claims 6.5 seconds to 60, but it certainly doesn’t feel that fast. After about 70 percent interstate driving and 30 percent back roads and in town, mpg averaged 34.8 over 258 miles.
The engine itself is without any notable NVH at idle, though it sounds thrashy when pushed hard. Standing outside the 5 at idle, there’s a decent amount of unrefined chatter from the engine where it almost sounds like it could be a diesel.
While piloting the 530i, the driver is presented with much information via the large central screen. The screen can be directed via BMW’s iDrive wheel, or by touch. Dependent upon the information required, a mixed-use approach is reasonable.
The gauges are digital on a clear screen but present too much information. Said information can be edited in a number of ways, but there is no option for the look of traditional analog gauges. In the same way, the center screen has many layers of information and options.
It’s all a bit overwhelming, as some settings are buried four or five menus deep. It takes a while to figure out where everything is and set up the car to the driver’s preference. Preferences are catered to: Lighting color is adjustable, as are the particulars of almost everything. No matter driver preference, the car starts out in Comfort after each ignition cycle. Telling.
Even with copious preferential options, the 5-Series does its best to have you drive how it wants you to drive. Stop-start is defeated by a button under the ignition but times out after a while and turns itself off whenever the car is switched to park. The stop-start’s function is quick at lights, but certainly not smooth. Speaking of unsmooth: Lane-departure assistance is direct and aggressive, tugging the wheel and tutting the driver constantly to stay in the exact center point of the lane. It was turned off within 20 minutes because it was so aggressive.
The cruise control is also annoying. If the system is on and a driver sets the speed but is traveling above the posted limit, the cruise is set to the posted limit. The driver must intervene and direct the cruise (via the + button) to set it at the current speed. Similarly annoying is the automatic parking brake, which activates not only when the car is put in park, but also when it’s moved from reverse to drive. A perplexing programming choice. Collision warnings (too close to the car in front) are laissez-faire, and should not be relied upon.
There are a few nice features here that are well thought out. On warm days the car prompts the driver to activate preemptive ventilation to cool the cabin, which can be turned on immediately or scheduled. The backup camera’s image is very clear. And the intelligent voice command can process complete sentences with ease. I suggested, “Show me the highest rated restaurants nearby,” and the BMW assistant returned a list of restaurants in the vicinity sorted by Yelp rating. Nice.
Light comes into the cabin via a large sunroof, and climate control cooled the black interior admirably at a sunny 84 degrees. Android Auto and Apple Carplay are both present and accounted for, and via Bluetooth. The BMW navigation was easy to set up, especially via the aforementioned voice command. Simply say “destination is,” and then the full address. It works every time without button pressing. BMW’s basic audio system does not impress, and provides neither exceptional clarity nor a nice sound – it’s just sort of there.
And that sums up the 530i xDrive, unfortunately. Aside from the okay driving dynamics, it’s a car that adds frustrating electronic interference at every turn. It’s “an amount of German car” which is neither powerful nor all that pleasing. It most definitely does not feel special.
Your author is left wondering who this particular car is for. The performance driving enthusiast, the value-minded motorist, the mpg enthusiast? No to all of those, as the 2.0 isn’t up to performance driving, the base price is too high for a cheapskate, and the fuel economy isn’t great enough to impress. It’s a nice rental though: Use it a few days, give it back, and forget it shortly thereafter. When spending this sort of money, absolutely pony up the $6,000 or so and get the 540i xDrive with inline-six. You’re probably a banker, sell some securities if need be.
[Images © 2022 Corey Lewis/The Truth About Cars]
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