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Review: 2017 BMW M550i and 530i

A car review is supposed to be about the car being reviewed. But I am going to get personal now. I have owned three 5-series BMWs of three different generations. I have driven many 5s on various roads and tracks. My favorite overall is the E34 series, followed by E39, and a favorite for performance is the E60 M5 with its amazing V10 engine. I have a personal affair with the 5-series and therefore I had high expectations for the new G30 model.

I now had the opportunity to drive two G30s, a base 530i, and the top-dog M550i. There also exists a middle-child, the 540i, and soon there will be the big daddy, M5. How are they? How do they compare to previous 5-series?

The exterior is classic BMW but sadly the pictures don’t do it justice. The lines, they curve and angle in very subtle ways. Classic sedan proportions, or as close we get to them these days, are retained, as opposed to some sedans that look like hatchbacks. If there is an area that looks odd, it’s the part between the front wheel and the front door. There are clear references to the brand’s older models but not so much to the Bangle-era cars. To me, this looks like a BMW sedan should. With shortened overhangs, a long hood, and visually lower center of gravity – this sedan is rightfully everything that the modern CUV is not.

The interior is all modern BMW. The analog gauges are gone, replaced with a screen that clearly identifies critical information. BMW’s iDrive infotainment system has evolved to become the best in the industry – simplified and rather intuitive. BMW seems to have designed it with future apps and expansion in mind, too. The 5-series is also the first car with wireless Apple CarPlay compatibility. In fact, when Apple unveiled the new iPhone 8 and X, they showed the phone inside the 5-series, on top of the wireless charger.

But not all is great there. If you get a phone call while streaming music via Bluetooth, the music will restart from the beginning of the song at the end of your call. That is moderately annoying when listening to a song, but seriously annoying if listening to a podcast. Also missing is cold/hot air selector wheel that has been between the center vents of every BMW since forever, now replaced with an iDrive submenu.

Both of the cars I drove were equipped with the M sport package, with the M550i actually stating so in its name. Those typically include sport steering wheel, sports seats, bigger wheels and brakes, aero bits, and lowered adjustable suspension. Like all BMW sports seats, these are superb in terms of comfort and support, perfect for me, a 6’2” 230lbs man, but also for my wife who is half my size. Oddly, neither of the vehicles was equipped with ventilated seats. In the back seat, I could comfortably sit behind myself although my noggin was almost scraping the Alcantara headliner.

What I can’t quite explain in words, however, is how fantastically the whole interior is integrated. Things that appear tacky on other cars, such as mood lighting, are tasteful here. All buttons and switches are extremely tactile, with clearly defined notches. The gauge cluster, the center screen, and the heads-up displays are clear and easy to read. But more than that, the whole car is full of surprising and helpful minor features. The whole thing just works really well, better than just about any interior I have experienced.

In 1992 the BMW 530i had eight cylinders. In 2001 it had six cylinders. In 2017, the BMW 530i has four cylinders. I was not very fond of the early BMW turbo 4-cylinder engines so my expectations for the four-banger were rather low. But to my surprise, this 248-hp and 258 lb-ft engine never seemed low on power. In fact, it’s more powerful than either of the two old engines. With linear delivery and just a hint of turbo-lag, it reminded me of a naturally aspired six-cylinder. While it’s far from fast, with some motivation it was quick and fun to drive, and managed to get over 32mpg on a spirited highway drive. For a traffic-infested daily commute, I can’t think of a reason not to get the four-banger.

The M550i is in a completely different class. The twin-turbo V8 makes 456hp and 480 lb-ft of torque. It feels more powerful than that, perhaps because max torque is available at just 1800rpm. The power is always there, a tip of a throttle away, with no lag. Whatever the exact power number is, it propels the 4372-pound vehicle to 60mph in under four seconds. That’s fast. That’s really fast. That is faster than the F10 generation M5. M550i’s dirty secret is that it is all-wheel-drive, which guarantees better launches – there is no rear wheel drive option for the V8, and no one will miss it.

That same all-wheel-drive system does an amazing job of putting the power down when coming out of a corner, for instance, allowing for earlier throttle application. BMW threw a whole bag of tricks on the M550i with adjustable shocks, adjustable sway bars, and rear wheel steering. And it all works really well, even if a bit disconnected. But the 5 also behaves like a proper grown-up luxury sedan when called upon, quiet and comfortable.

Much like when I drove the M235i some time ago, I got thinking – how will the M550i compare to the upcoming M5? I think that much like in the M235i vs. M2, BMW purposely, but ever so slightly, dialed back on this car for no reason other than to have room for the M5. Because of the extremely high limits of these cars, the difference between the M550i and M5, in my opinion, will only be visible in extreme environments – the race track. Anyone pushing the M550i, or any other high-powered sports car, to its limits on the street would be insane and dangerous. 

Nothing is perfect, and sadly neither is the new 5-series. I drove the 530i over the Easter weekend. I packed up my kids and went to visit my mother, 200 miles away, in Edgewater, New Jersey. I’ve done this trip a million times and this drive reminded me of weekly commute in my 535i when I was doing contract work in NYC and living in Boston, ten years ago. The 530i was a great car for this trip: quick, efficient, and comfortable. The ride was great up until we got off the George Washington Bridge and hit a crater of a pothole about half a mile from our destination. I tried to avoid the pothole and in the process managed to hit the edge of it with the left front wheel. The impact took a chunk out of the sidewall of the run-flat 19-inch tire.

The gauge cluster immediately lit up with warnings, alarming me to the situation, as if I was wasn’t already painfully aware of it. I confirmed the shredded sidewall visually and I knew that I was in trouble. I limped the 530i to my mother’s house. I opened the trunk in hopes that it was equipped with the optional temporary spare. Nope. The spare tire well was occupied by a large, 960CCA, battery. No jack, either, not even a wheel wrench.

I immediately got on the horn with the people that could help me. Nothing. Holiday weekend, everything is closed, everyone is away.

I called BMW roadside assistance. The very nice lady said she can have a tow truck come right over and help me. Except that she was vague about what exactly was going to happen. I asked questions. The tow truck was going to come to my mom’s house and take the 530i to the dealership. There was no deal between BMW roadside assistance and the dealership where they’d replace someone’s busted tire in a jiffy. No one was going to magically find me a Continental ProContact GX SSR in 245/40-19 and mount it on Easter Sunday.

I ended up renting a car, a really beaten up new-ish Grand Cherokee, at Newark Airport, 20 miles away, because everything else was closed. I drove the overpriced rental home that night because my kids had school the next day. BMW took the car to a dealership the next morning where the tire was promptly replaced.

The whole time I considered myself lucky. What if this happened in the middle of Connecticut? What if it happened in the middle of night, as I often drive? What if my family wasn’t nearby to help me out and I was alone with my two kids? Run-flat tires are not a replacement for a spare tire, even a temporary one, and it’s a damn shame that so many automakers are ditching them. A temporary spare tire is optional on the 5-series and I strongly recommend getting it.

The new 5-series, whichever flavor you choose, is pretty damn amazing. Program it and it will cool or warm itself up before you get in. It will pull itself out of a tight parking spot. It will tell you to leave earlier for your appointment if there’s heavy traffic on the way. Once moving, it will follow other cars in stop-and-go traffic. Most importantly, it drives and looks the part. Despite my mishap, it surpassed my expectations, and I don’t say that lightly as I try very hard to find faults in every vehicle. It is the best 5-series ever and if I had the means I’d make it my fourth 5-series.

[Disclaimer: BMW of North America provided both vehicles for the purpose of this review. All images copyright Kamil Kaluski/Hooniverse 2017]

  • I_Borgward

    A new car, stranded because of one pothole? Pffffft. Hothouse flower.

  • hwyengr

    ’92 E34 530i was a V-8? You sure about that?

    • hwyengr

      Well, I’ll be. It was.

      • I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a 530i, 535i, 540i and a 545i, all being 3.8L V8 with various stages of ECU and turbo/intercooling.

        • outback_ute

          Back then the capacities usually were true, exceptions including the 535i six which was 3.4L.

          Runflat tyres are a joke, unless you only drive during business hours in large cities – and even then beware of a car that has an unusual tyre size… Then you still have to deal with a bigger disruption than swapping a spare on and fixing with the flat at a more convenient time.

        • From ’89 to ’91 there was a 525i and a 535i, both in-line sixes. From ’92 to ’94 there was the 525i, the above mentioned 530i, and 540i, both V8s. Those cars had the wider kidney grills. The six-cylinder M5 reappeared somewhere along the way, too.
          For ’96 (or ’95?) there E39 generation came along with a 528i and the 540i. In 2001 it became the 525i, 530i, and 540i. These were the cars with the angle eye/halo eye lights.

      • I wouldn’t lie to you. 🙂
        It’s the famous nikasil engine, too.
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nikasil

        • hwyengr

          I had a buddy with a 535, could have sworn it was newer than a ’92. But apparently not…

      • Zentropy

        Surprised me, too. The idea of a 3.0L V8 is pretty cool– I’d love to find one for a test drive.

  • Sjalabais

    Square perspective, but those seats, as terrific as they look…they must be hard to keep clean. Breadcrumbs, fish shells and general natural dust etc have a lot of nooks to hide in. I mean, this is neither a family car nor a machine to reallocate gravel with, but that’s really something that sticks out to my eyes.

    • outback_ute

      The other thing is that this car looks like a modern E32 7-series

      • Sjalabais

        I’m sure no prospective 5-owner will put that on their “contra”-list though.

        • outback_ute

          No but I think that the dimensions and perhaps even weight would be very similar.

          Also assuming the M550 has a good sport mode, given it does 0-60 in 4 sec you would have to be very keen to go for the M5

          • The new 5 weights a lot more than the E32 7-series.
            Yes, I would have a hard time justifying the M5 in this case.
            Google E34 540i M sport. This isn’t a new issue. Same with lightweight E36 325i and early M3.

            • outback_ute

              Comparing rwd versions the G30 apparently starts at 1615 kg, they have cut a lot of weight from the new model

    • Not different than anything else. A good vacuum will pick everything up.