The year 2001 was a turning point for BMW in the new millennium when it saw the release of its both smallest and largest production cars: the new MINI and the next generation 7 Series. The first one was phenomenally successful, breaking BMW’s estimated production plan in just six month, but the second one raised many eyebrows and had polarized the opinions of public like no other car before.
BMW has always used 7 Series as a showcase for its newest technologies and at the time they are presented to the world, new generation 7 Series are always one of the most technologically advanced cars in the world. The 2001 E65 7 Series was the first car in the world to have a 6-speed automatic gearbox and adaptive dampers, changing the car behavior according to road conditions and driving style.
BMW also premiered iDrive, a ground braking control interface which replaces almost all controls and buttons on the cockpit with a single joystick and a LCD screen. While the iDrive was far from perfect (some journalists complained that it was too distracting to use while driving) Mercedes-Benz and Audi systems were heavily based on it when they emerged several years later.
But the most striking feature of the new car was its controversial design, credit of BMW’s former design chief Chris Bangle. He tried to revolutionize the classic BMW features, therefore introduced a new headlamp shape whose upper edge incorporated indicator lamps. More controversial is the high boot lid which looks like sitting on the rear end rather than embedded into it (later found on the Mercedes-Benz S-Class). Despite extremely negative fan reactions, E65 7 Series remains the best selling generation ever, specially after its 2006 facelift (which toned down Bangle’s radical original styling) and has set a new standard in handling and performance for luxury sedans.
The new generation, dubbed F01, debuted in 2008. Just like the last version, the new design language gained much interest, but now it was mostly positive, as BMW decided to evoke its signature design details. For instance, the headlights feature four LED rings (to resemble the classic four headlamps), the kidney grille is now much larger whereas the tail lights are in L-shape, like many 90’s BMWs. The cockpit is again angled towards the driver (a feature that has been lost somewhere in the 2000s) and the controls are minimal, replaced with the next generation iDrive, which is now more easy to use. Although it may look classic outside, under the metal, lots of radical changes were made. The car is considerably bigger and stiffer than the old model, but the weight remains the same, and in some versions, it is even lighter than the car it replaces. Also, from the basic 730d to the V12 760i, all engines are turbocharged, but BMW claims that it had made them so smooth, so no one could actually tell. Apart from that, the new 7 Series has Internet access, four-wheel steer (and BMW has announced four-wheel drive), Night Vision camera…
But the 7 Series isn’t the only BMW that is going “back to its roots”. Judging by the recent spy photos, the new 2010 BMW 5 Series might feature a more conservative design.
The 1996 E39 5 Series was a truly outstanding car. Many journalists claimed that it was the best luxury sedan in the world, blending a rare mix of sporty handling and performance with comfort and elegant design. It raised the standard so high that arch-rival Mercedes-Benz E Class took two generations to surpass it – and just marginally when it finally did in 2002. The man behind the E39 was dr. Wolfgang Reitzle, the highly respected product chief of BMW during 1990s.
But why was the car so good?
First, its chassis was made immensely strong – 80 percent stiffer in torsion than its predecessor, this was by far the stiffest car back then. So stiff that BMW found it unnecessary to raise chassis’ rigidity anymore in the subsequent E60. Also, it was much safer under crash while being just 10 kilograms heavier than the outgoing model. Even more, the whole car actually weighed less than the old generation, thanks to the use of all-alloy engine, aluminum transmission case and aluminum suspensions. The suspensions of E39 was a technical milestone. It employed a new Z-axle multi-link setup, which had superior wheel control and was made almost entirely of aluminum alloy – a first in mass production car.
E39 was also one of the first cars to mount all suspensions on sub-frames and via rubber bushings to isolate NVH from the chassis. To deal with wind noise, BMW worked in its acoustic lab to tune its aerodynamics and eventually added triple sealing to the doors and noise-absorbing foam to the window pillars. No wonder it set new standard in cabin quietness and refinement. However, BMW didn’t take all noises away. It deliberately left the engine noise untouched. The same driver involvement could be found in handling. As all petrol six-cylinder E39s achieved 50:50 percent front to rear weight distribution, they turned into corners neutrally and eagerly. They set benchmark in dynamics for the executive car class, bringing small-car agility to the class for the first time. The steering was beautifully weighted and very feel-some. Other human interfaces were also tuned to near perfect – slick gearshift, perfectly sited driving position, pedals and instrument, superb ergonomics combined with impeccable build quality and great dashboard design… So how could BMW make further improvements from this?
The 2003 E60 5 Series was under huge pressure; just the year before, Mercedes launched its new E-Class, which was finally catching up with the untouchable E39 5 Series, and new rivals appeared on the market, as Volvo improved its S80, Lexus was a threat in the U.S. with its GS and Audi’s A6 was becoming more than a stretched Volkswagen Passat.
The E60 was styled under Chris Bangle and instead of displaying a sleek and elegant profile, the new car featured complex concave lines, a bloated, aggressive front end and a unusually high back end. The interior was a mixture of sweeping and sharp lines and the controls on the cockpit were replaced with iDrive. Under the hood, the changes are even more radical, but in a more positive way. Weight-wise, it undercuts its predecessor, thanks to a revolutionary aluminum-steel hybrid chassis. This help it cutting 65 kg from the E65 and more importantly, achieving 50:50 weight distribution. Handling was also improved so the 5 Series remains the best car to drive in its class, but the ride quality isn’t the best anymore, as the E-Class is a bit more comfortable.
The final verdict was that the new 5 Series is again the best car in its class, but in some areas, it isn’t a large step forward when compared to the old model. Sure, Jeremy Clarkson called the M5 one of the best cars in the world, and the 535d is officials the fastest diesel car money can buy, but the new generation isn’t as superior as it predecessor was. Which makes all wonder, is the new 2010 5 Series learning from that lesson?
Is the classic BMW design (elegant, yet somewhat aggressive) coming back? We will see in December, when first official photos of the new 5 Series will be revealed.