The New 550i Gran Turismo: Our Driving Impressions

Test Drives | November 16th, 2009 by 23
5 GT 36 750x500 The New 550i Gran Turismo: Our Driving Impressions

As I slide down through a quick right-hander, I see a sign that is good news: a yellow road sign with a squiggly line down …

As I slide down through a quick right-hander, I see a sign that is good news: a yellow road sign with a squiggly line down the middle indicating very curvy roads ahead. I pull the gear lever to the left and press forward to engage a lower gear then point the nose towards the first corner it is supposed to battle and hit the throttle.

The nose complies and slides runs, head-long, into the first of a wonderful series of turns; the cool fall atmosphere turns into a blur of orange, red, and yellow all around me. On my left, a guard rail holding back a steep drop and on my right a protruding rock face with scattered, bare trees, both hoping the car and driver don’t misstep. As I propel the car through the turns it doesn’t do what I expect it to: instead of running wide, the nose sticks and glides through the turns, composed and ready to take on the next turn without question.

As I exit the long series of S curves with a hint of a smile on my face, I look down at the display in front of me only to be shocked to see the suspension setting reads “COMFORT.” This was one of my favorite moments of a day with BMW’s all new 550i Gran Turismo and for those who are short on time, rest assured, the new 5 Series GT model still drives like a BMW should drive.

5 GT 36 655x435 The New 550i Gran Turismo: Our Driving Impressions

We were luck enough to have the opportunity to try a press test drive at the BMW headquarters in  Woodcliff, NJ headquarters to allow us, along with other journalists, to try out the 7 Series-based 5 GT. We were more than happy to take them up on the offer as part of a two-day agenda for the 550i GT and an educational session on BMW as it currently and will continue to exist in the United States, we were able to try out the 5 GT in a series of different environments that an average driver would come across. Honestly, on my flight up there, I didn’t know what to expect when it was all said and done. After all, I couldn’t stand the thought of the 5 GT when I saw the initial pictures of the model a few months ago.

Styling is an excellent jumping off point for the 5 GT too. Many love it, many hate it – typical of BMW styling as of late. However, after arriving early and spending about an hour snapping shots of the GT, the car began to make more sense to me as I went over the lines of it in person. As I wandered around a parking lot full of the GT’s I studied the curves of the car and the first thing I found was that the GT is best suited in highly reflective, darker colors as they show off the subtle curves of the car. Colors like Titanium Silver don’t really give a good impression of the way the design flows and can make the it feel a bit awkward – however, this can probably be said of many modern cars. The second thing I noticed was just how much styling DNA comes across from the CS Concept.

5 GT 3 655x435 The New 550i Gran Turismo: Our Driving Impressions

Studying the nose of the GT, I  could see how the nose the very wide dual kidney grill protrude outward, giving the front fascia a very masculine, strong look. Along the sides, the CS Concept influence continues with a high cutline that runs from the front wheel arch all the way to the tail lamps, giving the car a very sculpted appearance. At the rear, the 5 GT does have a large butt and there is no getting around it. From 3/4 shots of the rear, it does look a bit tacked on but when looking directly at the rear it looks fantastic. With squat, artistically styled L shaped tail lamps and a bit of a sedan-like, squished wagon rear-end, the back of the car looks very BMW but with a cross between a 5 Series Touring and an X6/X5. Overall, the exterior looks strong and honestly, pictures don’t do it much justice. The tail lamps are a very nice touch to the rear with their ressemblance blown glass.

Regarding the interior, again, typical BMW with a styling mix somewhere between an X6 and 7 Series. Certainly not a bad thing! The interior of a BMW is a very comfortable place to be and the controls, while taking a little getting used to, are fairly easy to interpret and find while driving. The new i-Drive controls mounted on the transmission tunnel make a world of difference to the usability of the system while driving as do the changes BMW has implemented on the latest i-Drive. However, we will get back to the interior later.

The next morning, when it came time to head out to spend the day with a 550i GT, I was lucky enough to be the driving the first leg of the trip and so I snuggled in behind the wheel. However, first we had to load all of our camera gear into the trunk. BMW has a trick two-stage trunk with hidden in the GT’s rump, with the first stage acting like a normal trunk that doesn’t give access to the interior. The second stage is a full 5th door that gives access to the rear seats while permitting the owner to put taller objects into the back or providing unrestricted access to the trunk space. If you need more trunk space then feel free to move the rear seats forwards to adjust for additional room. After loading most of our stuff into the trunk, I was surprised by how much room we still had yet to take up. This was the 5 GT successfully demonstrating its versatility for taking long weekend trips or heavy use in around-town errands.

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However, I digress. The first thing you notice in modern BMW’s is the level of information at your finger tips on the displays around the speedometer and tachometer. There’s almost too much to take in when you’re driving and I found myself hunting for information more than being able to quickly look down at the gauges. However, the new interface has been designed to keep your eyes off of the i-Drive screen and facing forward and it does that part very well once acquainted with the systems. Coupled with the improved scrolling and sub-menu controls on the steering wheel for things like navigation and music menus, I found it very easy to scroll through songs on my iPod without the need to take my eyes off the road as songs cycle through the bottom right corner of the display. This integration of i-Drive and some of its functionality into the display makes the system much less of a distraction than previous iterations and you find yourself successfully navigating through to what you need versus trying to hold the wheel and watch the road while scrolling through endless menus. An interesting aside to the display is the small “Efficient Dynamics” mete below the tachometer that works similar to a full efficiency gauge with a blue area and battery logo. When the driver lifts from the throttle or brakes hard the gauge registers up into the blue region of the meter which BMW told us is the battery being charged up to recapture energy. However, this isn’t similar to KERS from Formula One that adds horsepower but just a means of recapturing energy for the battery.

After the offset, we cruised across some undulating city roads where the 550i GT felt very sedate and surprising quiet at low speeds. The up shifts in the 8-speed automatic and nearly imperceptible and the down shifts are almost the same too. While 8 gears may sound like a lot, the transmission manages pretty well in automatic mode and you don’t get a feeling that the gearbox is hunting for the best gear constantly as some of BMW’s competition has been criticized for. As we glided along through the crisp, cool morning, I realized that the seating position of the 5 GT sits somewhere between a low-slung sedan and a smaller, X3-sized SAV. It isn’t bad but it does feel a bit odd at first as you feel like you should be driving a car but have a somewhat altered seating.

Upon reaching the interstate, I decided it was time to open up the 4.3L twin-turbo V8 and see how well it used those 400 German horses it was hiding under the hood. That’s when I learned of the Jeykll & Hyde personality of the 550i GT. I down shifted to third and punched the throttle and a mechanical whine started to shout from the rear. Remember when you’re a kid sitting in a school desk and you’re pretending to drive a sports car so you’re making a sort of “grrrrrrrr vrooom grrrrrrrrrrrr!” noise for the engine and gear changes? Well take that noise and then make it throatier and that is what the exhaust note of the 550i GT sounds like – an “M3 lite” if you will. Not too loud, not too soft, just right for the car. Aside from the lovely sound, there are gobs of power throughout the rev band and the engine pulls very well from about 2,000 RPM’s up to the 7,000 RPM red-line. This is where the split personality of the car comes in, though. When you hammer the engine it will absolutely scream and come to life with incredible fury, ready to do more than you’re expecting it to, being quite the little torque monster it will get up and run. However, if you’re feeling a little more lazy, the 550i GT can easily settle down and very quietly cruise along, making the local police none-the-more suspicious that you just finished caning the car down a mountain.

Which brings me to the suspension and overall driving feel of the car. The majority of the cars to test were equipped with the Sports Package, and as an enthusiast, I have to say that there is no other way to go. Our car came equipped with the optional package and the 20 inch wheels which fill the wheel wells nicely. Yes, our car came with the run flats but that has been beaten to death so let’s move on. One wonderful feature that the 550i GT had was the adjustable suspension that comes from other BMW’s like the 750i with a simple button on the console by the gear lever that can be thumbed up or down for the 4 pre-determined suspension settings: Comfort, Normal, Sport and Sport+. What’s nice is that the active steering system is linked in with the suspension setting so the steering feel will react differently depending on what mode is selected on the suspension. In comfort mode? Great your steering feels light but effective. Want to carve corners? Then the steering firms up a good bit and has a solid, weighted feeling behind it when one of the Sport modes is selected. Honestly, I despised the active steering system in the E60 when it was first introduced but when packaged with an active suspension this execution of it makes for a very compelling case.

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On open stretches such as a highway or even in the city, I found the Comfort mode kept the bumps at a minimum and generally the car felt very cushy and wafted us across poor roads and expansion joints. However, if you really feel like getting on it, I recommend the two Sport modes, the first firms everything up and the second disables a few electric nannies while still retaining a large threshold for driver error. However, if you take a corner fast with Comfort selected, you will get a noticeable sensation of bluntness by the car. However, that’s simply cured with an adjustment of the suspension. When I found myself on tight back roads it was easier to leave everything in Sport mode and still retain a fairly compliant ride quality. BMW has been nice enough to allow even the most picky drivers, via i-Drive, to alter the settings of these modes and what they affect, however, I didn’t take advantage of this and left my trust in the engineers’ hands through the pre-determined arrangements.

After some hard punting around Southeastern New York state, I found I really enjoyed the 550i GT and my initial skepticism was beginning to wash away after a few hours behind the wheel. Too bad it was time for a driver change at a petite tea house inside of a small village in New York. As a passenger in the 550i GT, I was still in the one of the best seats in the house. It gave me time to appreciate the two-stage, Olympic-pool sized sunroof and the overall aesthetic and comfort of the interior. Much different from most modern BMW’s, the interior feels very open and light, a much more accessible greenhouse than I can remember driving in a new BMW in quite some time. In scanning the interior, it felt very cohesive yet had an incredible amount of room. The design is top notch and flows well from the matte wooden dash, wrapping around and down through the frameless doors, from front to back the design feels very succinct. The  swooping lines and materials of the interior feel like a very big step up over the E60/E65 as the lines are not sharp and slashing and feel more conducive to a comfortable atmosphere.

However, the best part of the interior is the rear seat. Available as a 3-person rear seat or a 2-person bench with power rear seats, this is quite a comfortable place to be. As the 5 GT is based on a F01 750i platform, you’re privy to the same rear seating capacity and overall interior space. In the rear with the partially reclining seats, I found a very comfortable place to spend my time. With optional DVD players in the rear seats, acres of leg room (I’m 6’4 and my feet were nowhere near the front seats) you start to wonder – “why would I pick a 750i over the 550i GT?” Especially when the model we tested is anticipated to come in somewhere in the mid-high $60,000 range, well below a base 750i.  While most owners will never spend a lot of time being driven in their own car, this car made a compelling case for asking my fiance to start driving me around when we have to run errands. Add to the comfort the very open, airy feel of the greenhouse and you’ll likely not want to get out of the car once you reach your destination.

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After we crept up to the top of the mountain to an incredible view and even better lunch at a very German-like hotel, it was my time to jump back behind the wheel and take the 550i GT back down the mountain onto  the highway and back to the hotel. I, of course, came screaming down the mountain and did get a feeling that 550i GT, as good as it is, will not hide its weight and if you push it too hard in the corners it will push wide and the brakes will get a little squishy if you continue to lean on them heavily. Thankfully, to steer the wheels BMW has active rear steering on the rear wheels which, above a pre-determined speed, will turn up to 3 degrees with the front wheels to help overall handling – surprisingly, if you look for it you can feel the system working.

However, as I neared the end of my commute across a good portion of southern New York state, I realized that the GT is about luxury first with performance second and that my initial impressions were wrong: this is a true BMW after all. Surprisingly, I was OK with that realization. This is a car for couples who may have a few young children or older children already out of the house. A car for people who enjoy driving but need something that is comfortable and spacious first but has accessible performance at a whim. Happen to have a favorite twisting road that you hit on your way back from work? Great, this car will waft you to the office comfortably and then allow you to slip everything into sport mode and take full advantage of the performance aspects of the car on the way home.

The car caters to an audience older than myself, someone who isn’t ready for a 7 Series yet but needs something less compromising in terms of functionality and wants something quick and  likes to travel often. However, the 5 Series GT does what it was built for well: a great all-rounder that can take you to the office, around town or off for a long weekend while allowing you to travel in comfort and very modern style with performance and space aplenty and all with improved efficiencies.

Thinking of getting an sporting luxury SUV or wagon for your next car? Congratulations, your decision process just got that much more difficult.

Disclaimer: BMW flew me out to New Jersey, stuffed me with food and put me through a day of “school” before getting behind the 5 Series GT.

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