BMWBLOG Drive Review: 2011 BMW 550i – Survival of the Fittest

2011 bmw 550i photos 18 750x500 BMWBLOG Drive Review: 2011 BMW 550i – Survival of the Fittest

Words: Shawn Molnar | Photos: Shawn Molnar In the evolutionary doctrine, all animal species change and adapt to ensure their own survival. Cumbersome qualities are …

Words: Shawn Molnar | Photos: Shawn Molnar

In the evolutionary doctrine, all animal species change and adapt to ensure their own survival. Cumbersome qualities are traded for more agile traits; physical handicaps are traded for athletic strengths.

What if an animal inherited evolutionary changes that compromised its strengths? In other words: what if monkeys had even bigger ears, smaller brains and an ever more insatiable appetite for bananas?

Now in its 5th iteration, BMW’s 5 series sedan has undergone many evolutionary changes along the way. Starting its life in 1972 as a midsize sport sedan for the times, it has continually grown in size, strength, intelligence and power.

Of course, there are many creatures in this automotive jungle. How does BMW’s new 5 series compare? Has its latest evolutionary jump kept it ahead of its jungle rivals? Has it grown fat with age gorging on bananas, or has it been quietly honing its shape, adding agility and lightness?

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Read on to discover the intricacies of BMW’s latest 5.

Impressions as a Daily Driver:

The morning commute is a breeze in such comfort, luxury and convenience. Comfort is derived from stellar multi-adjustable seats that will caudle anyone’s bottom just right. Ample room in all dimensions goes a long way; from the rear seat, 6’ plus passengers will feel comfortable and can stretch-out if so inclined. Once inside BMW’s new 5 series, it would be easy to mistake it for a 7 – so spacious and roomy is its interior.

Besides the high quality leathers, metals and plastics that surround you, luxury is found in the artistic sculpture of the dash. Concave and convex shapes link up and fly across the cabin with flare and pizzazz. Gone is the cold, isolating interior of the E60, you will find great “warmth” and comfort in BMW’s latest F10 design. A driver-oriented dashboard follows BMW’s standard approach to ergonomics and makes you feel in command.

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All of BMW’s latest technologies are available on the 5 series option list. From infrared night vision, to blind lane exit side-view cameras, to lane departure warning cameras – this car will augment your vision. Feeling clumsy, tired and ham-fisted? It will even parallel park itself.

Of course, a brilliant audio system will play your song-list in high fidelity sound, and BMW’s latest take on i-drive will have you questioning why people ever complained about it in the first place (it has come a long way in improvements). Answering an incoming phone call while you parallel park is so easy, even a well-trained monkey could do it.

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Ingress and egress from the vehicle is excellent with large door openings and ample headroom through the frame. The trunk is large enough to hold 3 large suitcases, and a few things more.

Keyless access and ignition is an invention that rivals sliced bread. It is hard to picture it any other way, and once you’ve gotten used to it, returning to a less equipped car is absolute punishment.

While navigating city streets, bumps are clandestine and absorbed by the suspension; a highly rigid steel frame isolates wiggles and judders from entering the cabin. The backbone of BMW’s latest 5 series is now shared with its larger sibling, the 7 series. Rock-of-Gibraltar solidity leaves you with a feeling of security and precision.

“…it would be easy to mistake it for a 7 – so spacious and roomy is its interior.”

When it comes time to dice up traffic, the new 5 is up to the task. Light on its feet as you travel city streets, the 5 series feels smaller and more compact the faster you go. Ultimately, 50:50 weight distribution and rear-wheel drive are responsible for its sporty handling. We had no problem slicing through thick traffic and navigating tight parking lots – though the car does begin to feel quite “longish” when maneuvering through tight spaces.

Throttle response is immediate with no perceptible turbo lag, and if you stay on the power, 407 hp and 442 lb-ft of torque will be released through BMW’s new 8-speed automatic transmission.

Purists can breathe a sigh of relief: BMW’s latest 5 series will be offered with a 6-speed manual transmission – regardless of engine choice. Munich’s latest 6-speed manual offers dry-sump lubrication for reduced frictional losses and greater efficiency. We’ve yet to confirm whether the F10 M5 will offer a proper manual transmission, but our fingers are crossed in global unison.

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Much like the N63’s throttle response, brake feel is precise and it is easy to modulate the brakes smoothly ala chauffer duty. Steering feel is a different story. For the first time in its evolutionary path, the 5 series has adopted electromechanical steering as standard equipment across all models. While it is excellent for a complex electronic setup, it just lacks that crystal clear road feel you’re used to receiving through the wheel of a BMW.

While there is still direct mechanical linkage between the steering wheel and the drive wheels, an electric motor is used to assist steering on demand. As the electric motor kicks in, it seems to distort feedback through the wheel. Since the electric motor is only used when steering input is added, there is less energy consumed verses a conventional hydraulic steering assist setup, but this energy savings comes at a high price.

“Concave and convex shapes link up and fly across the cabin with flare and pizzazz.”

On center feel is numb and leaves you guessing most of the time. Once the wheel is turned beyond 5 degrees, more information is progressively fed through the wheel, but still not in the raw, mechanical fashion we so adore. Road undulations are felt through the wheel, but there is definitely a middleman in this equation. While efficient electronic systems do have their place, it seems that this steering technology has evolved too far. Lets go back one evolutionary step and restore the pure, honest, steering feel of 5 series past.

In bumper-to-bumper traffic, an “auto-hold” function of the electronic emergency brake will hold the brakes for you once you bring the vehicle to a complete stop. To move ahead another few feet, just tap the accelerator pedal, and then brake to a complete stop again, letting the e-brake hold the car for you. This is a simple technology that goes a long way to reduce the monotony and frustration of stop and go traffic.

The electronic e-brake thus gains a redeeming factor, but don’t expect Jason Statham to buy a new 5 series without the ability to manually hand brake around the baddies at will.

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When you finally find that coveted parking spot along the curb, it’s time to parallel park – often with traffic pressing on from behind. Ever wish for a car that could park itself? For those who take pride in their ability to parallel park, this technology is clearly not for you. However, those who feel less confident in the maneuver will eagerly check this option box. When testing it out for the first time, I must admit to my amazement – accompanied by a giddy laugh, “look at it spinning the wheel!” Pigs are about the fly, or so it seems. If nothing else, this technology is highly entertaining and a great conversation piece.

Sound deadening is excellent, isolating you from exterior noise. Congested city streets are silenced as you relax inside the 5 series plush interior. All buttons and switches have a satisfying feel; tolerances in fit and finish are excellent. It seems every possible convenience and luxury has been thought of. 5 generations of evolution has certainly covered all the bases; BMW’s 5 series is an extremely well thought-out car.

“Feeling clumsy, tired and ham-fisted? It will even parallel park itself.”

All in all, BMW’s latest 5 series will carry you in relaxed comfort through the daily grind. I found it to be a sanctuary from the loud intensity of down town Philadelphia and Toronto, a worthy companion for my daily travels.

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More Than the Sum of its Parts?

There is one measurement of a car’s personality that I will coin the “Round the Block Factor.” You may also call it the “Long Way Home Factor.” At the end of a drive, do you find yourself unwilling to park and abandon your ride? Are you apprehensive to turn off the ignition and go inside? Does your car egg you on to keep driving just a little bit further; perhaps take the longer, twisty route home? This is a direct measurement of a car’s energy and passion – its soul.

During my time with BMW’s F10 5 series, I often found myself enjoying the tail end of a song way too much to turn into the driveway and end the fun. “I could take O’Connor to Vic Park and swing back down.” Oh, that’s another really great song. “Okay, how about Woodbine down to the beach?” The 5 needed no convincing – it’s always confident in its ripped, defined lines, ready for attention on the sand.

As eyes glared through tinted sunglasses across the beach, BMW’s 5 was in no way bashful. While not arrogant or flashy, this 5 has a quiet confidence about it, ready for attention from anyone looking.

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When it comes to passion and soul, certainly these reside in the 5 series’ engine. Even after wringing it out on a proper racetrack, sport-mode and a heavy dose of throttle often beckoned. While demonstrating the N63’s twin-turbo V-8 power to friends and family, colorful words filled the cabin. It’s that fast. A throaty exhaust note accompanies the power; the heart of this car beats strongly.

In the “Round-the-Block Factor,” I would assign the F10 5 series with a score of 6/10 (0/10 being average); high praise for a large, practical four-door car with great emphasis on luxury, technology and comfort.

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A Lap of New Jersey Motorsports Park:

Pressing on lap after lap, BMW’s 550i proved unflappable. True to its heritage, perfect balance and rear-wheel drive keep this large sedan on its toes, careening through corners at speeds more typical of two-seat sports cars.

Of course, like all BMWs – at its heart the 550i is a sports car. Never mind its four doors and spacious trunk, let’s focus in on its balanced handling, powerful engine and strong brakes for a lap of New Jersey Motorsports Park.

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Down the back straight speed is gathered as the speedometer swings from left to right across the dash. Gear after gear, the tachometer is a blur with 407hp behind the needle.

Braking for the first corner, large 14.7” discs burn off speed at an impressive rate, the pedal remaining firm and precise lap after lap.

“Rock-of-Gibraltar solidity leaves you with a feeling of security and precision.”

With forward weight transfer, the front tires grip and turn the nose toward the apex. Pushed to its limits, the 550i exhibits mild understeer but below this threshold the car remains neutral, ready for another turn of the wheel.

At apex the car feels balanced, all four tires doing an equal share of the work. Powering out to the exit, a gentle right foot is needed so as not to overcome available traction. Once straightened out all 407 hp can be released, hurling the 550i back up to landscape-blurring speeds.

BMW’s N63 engine features dual twin-scroll turbochargers, spooling up at low rpm to produce a very flat powerband. Between 1,750 and 4,500 rpm, 442 lb-ft of torque is on queue; the engine goes on to make 407 hp between 5,500 – 6,400 rpm. Reverse airflow management with headers, catalytic converter and turbos housed within the “V” bank of the engine allow for the smallest possible distance between the exhaust valves and turbine blades – hence greatly reducing turbo lag (for a more in-depth consideration of BMW turbo technology, consider our turbo editorial found here). Variable valve timing and direct fuel injection also play their part in the high-tech wizardry of this 4.4 Liter V8.

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While steering feel could be more communicative on public roads – counter intuitively – enough information makes it through the steering to drive at the limit of adhesion while pushing hard on track. In fact, the 550i can be coaxed into a controlled drift where it could happily remain all day (though in the interests of tire preservation, we wouldn’t recommend it). Owe this to the brilliant suspension setup, bolted to what feels to be a solid beam of iron.

“Gear after gear, the tachometer is a blur with 407hp behind the needle.”

What’s most impressive about this car while pushing hard at the racetrack is its solidity and security through it all. Again, 55% stiffer than its predecessor, its rigid steel chassis comes into the equation, providing a solid backbone to transfer power from its muscles. This type of refined speed will have you awkwardly smiling at the police officer asking you for your documents. We suggest that you leave the HUD speedometer on while driving on public roads. A programmable speed chime is also handy, politely reminding you that you are about to lose your license if you so much as curl your toes. This is a quiet road rocket that could get you in trouble if you rely on “feel” to judge your pace away from the racetrack. Don’t underestimate the animal beneath this BMW’s neatly pressed hood.

Top speed is electronically limited to 155 mph, if you should ever see it.

A Two Hour Tour:

Actually, make that a 9-hour tour direct from Philadelphia to Toronto, Canada. Heading North along several twisty Interstate roads, we pressed on as day turned to night, and heavy rain began to fall. How does BMW’s latest 550i serve as a long distance touring machine?

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Many of the comforts and luxuries that keep you happy over shorter distances prove to be invaluable on a long trip. Supportive seats and ample head, leg and shoulder room are sure to please, reducing the number of rest-stop breaks and ‘are we there yet?’ questions from rear seat occupants. A rear seat entertainment setup will also appease those in the second row.

“While not arrogant or flashy, this 5 has a quiet confidence about it…”

While at first glance a few available driver assistants may seem over-the-top and a touch redundant, as the miles wear on, their value becomes clear. Take for instance, BMW’s lane departure warning system. Fresh behind the wheel, I can’t think of an instance where an attentive driver would benefit – but add on 900 km and its relevance is obvious. A severely fatigued driver would do well to have this technology watching his back, there to vibrate the steering wheel if he drifts over the paint.

Being the scrupulous car-tester at your service, I took it upon myself to test the reliability of this technology. When nearing the paint on either side of the lane, steering wheel vibrations were felt, regardless of how faded the road paint was. The darkness of night did not foil the system either, but there was one Achilles heal to this device. While driving through a heavy down pour, the sensors were unable to read the paint strips, and allowed the car to drift beyond the paint without warning. Of course, such weather conditions call for increased attentiveness, and if fatigued, poor weather calls for rest from behind the wheel.

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Lane change assist technology is activated when you turn on your turn signal. Sensors on the exterior body watch your blind spots and if occupied, illuminate a small red triangle on the inside painted portion of the left or right side-view mirror. This system was fool proof, and did not fail when probed.

Active cruise control will maintain a safe distance from the car ahead and even apply the brakes if necessary to keep that distance. An infrared camera facilitates night vision and allows you to see the heat signatures of cars, pedestrians, and animals far down the road.

Collectively, the above technologies make for a relaxed, confident drive on long journeys, and by the time we reached Toronto: we appreciated every one of them.

8th gear kept the engine spinning slowly, reducing fuel consumption as well as noise and vibration within the cabin. Conversations can be held just above a whisper at highway speeds and even with the moon-roof open, wind noise remains low.

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Brilliant high intensity discharge (HID) headlights illuminate the road ahead and allow you to keep your eyes way up towards the horizon. This car’s high beams are so powerful they could probably signal aliens from several neighboring galaxies. Be sure to turn them off when approaching other cars, and incase you forget… yet another technology will catch your indiscretion: auto high-beam assist.

“This type of refined speed will have you awkwardly smiling at the police officer asking you for your documents.”

Our mega road-trip was a grueling test of this BMW’s highway worthiness. After 900 non-stop kilometers, I can confidently say that BMW’s 5 series is an ideal highway car, leaving you refreshed, relaxed and ready for many kilometers more.

Where’s The Beef? Qualms and Quibbles:

We enjoyed every minute we spent behind the wheel of BMW’s latest 5 series; mile after mile we grew more attached to the car. It was difficult to let go of the keys.

Of course, as an independent automotive journal, we are obliged to report all technical glitches that we experience while testing a car. The following is a consideration of areas we see for improvement.

Firstly, we are disappointed with the 5 series’ standard “Drive by Wire” steering setup. As highlighted earlier in the article, we found the steering relatively uncommunicative with numb on-center feel. We long for the honest, unadulterated feel of direct mechanical steering. While we appreciate the role electronic steering plays in the interests of efficiency, this trade off compromises driver enjoyment too severely. Why not make this technology an option for those who would trade (negligible) energy savings for steering feel. Telepathic steering feel is synonymous with “BMW,” and for those among us who own BMWs to drive them – we wouldn’t trade steering feel for the world.

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About half way along our journey from Philadelphia to Toronto, we had a hankering for a hearty dinner. Otherwise flawless in its operation, the navigation system led us to a false address. Pulling up to a residential home we thought, “that doesn’t look much like a steak house.” Turns out it wasn’t.

While probing BMW’s lane departure warning system to its limits, we found that it can be foiled by heavy rain. This is ultimately a moot point as the system operated without fail until subjected to severe weather, and its optical limitations are understandable.

Speaking of heavy rain, it appears that the windshield wipers could use an additional, higher speed setting. There is no “freak-out mode” for heavy downpours while driving on the highway. Otherwise having ample traction and sufficient visibility, our speed was limited strictly by the windshield wipers! Dropping down from 100 km/h to 80, we wonder how the 5 series will handle the autobahn at higher speeds in soggy weather.

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Lastly, we arrive at the 5 series parallel park assist. We thoroughly tested this system to see if it would falter and surprisingly, it did. Out of a dozen attempts, the system failed three times, hitting the curb were it not for our intervention. All variables remaining the same, we cannot put this down to user error (we tried). The fact is, the system failed while testing in a very “generic” setting, using a standard height concrete curb with sufficient space between cars as judged by the computer gizmo. While it was successful 75% of the time, we would prefer to be batting 100 when expensive alloy wheels are on the line.

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Conclusion:

After 38 years of evolution, BMW’s 5 series continues to impress. As necessity dictates, this 5 series has adapted to consumer demands, becoming more powerful, efficient, comfortable, spacious, luxurious and intelligent. We cannot recall a more beautiful, classic shape among modern BMWs, its sculpture and lines will have you throwing looks over your shoulder every time you walk away.

In our exhaustive testing from the open road, to extra-urban traffic, to the racetrack: BMW’s latest addition of the 5 proved versatile, practical, and dynamic through it all.

With 5.5 million copies sold, BMW’s 5 series represents the benchmark in its class. This beast’s evolution has bred beauty. It’s still the king of the mid-size jungle.

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The Numbers:

Base Price (MSRP in American Dollars): $59,700

Weight: Curb weight 1830 kg (4,026 lbs), Weight distribution 51% Front / 49% Rear

Engine Specification: 4.4 Liter Reverse-Flow Twin-Turbo V-8 (N63) 407 hp @ 5,500 rpm / 442 ft-lbs @ 1,750-4,500 rpm 92.5 hp/L

Body / Suspension / Drivetrain Layout: Length Width Height (4899 / 1860 / 1464 mm), Front: Double track control arm axle with separate lower track arm level, aluminium, smallsteering roll radius, anti-dive / Rear Integral-V multi-arm axle, aluminium, with steering function, anti-squat and anti-dive, double acoustic separation, Front Engine / RWD

Performance: 0-100 km/h (0-62 mph) 5.0 sec, Top Speed 250 km/h (155 mph) electronically limited, Power to Weight Ratio 9.9 lb/hp

Fuel Consumption: City / Highway mileage of 15.4 / 10.7 L/100 km (15.3 / 22 mpg), Drag co-efficient 0.30 (Cd)

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