In looking back at BMW’s history in the United States, I honestly could not remember when a U.S.-spec 5 Series came with a four-cylinder engine. Was 2012 really the first instance in which the quintessential sports sedan downgraded its engine from a mighty six to the miniscule four? Yes, in fact, is is. Never before has North America had a four-banger-equipped 5 Series – much less a turbocharged one.
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However, that’s progress and BMW’s current direction in North America is, not ironically, summed up in the abilities of the petite 2.0 liter turbocharged four cylinder that is the N20. The N20 is a direct response to a need to fight the competition not just on 0 to 60 times but miles per gallon. The execution cannot be muddled either as the N20 represents the entry engine into both the 3, 5 and Z4 models amongst others – a sizable chunk of sales for each class, no doubt.
BMW invited us along to the Hilton Head Island Concours d’Elegance to try out the 2012 BMW 528i, equipped with the N20, as well as an Atacama Yellow Z4 in tow sporting the same power plant. To my own surprise, I found the N20 to be very compelling as a frantic, torquey little engine, well-matched for top-down driving in the Z4 – so it was time to try the F10 5 Series on for size. Our press car came in Alpine White over black Dakota leather – an elegant combo that seems to suit nearly every current BMW in the portfolio. In the way of options, our 2012 BMW 528i was sporting the Premium Package, Sports Package and Technology Package – a wonder blend of the best options you equip on the F10. However, with the base price of $46,900 before destination charges, just checking the box on those options quickly pushes the entry level 528i into the $55,500+ price range – making it not so entry level after all!
I digress though, as the price is only an issue if the 528i isn’t a car who’s more than the sum of its parts. To find out if the cheapest F10 was, I took the 528i, along with my family around idyllic Sea Pines on Hilton Head Island – a place close to my heart and who’s beaches I enjoyed every summer as a child. BMW seems to know the fastest route to my heart!
Sliding behind wheel and into the comfy, leather-clad seats, I thumbed the Start button to bring the N20 to life. Inside the vastness of the F10, the turnover of the engine barely registered above a murmur throughout the cabin. While the N20 is a relatively quiet engine – with Start/Stop activated it is difficult to perceive if the engine is even running if you’re not paying careful attention. In the latest M5, criticisms of a lack of external feedback and sound are understandable but ultimately feel rightly justified in the seclusion that a non-M F10’s interior. Dialing out the world around you, the F10 allows its occupants to focus on the wonderfully designed interior, sound system and all of the user-friendly gadgets our car came with.
Courtesy of the Technology Package, we made good use of the rear view camera and navigation system and by the time we began to traverse the small South Carolina barrier island, the HD radio was dialed into the first classic rock station sought out via iDrive. Sinking into the plush, leather backseat, my wife seemed to be very content with the notion of my purchasing a 528i to waft her around town while she fired off orders to iDrive to set course for the next shopping excursion. To it’s credit, the F10 reminds of riding in a scaled down Rolls Royce Phantom. You sit in a spacious, well-appointed cabin with every piece of information about the car, stereo, and climate within a finger’s reach. The ride is extremely compliant(second generation run flats are showing signs of progress!) – you cruise along feeling so removed from the outside world that it could almost be a movie in which you’ve been superimposed into the scene.
Ironically, this same level of comfort is my biggest fault with the car.
The sense of remoteness, from a luxury standpoint, is ideal. You bathe the driver and passengers in a supportive leather seats, shield them from severe bumps, undulations and road noise while overwhelming them with an array of informational technologies. However, when the driver remembers that they should be driving the car too – they’d be forgiven for not knowing they’re driving the supposed “Ultimate Driving Machine.”
In spite of our 528i coming equipped with the Sports Package’s 18 inch Style 328 alloys and the adaptive suspension, on the curvy back roads of Hilton Head I didn’t find much sporting about the mid-sized Bavarian. This is, in part, due to the electric, speed-sensitive Servotronic steering which offered some feedback but never belayed a sense of exactly where the nose was tracking. At higher speeds, though, the steering does feel better as it firms up to driver inputs. While the F10 comes equipped with an adaptive suspension, I couldn’t find a setting which could wash away the overriding vagueness transmitted via the controls. Turn-in felt vague, throttle input mildly better but the over communication with the road surface just wasn’t present. The 528i was further let down by the something I didn’t expect from a BMW: the engine.
At just over 3,800 lbs to carry, the N20 felt almost anemic when pushed higher into the rev band. Beyond that, the remoteness of the interior means that you’ll be hard pressed to hear the rewarding exhaust note of the N20 when pushed onward to the 7,000 RPM red line(though max torque of 260 ft-lbs is achieved by 5,000 RPM). The combination of the N20 and the F10 chassis ultimately disappointed from a driving dynamic standpoint. That’s not to say that either the F10 or N20 aren’t compelling in their own regard, but this combination does not make for a strong result nor argument in favor of the 528i being worthy of the “Ultimate Driving Machine” moniker. Strange, considering the N20 feels right at home in the new F30 328i and E89 Z4 guise. Despite being entry models in their respective classes, the N20-laden cars felt sporty and engaging yet the F10 felt almost sluggish and lacking – a bit of departure from BMW’s typical formula of a Jekyll and Hyde personality where even the more luxury-oriented Bavarians can kick down a few gears and remind you they’re designed to gobble up miles of Autobahn asphalt without batting an LED-lit eyelash.
Winding through Harbor Town, the local boutiques and the surrounding upscale beach houses – I was reminded that the target buyer for a 528i likely isn’t as concerned with performance as they are a sedan that successfully blends luxury, style and, these days, relative fuel economy. The F10 delivers on all of those fronts with the more conservative aesthetic over the predecessor E60, a near-F01 7 Series interior comfort(the F10 is a short wheelbase 7 chassis after all) and technological accoutrement that rivals the recently decommissioned space shuttle Endeavour. If that’s not enough, the F10 528i sports the latest EfficientDynamics via Start/Stop technology on the ignition and EcoPro mode available via the adaptive suspension settings allowing for a more conservative shift program via the excellent, never-miss-a-shift 8-speed ZF gearbox. Our mix of mostly city and some country road driving yielded fuel economy in the mid-20 mpg range meaning buyers should be able cruise by a few gas stations on the way to registered 400 to 500+ miles out of the 18.5 gallon fuel tank.
The F10 528i, as an all-round car and in perspective of the 5 Series range, is a good car at it’s core but epitomizes the divergence in BMW’s historic approach of producing cars that balance sport and luxury juxtaposed to the seemingly new path of more mid-range performance models that better bridge the gap between entry models and M cars. The 528i leans, very heavily, toward the luxury buyer market and for those looking for a sporting and tech-savvy sedan best look downward to the F30 335i or upward to the 535i as the N55 can better juggle the priorities of performance and economy compared to the two cylinders poorer N20.
If I’m honest, the F10 528i is likely my least favorite model I’ve sampled from BMW’s current line-up as it left me feeling the cold shoulder in terms of driving dynamics. But judging a midsize sedan solely on that criteria would leave out massive portion of what it can offer a potential buyer. On the points of comfort and economy the 528i is spot-on and hard to find a fault and if I’m even more honest, that’s the reality of what the majority of 528i buyer will demand from BMW.