During our recent trip to San Francisco to drive the brand-new G30-generation 5 Series, we were able to sample two flavors of the new 5er — the BMW 530i and BMW 540i, both wearing the M Sport package. The former car was a very good, very competent car that manages to package fun driving dynamics, decent performance and superb luxury into an affordable package. But what happens when you amp the power up a little bit by adding one of the most brilliant engines on the market? The BMW 540i happens.
From the outside, there’s very little to differentiate the 540i from the lesser 530i model we drove first. The only real indicators, aside from the badge on the back, are the exhaust tips. With rectangular tips, as opposed to the circular tips of the 530i, the BMW 540i looks a bit more aggressive at the rear. But only by a bit. Aside from that, especially with the M Sport package, which all of our cars were equipped with, they both look pretty similar. However, that’s not such a bad thing, as the 5 Series looks pretty damn good.
On the inside, the cabins are also pretty similar, especially considering all of our cars were basically full loaded. The new M Sport steering wheel looks fantastic and feels great in the hand. All of the materials are top notch and could be the best in the class, maybe even the best in a car under six-figures. The build quality is bank-vault grade and feels as solid as any car I’ve been in. It also looks great, better than on the 7 Series, despite both cabins being extremely similar in style. There’s just something about the way the 5 Series wears it that looks better. Maybe it’s just the smaller cabin and different dash trim.
But it’s under the hood where things really differ. In the BMW 530i, you get a 2.0 liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that makes 252 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque. While that’s nice, and pretty impressive from just a run-of-the-mill turbo-four, it’s got nothing on the bigger-six.
Packing BMW’s new B58 3.0 liter turbocharged I6 engine, the BMW 540i develops 340 hp and 332 lb-ft of torque. That’s almost 100 more hp than the 530i and it feels it. In fact, it feels like more than that. When driving it, the BMW 540i feels far quicker than its 340 hp suggests, as it simply rockets toward the horizon. We’re massive fans of the B58 engine, as it develops its power with a silky smoothness that’s unparalleled by any six-cylinder engine on the market, and it’s no different here. In fact, the smoothness and refinement of the engine might actually give the impression that you’re going faster than you are. You look down at the speedometer and you’re doing speeds you never would have guessed otherwise
BMW claims a 0-60 mph time of 4.9 seconds for the 540i, and it will probably be quicker with xDrive, but it feels faster than that. The models we tested were rear-wheel drive but traction was never an issue on the standard run-flats. Bury the throttle and the 540i simply digs into the pavement and fires out. Shifts from the eight-speed ZF-sourced automatic happen in rapid-fire fashion, adding to the feeling of speed.
But the true brilliance of the B58 engine, as well as the always-excellent ZF eight-speed, is its ability to also be incredibly luxurious. Any turbocharged six-cylinder engine can be fast, but to be as silky smooth and easy to putter around town with as well is no easy task. Slot the gear selector into “D” and you can just cruise through traffic with ease, peace and quiet. In fact, if there was any criticism of this powertrain that I’d have, it’d be that it’s almost too quiet and refined. But that has more to do with the fact that BMW has done some extensive work insulating the cabin from outside noise.
BMW has used some fancy new techniques to create a quiet and serene cabin, isolated for all unwanted noise. With technologies such as Special Synergy Thermoacoustic Capsule (SYNTAK) engine encapsulation technology and acoustic glazing for the windscreen and the acoustic headliner, there’s very little intrusion coming into the cabin. There is some road noise that comes in, which was a bit disappointing, but that was likely because of the run-flat tires. BMW should be offering a Track Handling Package that will bring Michelin’s latest Super Sport series tires that will remedy such road noise. Aside from that, though, the cabin is wonderfully isolated, almost to the point of being too much, as you don’t get enough of that brilliant B58 I6 growl.
However, the excitement comes in different forms, other than noise. For instance, turn the wheel and you’ll be greeted with the best steering in any modern non-M BMW to date. It’s light but communicative and incredibly precise. There’s no dead spot on-center that’s plague most modern BMWs and there’s far more actual feel than I’ve felt from a BMW in a long time. While it isn’t E39-level communicative, it’s a definite upgrade from the previous F10-generation 5 Series and probably the most responsive steering rack on any non-M Bimmer currently on sale. There’s just a delicacy and accuracy to it that makes the BMW 540i a joy to throw around.
[quote text_size=”medium” align=”full”]
“It shrinks around its driver and feels much smaller than it is, which is what you want when navigating the narrow roads of Napa’s wine country.”
That steering isn’t let down by the chassis, either. As quick as the front end bits, the rear end follows, so you get an impressively agile car. Obviously, it’s no BMW M3 but the 540i’s handling is fantastic for a car of its size, weight and luxury. BMW did a fantastic job of creating a balanced chassis for this new 5 Series, as it blends comfort, luxury and performance in a wonderfully cohesive package. That’s something that couldn’t be said of the previous 5er, which was far more luxury oriented than this new generation.
While driving though some of the more beautiful, scenic and windy roads of Napa Valley, the BMW 540i proved to be a fantastic companion. It shrinks around its driver and feels much smaller than it is, which is what you want when navigating the narrow roads of Napa’s wine country. Quick left-right transitions are a thing of joy in the 540i, as the chassis is quick to respond and body roll is kept at a minimum.
The adaptive dampers have a lot to do with that and are highly recommended for all 5 Series buyers, not just for the 540i. In Comfort mode, the ride quality is spectacularly smooth, as it absorbs potholes and road imperfections with aplomb. But in Sport mode, the dampers stiffen up, the steering gets a bit heavier and sharper without feeling artificially heavy and the throttle response gets more aggressive.
It’s hard to imagine a car with a better all-around breadth of abilities at this price range. It’s just so well-rounded, so good at so many things that it’s actually hard to fault. Any niggles? Sure, if you really poke around. The aforementioned road noise from the run-flat tires, it’s still a bit too safe looking and it can get a bit pricey with options. However, these are minor complaints in an overall superb car.
I went into this drive with excitement but a bit of skepticism, worrying that BMW might have still made it a bit too soft and luxurious, as it did with the 7 Series. However, my skepticism was quickly muted as the BMW 540i exceeded my expectations and, at least in the opinion of this humble journalist, could be the best driving 5 Series since the E39 generation.
Exterior Appeal - 9
Interior Quality - 10
Steering Feedback - 8
Performance - 9
Handling - 9
BMWness/Ultimate Driving Machine - 10
Price Point - 8
The BMW 540i exceeded my expectations and, at least in the opinion of this humble journalist, could be the best driving 5 Series since the E39 generation.