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Review: 2011 BMW 528i

by Andrew Ganz

BMW tosses out a stylish and fuel-thrifty luxury four-door. Does this new era of BMW look forward, backward or a little of both?

"Ding dong, the witch is dead" might be an unfair way to formally acknowledge the departure of Chris Bangle, the former BMW designer who reveled in controversial flame surfacing.

It's not a nice way to put it, especially when we consider that Bangle's daring designs brought BMW's penmanship out of the doldrums during his stay in Munich. Sales skyrocketed, even if purists decried the end of a BMW design language that dated back to boxy two and four-doors that saved the brand in the 1960s.

But we bet that some in Munich - the conservative BMW banker types on the company's board of directors - were thrilled with the return to convention with the company's latest 5-Series sedan, arguably its most important four-door offering, if not its highest volume.

What is it?
Debuting about a year ago, the F10-platform 5-Series marked both a departure from Chris Bangle's flame surfacing and a change from BMW's EXX internal nomenclature. If you're a BMW guy or gal, you know the secret code language. The E60 5-Series that preceded this one was hardly buttoned down inside and out, at least by BMW standards. It may not have been the enthusiast's favorite looker or favorite driver, at least compared to its near pedestal-level predecessors, but boy did it sell.

Tested here in its least expensive but likely most popular configuration, the BMW 528i likely to be the best-selling 5-Seriest offering in North America. Spend more and you can swap out the naturally-aspirated 3.0-liter inline-six for a twin-scroll turbo model or a 4.4-liter twin turbo V8. Take off your glasses and you might be interested in the awkward 5-Series GranTurismo, a sedan with a badonk-a-donk (oh yeah, we went there).

We're simple folks at Leftlane, so we were content to start off at the bottom with a modestly-optioned 528i loaded up with the essential Sport Package and a few other goodies. Introduced a few months after its 535i and 550i brothers, the 528i could have been a case for "saving the best for last" - or so we figured we'd find out.

What's it up against?
For decades, the Fiver's biggest rival has been the Mercedes-Benz E-Class. Itself freshly designed and more focused than ever, the E350 offers more power for similar money, but it also guzzles more fuel.

Toss in the all-new Audi A6, the Infiniti M37, the Cadillac CTS and the Saab 9-5 Aero and you have the makings of a full day of shopping.

Any breakthroughs?
Possibly the biggest news is one that rarely resonated with BMW owners until recently: Fuel economy. A carefully tuned eight-speed automatic transmission, a 3.39:1 final drive ratio and a sleek body with a low 0.28 Cd all contribute to big numbers from the EPA.

Rated at 32 mpg on the highway, the 528i is at the top of its class among gas-powered midsize luxury sedans (aside from the manually-shifted 33 mpg Saab 9-5), at least until the 33 mpg Audi A6 comes along later this year.

Of course, it couldn't be a new model without a few other tricks up its sleeve. An oddly non-driver centric dashboard goes against BMW convention, while a new multi-link suspension setup replaces the outgoing car's strut setup.

What's it look like?
Devoid of Bangle influences, the Adrian van Hooydonk-penned 5-Series looks like, well, a BMW. Undeniably modern, it nonetheless took us back to the E39-era 5-Series (think 1996 through 2003), a crisp but sleek interpretation of a four-door BMW.

Clean and chiseled, the new 5 is in many ways an enlarged 3-Series with its prominent flanks and beltline and the appearance of BMW's characteristic Hofmeister king in the C-pillar. It is, from all angles, very clearly a product of Munich - something we couldn't say about its predecessor unless we caught sight of its twin kidneys.

That's not to say that this latest offering is bland. Quite the contrary, it marries BMW tradition with modern touches like swept-back headlamps wrapped with a light silvery gray plastic and stylized tail lamps that light up with the brightest LEDs this side of a space shuttle (we haven't been aboard one, but it seems like bright lights would be a plus in space, right?).

Our modestly optioned Alpine white 528i was hardly exciting, but it struck us as an acceptable return to normalcy at BMW.

And on the inside?
In our first encounter with the 5, we remembered BMW hyping up the four-door's curious dashboard canted seven degrees further away from the driver. Hop on board and settle into our tester's optional 14-way power seats wrapped in similarly optional leather and things feel pretty familiar until you check out that center stack. Where this 5 - and pretty much anything else bearing the blue and white BMW roundel after the classic 2002 - should have its controls aggressively oriented toward the driver, things seem almost symmetrical and even.

Yet all those switches on the center console - and there were not enough, since the 5 uses BMW's better-but-still-complex iDrive system - are simple and easy to find. BMW's idea is that these switches might very well be used by the passenger, too, especially since iDrive and redundant switches on the steering wheel should, theoretically, keep drivers' fingers away from the center stack.

Otherwise, the 5's interior was about as you'd expect from a BMW - meaning not one material was short of top notch and each seat was a pleasant place in which to spend some time. The driver is especially lucky, since a meaty three-spoke steering wheel sits front and center ahead of four simple and clear gauges.

Our tester wasn't optioned up with navigation, but its iDrive system still required quite a bit of scrolling to get things settled away. Fortunately, BMW keeps climate controls separate, unlike some rivals, and most menus aren't needed once you've programmed in your radio preferences. Still, we didn't always convince the high-resolution central display screen to show exactly what we wanted - basic radio information.

Back seat riders have plenty of stretch-out space, but, like the E350, a split-folding rear seat will run you extra coin (a staggering $475 here). Luckily the trunk was plenty roomy.

But does it go?
Although weight savings has been a goal at BMW, customer and market demands have undeniably porked up its offerings. At 3,814 lbs., the 528i isn't portly, but that's still a fair amount of metal for 240 horsepower (at 6,600 rpm) and 230 lb-ft. of torque (spread from 2,600 to 3,000 rpm) to shuttle around. Like some other fuel economy-driven cars we've tested, the 528i's eight-speed automatic seemed intent on finding high gears as quickly as possible.

What this means is that the kind of performance we expect from BMWs requires deep throttle stabs. Once underway, the inline-six smoothly delivers adequate power, but the experience is never exhilarating, at least as far as the go pedal is concerned. For the most part, we'll blame the transmission, since a more conventional six-speed unit in the 328i behaves more predictably. Dig the throttle to the floor and you'll fire off a 0-60 sprint the mid-six second range, a reminder of how fast just about everything is these days. But

So to the 528i's tiller, which didn't feel quite as connected to the road as we might have expected. Although perfectly precise and nicely weighted, it nonetheless felt like a stand up comedian at a middle schooler's birthday party: Censored for your protection. Engaging sport mode didn't help, although it did force the eight-cog automatic to downshift much faster. Blame here lies with an electric steering setup that seems better tuned to mass-market Toyotas and Fords than a sedan with a blue-and-white roundel.

Selecting the Sport Package brings with it a more buttoned down suspension, which helped give the Fiver a more settled feel on curvy roads. Ride quality didn't suffer at all - as buttery smooth as the inline six, the 5 seemed wonderfully tuned to the demands of luxury buyers, even if we would have preferred a little less float over wallowy pavement.

Regenerative brakes help charge the battery, which saves a little fuel over the long run. Although very strong and capable, they also felt a little desensitized and unpredictable at first tap. Grabby at times, they could be too soft for optimal control just as often.

With its corner-carving credentials up for serious discussion, we headed out for an extended road trip. Set the cruise control and the 528i really comes into its own with arrow-straight stability, little road noise and, you'd better believe it, an easy to achieve 32 mpg. We positively pegged the EPA's guess on the open road, although our 19 mpg city trailed the gov's 22 mpg suggestion.

But the 528i's attributes really had us scratching our heads.

Why you would buy it:
A 32 mpg executive sedan might be an easier sell for your next company four-door.

Why you wouldn't:
That high-revving M3 in your other garage slot will bully your new 528i.

Leftlane's bottom line
Comfortable, refined and smooth, our 528i test car barely registered on our enthusiast-driven sportiness scale. A new era of BMW indeed.

2011 BMW 528i base price, $45,050. As tested, $51,325.
Premium Package, $1,800; Sport Package, $2,200; Comfort Access keyless entry, $1,000; iPod/USB adapter, $400; Destination, $875.