As BMW prepares to cede its luxury sales crown to Mercedes-Benz this year, the company is revving up for tighter competition in 2017. The brunt of the pressure falls upon the redesigned 5-Series sedan, expected to arrive at dealerships in February.
Mercedes’ mid-size E-Class sedan, which was overhauled earlier this year, eclipsed the 5-Series in sales for the first time ever last year and is on track to top it again this year. The pressure on the new 5-Series, which is entering its seventh-generation, will intensify when Audi launches its forthcoming, redesigned A6 flagship sedan. These high-volume vehicles are critical to the health of their respective makers because they build brand identity and make outsized contributions to the bottom line.
Critics say that BMW hasn’t kept up with the frenzied pace of Mercedes’ design evolution. “Mercedes has stepped up its design,” said Tim Huntzinger, professor in the Graduate Transportation Design Department at the renowned Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. “They don’t have that ‘saggy banana’ arc anymore. In general, BMW has played it safe over the last five years.”
Launched here in 1972, the sporty, five-passenger 5-Series sedan has long been BMW’s second-best seller after the smaller 3-Series sedan, although by a wide margin. (The 3-Series sold 85,675 units last year, nearly twice as many as the 5-Series.)
Weaving through the Portuguese Riviera in the BMW 540i M Sport last month, I discovered that the car handled the twisty roads of the seaside communities of Cascais and Ericeira with the agility you’d expect from a high-performance sports car. BMW shaved nearly 137 pounds from the 5-Series’ frame using aluminum, magnesium, and high-strength steel, and the lightweighting produces a noticeable difference in the car’s handling. Under the hood, the base 530i model gets a new turbocharged four-cylinder engine that delivers 248 horsepower, while the new six-cylinder in the 540i produces 335-horsepower.
The car, which has retained its basic shape since a 2003 overhaul by legendary BMW Chief of Design Chris Bangle, cast a sleek silhouette against the city of Setubal’s transcendent, so-called “Dream Coast.” “If you look at the 5-Series Chris Bangle got his hand slapped for, it still looks fresh,” Huntzinger said. “It still looks modern. In hindsight, that’s what the brand is built on.”
It’s slightly longer, wider, and taller than its predecessor, which could fill a void left by BMW’s discontinuation of the shortened wheelbase version of its flagship 7-Series executive sedan. The extra space is evident throughout the cabin. The backseat is roomier, and the trunk accommodates four sets of golf clubs. “The car is a baby 7-Series,” said Melissa Steffy, general manager for Herb Chambers BMW in Boston.
The new model comes with several creature comforts, including my favorite feature, wireless Apple CarPlay connectivity, which BMW is rolling out across its 2017 portfolio. The new 5-Series gets BMW’s latest iDrive 6.0 infotainment system with gesture control that responds to commands such as the wave of an arm or the flick of a finger. It also has a built-in Wi-Fi hotspot that can connect up to 10 devices. ParkNow, an app that lets you book parking spaces, is integrated into the car’s infotainment system.
The 2017 model begins at $51,200.