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BMW 530d SE Touring (2011) long-term test review

Published: 20 January 2012

A year in our BMW 530d Touring - 20 January 2012

Are we road testers too easily entranced by big luxury diesel estates? Over a misspent youth poring over car magazines, I remember reading of hacks falling for the charms of said vehicles in the 1980s. One colleague on another mag actually bid for his long-term BMW 330d Touring when he had to reluctantly hand the keys back. It seems as a breed we’re predisposed towards big, fast, comfy estate cars.

I’m not about to disappoint you. The new F11 BMW 5-series Touring was fabulous on many levels, if not quite perfect. It’s the sort of car whose sheer breadth of talents smacks your gob on a daily basis. We’ve already documented its high-speed transcontinental credentials, after it acted as pace car on Performance Car of the Year 2010 and actually beat the Ferrari 458 Italia on a marathon from Lyons to Calais. But the 5-series did the less glamorous stuff brilliantly too.

We’ve done the mandatory trips to tips, filled it with children on family duty and trudged into the office every day for nine months. The 530d never missed a beat and started first time, every time. It’s funny to think a few years ago we all oohed and ahhed when BMW removed keys from the start-up procedure, but all 5-series have keyless go as standard these days so you just thumb the button to get going. Annoyingly that’s not matched by keyless unlocking, so you still have to remove the key to unlock the doors before putting it back in your pocket and starting the car. Perhaps that’s BMW encouraging the upsell.

The 3.0-litre diesel engine is still a peach. I can’t think of a more refined engine in the executive class and until recently its figures were nigh-on unbeatable, but Audi and Merc have recently trumped it in some areas. Still, 245bhp, a torquey 398lb ft and 165g/km of CO2 are fine by me. Audi’s new A6 wagon 3.0 TDI now manages 156g/km, mind.

The straight six is at the heart of the experience: the 530d Touring will charge or cruise at will, and it’s impeccably tuned to the ZF eight-speed auto transmission. Before I became familiar with the gearbox, I’d feared such an over-geared cogfest would stumble between ratios like I do on my mountain bike; it doesn’t. Changes are creamy smooth and the spread of gears helps keep progress quiet and restful.

Our last 5-series long-termer – the massive but munting 530d Gran Turismo – suffered a pretty traumatic transmission fault when the auto ’box spat out torque converter bolts at speed on the A1. The same ’box in the Touring behaved perfectly. Nothing else fell off or went wrong in our 20,000 miles with the car.

Covering such a high mileage in a short space of time meant we had reason to visit a BMW dealer. We visited Cambridge Elms BMW, the newest Beemer garage in Britain. I can only imagine that the £7 million invested in it was spent with the same contractors who make trendy boutique Barcelona hotels, so clean and modernist were its lines. They serviced the car while I waited, nourished me with water and wifi and finished after 92 minutes, seconds within the allotted time. All very impressive, but they forgot to vacuum the boot and the service indicator wasn’t reset.

A couple of episodes during our ownership made us remember that owning a premium car needs a premium wallet. That first service – essentially a glorified oil change – cost us £247.69. We also had to change a tyre which developed a dangerous bulge, and replacing the Goodyear 245/40 R19 cost us a mildly upsetting £347. Playing at this level brings costs above and beyond the very reasonable fuel consumption.

That low CO2 figure is closely related to the 530d’s 44.1mpg claimed average. We all know the Government figures are produced in a laboratory in cloud cuckoo land, so how close did we get? I think it’s fair to say our 530d was driven enthusiastically and heavily laden some of the time, but the vast majority was just normal workaday journeys. We don’t all drive sideways at every roundabout (apart from Ben Barry. He does). Over the full nine-month stint we gobbled a gallon of diesel every 34 miles.

Trying to find faults in the 530d Touring is like trying to find nits in my son’s hair. One of the few things to annoy was the headlights, which we decided were a bit rubbish. It wasn’t just our 5-series; Barry drove a 520d from Wales to the office and came back complaining too.

The spread pattern seemed to be set for left-hookers, cutting off abruptly on the nearside verge as if to avoid dazzling non-existent oncomers. The result was a black patch just to the left of your vision, which became a problem on rural left-handers. This is doubly disappointing since our car had the £1210 Visibility package, which included automatic adaptive xenon headlights, headlight wash and high-beam assistant. Neither Sycamore Peterborough nor Elms Cambridge could find anything wrong.

Our car famously had the kitchen sink added to its spec, carrying £16,900 in extras. The best was the £940 head-up display – don’t order a 5-series without it – but many I could’ve done without. Especially when our inflated £56,300 new price plummeted a /grand/ in value every  1000 miles. Parkers Price Guide reckons we’d be offered £33,495 in part-exchange and a main dealer would sell it on for around £38k.

So let that be a warning before you go rampant on the options list. But there’s little else to warn you about. The 5-series was a brilliant all-rounder. They may have surgically removed some of the lithe sporting exec from the character of the new Five, but the brutal truth is they’ve probably made it more appealing to more of the market as a result.

What hasn’t changed is the relentless BMW attention to detail that permeates the Touring. The whole thing feels immaculately built inside and out, and it scrubbed up brilliantly. I love the engineered feeling of the major and minor controls in BMWs, from classy tick-tock of indicator to metered precision of throttle. Only Porsche does it as well. Which is part of the reason why – true to form – every single member of staff lusts after something just like this in their dream garage.

By Tim Pollard


First service for our BMW 5-series - 18 August 2011

It's a mark of our 530d Touring's popularity that we've racked up nudging 17,000 miles now. It's rare that we get to see a main dealer in our long-term tests that usually range from six months to a full year. But the Five's onboard computer accurately counted me down to its first service and so I looked around for a nearby garage.

Regular readers may remember that I've had ample cause to visit Peterborough's Sycamore BMW dealer in my time at CAR; both the 5-series GT and our Mini Cooper S had major transmission faults. So I reckoned it was time to branch out and try another franchised outlet.

Cue Cambridge's Elms BMW, the newest BMW garage in the UK. The old dealer in Great Shelford was too small and old-fashioned for this prosperous city, so they moved 10 miles west to an out-of-town site in the new village of Cambourne (think Milton Keynes with Cambridge pretensions). Eight and a half million quid later and it opened with a fanfare of being the most modern and eco of any BMW dealership anywhere.

We visited in its first week of business and can report it's a very posh affair. There's loads of space - it's a 3.5-acre site - and parking is ample. The building itself is more like a modern art museum than a car showroom: all white concrete and perpendicular edges. There's room for 26 models, nearly the whole BMW portfolio, and numerous break-out areas.

While our 530d had its first service, I enjoyed the complimentary teas, coffees and pastries, rejuiced my Blackberry on the provided chargers and kept CAR Online ticking over with the wi-fi. They promised a 90-minute while-you-wait service, and it was finished within two minutes of their target.

We always shop anonymously and I had no reason to suspect they knew I worked for CAR. Everyone was very polite and the whole experience was very satisfying. Glitches? They forgot to vacuum the boot (the rest of the car was valeted to a showroom sheen), they didn't have a pollen filter in stock (does it really need changing after nine months? They said so), and they neglected to reset the service indicator which now tells me I need to go back in 4800 miles.

That's not quite good enough for £247.69 and took the sheen off a wonderful, state-of-the-art BMW dealership.

By Tim Pollard


 

A camping trip – 5 August 2011

Tim had borrowed my old Range Rover Sport a couple of times for holidays away, so when I realised that my current long-term XJ wouldn’t be practical enough for a planned camping trip, I thought I’d call in the favour.

The 530d’s boot can swallow 560 litres of camping junk and the pop-out rear window makes using every last bit of it a cinch. But it still wasn’t going to be big enough for my needs so I borrowed a roof box from BMW.

The BMW accessories brochure lists two boxes, a squarish-shaped 350-litre box for £349, or the mahoosive 460-litre canoe of a roofbox I used. At 2.3m long, the thing is so big you’ve really got to pay attention how you mount it – too far rearward and you won’t be able to open the tailgate properly. The upside of that narrow cross section is low wind noise on the motorway and space to strap a bike on the roof alongside it.

To mount it to the car, you need to factor in another £187 for the roof bars. There’ll be a further charge if you want your dealer to fit the whole lot, but don’t waste your money – it’s simple and requires no tools other than the Allen key provided. The sheer size of the 460 box means it’s a job best tackled with a helper, however. Once fitted, it’s easy to load, because it opens from both sides, and difficult to steal because the box has a lock preventing unauthorised opening, while the bars have locks stopping anyone trying to remove the whole lot.

A good bit of kit then. The only caveat being that I believe the box is made by Thule or a similar big name in roofboxes, so you could probably save a few quid by buying the same, or very similar box and bars elsewhere.

By Chris Chilton


5-series turns paparazzi wagon – 14 June 2011

Trundling along the M6 the other day, a flash of streaky yellow caught my eye. I was on the way back from Birmingham in the 530d and had already spied a Jag XKR-S on the M42. The Midlands are ripe hunting grounds for JLR products - and these increasingly zany psychedelic 'disguises' are strangely noisy affairs that you can't help spotting. Makes you question whether they're camouflage or marketing tool.

We managed to catch a quick cameraphone snap of the Evoque, surely the most widely scooped car for years. Now it's been unveiled and shortly to go on sale, it's hardly big news, but I still felt a childish sense of achievement when we heard the fake shutter sound on the smartphone.

In other news, the BMW's service indicator suggests we'll soon be needing a trip to a dealership. We've covered 14,000 trouble-free miles and there's nothing much to report, but I will ask the garage to look at the strangely feeble adaptive headlamps. They seem to be depositing a large chunk of black on the verge as if they're badly adjusted. We half wonder if they've been incorrectly set up for driving on the right, so as not to dazzle oncoming traffic on the left.

This is doubly disappointing since our car has the £1210 Visibility package, which includes automatic adaptive xenon headlights, headlight wash and high-beam assistant. All will be revealed soon.

By Tim Pollard


How practical is the 5-series Touring? – 25 May 2011

You can answer this question very easily by looking at the CAR Magazine Diary, the magic book which contains the details of who's driving what each night. The 530d Touring is in high demand - this week it's currently in Norfolk as art editor Andy Franklin takes a few days off to recover from a charity bike ride. Next week Chris Chilton appears to have snaffled it for a family holiday in Devon.

In fact, I'd say the Five wagon is the most in-demand car on our long-term test fleet right now. I'm hardly surprised. The boot capacity is 560 litres with the seats up, and it's rare that we've had to flop the seats down (with handy levers by the tailgate) to expand that to 1670 litres. Once stowed, we have transported a mountain bike without having to remove any wheels. Our Merc E63 estate has even more space - offering 690/1950 litres - but I've never once had to swap cars merely on capacity grounds.

Day-to-day, you rarely have to fiddle with the 530d Touring's rear seats. You'll easily stow a week's luggage for a family of four and we've had everything from a wheelchair (pictured) to a disassembled bed in there. There are some clever details too: there's a handy shelf under the floor where I managed to hide birthday presents for the wife; lashing points to tie down precious cargo; and a ski hatch which I haven't used yet but the kids find it hilarious to climb through. All stuff you'll find on any decent estate, but the functionality here has that neat, well engineered precision about it.

Naturally, there's no lip to obstruct access to the boot (compare that to the Alfa 159 Sportwagon I drove this week - with a 25cm lip!) and the loadbay is lined in plush carpet. I'd probably spec a cargo cover next time to prevent grime and grit from staining the carpet.

One thing's troubling me, however. Assistant ed Chilton tells me he's borrowing a roof box for his camping trip south. I can't imagine how big his tent is if it won't fit in the 5-series' boot. Or perhaps he's packing the kitchen sink too?

By Tim Pollard


The strange case of the keyless ignition – 12 May 2011

Our BMW 530d Touring is equipped with ‘Keyless starting of engine ignition’ as standard. Which I find quite baffling. Picture the scene. You walk up to car. You dig in pocket to separate handkerchief and sweets from key. You press to unlock. You then put key away as you don’t need it to start the engine.

It might be a small point, but every time I start the Five I wonder why on earth they didn’t install full keyless entry. There seems no point whatsoever to have keyless ignition without the unlocking bit. It just rubs your nose in the fact that you didn’t upgrade to the £570 ‘Comfort Access’ keyless entry.

So there you have it. I wish our car had keyless entry as well as ignition. You might not notice it first time you drive our car, but every single member of staff has noticed this annoying little bug too. It’s a measure of how good the rest of the 5-series package is that we get to grumble over such minutiae.

By Tim Pollard


Nice car, shame about the badge – 14 April 2011

Our 530d is a deeply impressive car. My encounters with the Bavarian load-lugger have usually been at the end of a long work day, and its automated-everything specification proves to be the perfect companion for a relaxing drive home. The 3.0-litre turbodiesel offers ample propulsion for motorway work and it drinks sociably but not excessively at the service station. The adaptive damping provides a comfortable ride completely in tune with the optional comfort-spec seats. Load space appears ample for the upwardly mobile family or pursuer of fashionable lifestyle activities. Even iDrive works sensibly with the wide-screen display. I did get a surprise when the stereo’s stored music collection started reciting Winnie the Pooh stories, but that just illustrates how this comfy wagon is clearly being put to good use in its intended role. In objective terms it is very difficult to fault.

But whist I can set the car up in four distinct modes, the one thing the gizmo-laden BMW doesn’t let me change is the badge. On its softer settings this sensible family car deserves a badge which says: ‘relax, I’m not going to tailgate you down the motorway, steal your parking space or push in at junctions’. People should be able to look at the 5-series and nod appreciatively instead of frown at yet another BMW driver. That’s the sort of baggage the 530d shouldn’t need to carry, but does.  

Perhaps I should have just left the car in Sport+, changed gears with the shift paddles, tightened-up the seat bolsters and dueled with those Audi upstarts on the motorway? But when a car can play multiple roles so well, why must I remain type-cast?

By Mark Hamilton


Meeting the ancestors – 23 March 2011

Parked up next to Ben Barry's E36 M3 today - quite a stark reminder of where BMW's been and where it's going. Does Munich still make the Ultimate Driving Machine? The E92 M3 suggests they probably do, but our 530d is proof the drivers' DNA has been genetically tampered since the '80s heyday of that particular catchline.

You see, the new 5-series is probably the most comfort-focused Five ever. It's stretched BMW's lexicon into new territories, one where refinement and relaxed dynamics take precedent over pointy front ends and nuttily revving engines.

Our 530d is so civilised, it's hard to think of it as a sports estate. The engine is whispery quiet at most rpm, the ride pillowy soft, especially in Comfort mode and the steering as relaxed as an E-class helm. It's quite a long way from Ben's stripped and caged M3 then - and I think it's entirely apt for its target market.

Besides, the forthcoming M5 will cater for the sporty crowd.

By Tim Pollard


The 530d visits Longbridge – 18 March 2011

Whizzed over to Birmingham this week for the launch of the new MG 6, which gave the 530d Touring a chance to stretch its legs on the A14, M6 and M42. The new 5-series Touring is a great M-way muncher and reminds me very strongly of the 530d GT we ran last year.

Where the Touring scores strongly over the Gran Turismo is its ride. Our estate rolls on 19in alloys and has a mostly plump ride quality. With the Adaptive Drive chassis set to Comfort, the car smothers bumps and floats over road scars with little cabin intrusion; snick into Sport or Sport + mode, and you can feel everything tighten up with a tauter, very BMW feel to it. You see, our car is equipped with the £2220 Adaptive Drive option which packs variable dampers.

Most of the time we leave the suspension in automatic mode, where it shuffles the dampers and active anti-roll stabilisers for you. But I find myself selecting Comfort quite often on longer motorway schleps, like this week's journey to Longbridge. It's far more comfortable than the 5 GT which seemed to wriggle and jiggle over bumps where the Touring just irons imperfections away.

I've recently driven the 520d Touring which made me question the need for the 530d (more of which anon), but there's no doubting our car's velvet punch. The straight six is so incredibly refined, barely more than a murmur in the background, yet at the flex of your right toe it'll bolt past slower traffic when the overtaking lane clears.

Other motorway attributes? The stereo is fine and easy to use (I'm beginning to store my CDs on the hard drive now - it's like having an iPod built in), the cruise control accurate and all the better for not having radar built in (I'd risk falling asleep!) and the seats are still proving brilliantly comfy. So there. The 5-series Touring: do you still need that Audi A8 and Jag XJ, Greg and Chris?

By Tim Pollard


Mud, cameras, action – 27 February 2011

Our 530d has been mucking around recently. Winter filth afflicts all cars, irrespective of badge or brand - but our 5-series is holding up well. Some colours are a nightmare to keep clean (I'm thinking of you Arctic White, Moondust Silver, Ebony Black), but the classy blue metallic of YG60 NCC bears its mud with class.

The thing is that the rear parking camera has been completely filthed over following the winter snows. It's a static lens nestling by the boot handle, and it's made me appreciate the cleverness of the VW solution where the camera pops out from behind the VW handle, safely hidden from muck-raking.

Still, it's a good excuse to go and find the bucket and sponge. When not caked in mud, the rear parking camera is brilliant. It cost £320 and I'd recommend it to anyone buying a 5-series. This is a long car at 4907mm and the camera delivers a crisp image with guiding lines and beeps upon request. The image is pin-sharp on our top-of-the-line BMW Professional screen and you've really got no excuse for reversing into anything (we'll take that as a promise! Ed).

Thing is, I still somehow have a vague distrust of cameras. Does anyone else find themselves swivelling their head, you know, just to be sure?

By Tim Pollard


Please be seated – 15 February 2011

The 5-series Touring has proved an excellent winter companion. The heating is powerful and simple to use, and it's one of the simplest dual-zone systems to consolidate into a single command. A small point, but the simple All button does at a push what can take minutes to achieve in other cars.

I do miss the heated screen from previous cars of mine, such as Ford Focuses and Minis. I'm not sure of the provenance of heated front windows but suspect Ford pioneered it with its QuickClear system. It's only spread to Mini and a few select VW Group products (through the Galaxy/Sharan partnership, perchance?). Why not on the Five too? At this time of year, it'd save on frozen knuckles and wasted minutes aplenty.

Perhaps they could nab some of the elements from my heated seats. These upgraded BMW Comfort seats are absolutely brilliant. From their every-way adjustment to their pillowy head restraints, they're a joy to sit in.

By Tim Pollard


Life with our new BMW 5-series long-termer – 31 January 2011

So our new long-termer has arrived, and it’s a rather fabulous looking 5-series Touring. A well equipped 530d Touring to be precise. In a rare break with tradition, I managed to persuade Ben Pulman, manager of our long-termers, to let me loose with the BMW estate – despite me running a similarly specced BMW 530d Grand Turismo last year.

You see, we normally try and mix up our long-termers to get fresh perspectives. But it somehow felt right to compare the 5-series in all its different manifestations. Especially when we never quite saw the point of the 5 GT. It was wonderful at many things, but my conclusion was that surely you’d just buy the 5 Touring rather than a compromised hatchaloon. Now we’re about to find out.

This 530d Touring is nabbed from BMW’s launch fleet, so we had no say in its spec. It’s in SE trim, and comes in a splendidly sober, classy Imperial Blue Xirallic, a sort of dark, squid inky blue metallic. Inside there’s Oyster Dakota Leather, which is basically cream and already showing up some denim blue. Which is why I’ve always preferred dark trim for my seats.

The SE spec comes well equipped already, but BMW has added a whopping £16,900 to this test car. Here’s a complete list of what’s on YG60 NCC:

• 19-inch V-spoke style 331 alloy wheels (no cost option)
• Adaptive Drive (£2220)
• Comfort seats, front (£1270)
• Dynamic package (£2820)
• Extended storage (£280)
• Exterior mirrors – folding, automatically dimming (£245)
• Exterior trim, matt aluminium (no cost option)
• Fineline Anthracite wood (£350)
• Head-up Display (£940)
• Loudspeaker system - BMW Business (£405)
• Media package - BMW Professional navigation system, multimedia interface, Bluetooth, BMW Assist, BMW Online and Voice Control.  (£1960)
• Oyster/Black Exclusive Nappa Leather (£695)
• Panoramic glass sunroof (£1200)
• Park Assist (£560)
• Reversing Assist camera (£320)
• Seat heating, front (£300)
• Sport automatic transmission (£1605)
• Surround-view (£520)
• Visibility package – automatic adaptive xenon headlights, headlight wash, high-beam assistant (£1210)

So it’s one mightily high-equipped 5-series. We’ll find out over the next six months which of those options is worth having and which is a waste of money.

And in my next report, I’ll report just how fabulous the 5-series Touring is. I’d hate to predudice CAR Magazine’s long-term test review, but I already have a sneaking suspicion that this is one mighty fine executive estate!

By Tim Pollard

 

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