BMW 5-series (2010): our reaction in the metal

Published: 24 November 2009

At least it was a genuine surprise. BMW had managed to keep the looks of its new 5-series largely secret until design director Adrian van Hooydonk pulled the covers off at the firm’s Munich headquarters yesterday. I was there, and the reaction in the room was similar to the reaction in the CAR office and on the web when the official pictures were released; muted and mixed.

But the car looks a lot more interesting in the steel than on a screen. It’s a shame that BMW’s decision to launch it away from the competing distractions of a big motor show means you’re unlikely to see one until March, when it appears at the Geneva show and the first cars arrive in UK showrooms.

It is unquestionably a more conservative, conventional design than the outgoing Five, and very similar in form and proportion to the current Three. But it has some great angles. For me, the nose is best; the overhangs are remarkably short given modern pedestrian safety regulations, the kidney grille is lower and wider, the creases in the bonnet look deep and dramatic and almost all the extra 80mm wheelbase has gone into the front wings to keep the engine behind the axle line and the weight distribution correct. The net effect means the new Five has more than a little of the Z4’s front-end drama.

The deep feature line running back from the front arches and the dramatic, triple-strake rear lights are also striking. And the new, softer approach works best in the cabin, where the old Five’s bluff, upright architecture has been replaced by the return of BMW’s hallmark, driver-focussed cocoon. You’ll feel more enveloped by this interior, and the materials and build quality of the very early example we sat in already feel sensational.

Yes, overall, this new Five doesn’t have the initial impact of the car it replaces. It’s just as controversial, but for entirely different reasons. But don’t let the debate over the design distract you from what’s going on beneath. This new car swaps struts for double wishbones, hydraulic power steering for fully-electric, makes the eight-speed gearbox from the V12 760 available in every model down to the 520d and comes with a list of optional tech arguably unmatched by any other car on sale and made possible only by the massive data-transfer capabilities of its FlexRay electronic architecture.

So there’s way more to consider here than just the looks; the way the Five drives and functions is set to change just as radically. And that’s before we’ve seen the new engines. The line-up announced at the car’s launch makes a strong case on power, performance and emissions but we’ve seen them all before in slightly different tune in other models. It’s usual to launch a new model with existing engines, then introduce the new motors later to keep the interest up, and that’s exactly what’s happening here. We’ll probably see the hybrid and the hyper-efficient new 2.0-litre diesel at Geneva, with a V8 diesel and twin-turbo V8 M5 following in 2011.

No question; this car has the brains to stay relevant and competitive until the middle of the next decade. We just wonder if looks that seem safe now will last as long.

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By Ben Oliver

Contributing editor, watch connoisseur, purveyor of fine features