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Why BMW may no longer be The Ultimate Driving Machine

Published: 31 March 2010

Just driven the new BMW 5-series and a very good car it is too, if curiously unexceptional. The outgoing Five was stand-out in so many ways, from idiosyncratic style to its hunkered-down handling.

The new one looks cleaner, goes better, uses less fuel (few cars have a better haste-to-carbon ratio) and has a better-crafted cabin. And yet… The looks are more generic, the driving experience (in bigger-selling smaller-engine guises) less special. It’s a less brave BMW, if – as an all-rounder – a better one.

It’s symptomatic of Munich’s continuing move to court all the moneyed masses, no matter what their level of driving keenness. The recent ‘hatchback’ 5 GT – a BMW sold more on space than sportiness  – is the clearest proof of the shift. The Ultimate Driving Machine isn’t quite the superlative that it once was.  (Note: If you want to have fun driving the new 5-series saloon, you must order the optional ‘adaptive drive’ and associated electronic handling aids that only come with the bigger engine versions: then you get the agility and élan you’d expect from a BMW sports saloon. You also get superior ride comfort. So equipped, upper-end 5s are inspired cars.)

The Bangle revolution is over

Strange, also, how the Bangle styling revolution has lost its zeal. It ended, abruptly, with King Chris’s exile. Recent BMWs have been conservatively styled, more organic, cleaner; Bangle abridged. They are elegant cars, not challenging cars. A maker that seeks broad approval does not want to ostracise. From Seven to X1, from latest Three to new Five. The Special One and his ‘surface entertainment’ – he used also to call it ‘visual energy’ – seem like a distant memory. The hyperactive style has turned sober. If you want surface entertainment now, go to Mercedes, whose styling was once as cutting edge as an issue of Country Life. New Mercedes design now polarises; it turns heads, and sometimes stomachs.

Jaguar may benefit from BMW’s shift

The other great styling segregator – more proof of this changing car market! – is that one-time exemplar of hidebound fogeyness, Jaguar. Everyone seems to have a view on the new XJ. And, increasingly, most seem to like it. Just as important, it has grabbed the mantle of ‘best driving big luxury sports saloon’. The BMW 7-series, by comparison, is aimed more at the blancmange-bellied banker, keen to have a kip in row two. (Never mind that the XJ actually rides better.)

This is not a position that you would expect from a Jaguar, much less from the XJ, once the pipe-and-slippers saloon of listless old men. But as Munich subtly loses its razor-sharp sports focus, and Mercedes stays (quite properly) preoccupied with comfort and refinement (at least from its saloons), so there is quite suddenly a very compelling reason to buy a Jaguar.

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By Gavin Green

Contributor-in-chief, former editor, anti-weight campaigner, voice of experience