Colin Hubbard assesses a frugal 5 Series: There was a time that when you ordered a big Mercedes or BMW the informal rule was that it would have to be at least the 6-cylinder engine for ease of progress and ultimately smoothness. This was also the time that people asked you how fast your car goes, but the question now is how many miles do you get from a gallon of fuel.
Times are changing what with fuel prices increasing and a social responsibility not to pollute the planet but with huge leaps in technology we can have the best of both worlds, smooth performance along with frugality. The question is, can this diesel-sipping four pot BMW be up to the task of luxuriously propelling a large estate body around; is a 4-cylinder 5 Series really a peer acceptable proposition?What we have here is BMW’s biggest Estate to date, launched in 2010 with the chassis code F11 (the saloon is F10) and a range of engines from 2-litre up to 3-litre. Sadly the Touring can’t be ordered as an M5 with the fantastic 4.4-litre twin turbo: that is reserved solely for the saloon.
This test car is a 520d so just 2-litres of diesel power boosted by a single turbo, a common but proven formula for sensible economy with a good level of mid range torque for good acceleration and useful overtaking ability. It is mated here to a ZF eight speed automatic transmission which is a £1,550 option although a six speed manual is fitted as standard.
Another worthy option is the £2,800 M Sport package which buys you 18″ Double spoke alloys, sports suspension, front sports seats, a 3-spoke leather steering wheel and aerodynamic body styling in the form of sharper looking front and rear bumpers, side skirts and rear boot spoiler. Other minor cosmetic touches such as black instead of chrome tailpipes and exterior trim feature, but the meat of M Sport is the seats, wheels and body styling. The 5 series is a fairly good looking car in standard form but the M Sport body additions are the icing on the cake so it looks like it means business.As tested this Bavarian wagon is £38,915 and as standard is well equipped featuring heated leather part-electric seats, sat nav, reverse sensors, Bluetooth, but oddly enough lacks cruise control. Inside it is as spacious as you would expect and sitting in the terribly comfortable yet supportive front sports seats puts you in a commanding driving position, the view over the huge curvacious bonnet is at first a little daunting.
Bearing in mind this shell accommodates a rear wheel drive powertrain and a hefty automatic gearbox, the transmission tunnel is not too intrusive into passenger and drivers footwells so the leg position is not offset. The BMW dashboard sees a return to pilot orientation meaning the centre console is angled toward the driver so you feel more in control with everything visible and to hand. A sports steering wheel beautifully trimmed in supple leather with a chunky feel strangely enough does not feature paddles or buttons for the auto box, instead these are a cost option.Interior fittings are a long way off Audi standards featuring elephant hide style leather and plastic throughout the cabin and a rough plastic edge on the passenger door handle which is not what I expect in an upmarket executive car. The actual design of the cabin is handsome and the silver on black trim with contrast silver stitching looks classy; it’s just the finish of the surface materials that lets it down.
In the back and there’s good head, leg and arm room for three with ease. Storage space in the cabin is seriously lacking and I doubt anyone with children was on the design team, with only token gestures for door pockets both front and back. In the front there are letterbox style openings so you can’t properly see in or indeed get much more than a pair of sunglasses in but in the rear they are smaller and 50% of the space is taken up by an ashtray.Fortunately things are much better in the boot area with some nifty user friendly features. The boot opens via a button on the keyfob and as the tailgate glides up the parcel cover also slides up so you can load up easily. To close, simply press the button on the tailgate and both neatly return to their default positions. The rear seats are split 60/40 with convenient pull switches in the boot area and being spring loaded drop down flat at the touch of the switch. The larger 60% side can also split again meaning you can have 40/20/40 so most loads/passenger variants can be accommodated.
One strange feature as standard is the independently opening tailgate glass so theoretically you can drop in a few bags of shopping which is theoretically easier than opening the entire tailgate. This again is operated off the key but it doesn’t close off the key so shorter drivers may struggle to reach up to close it, plus lifting bags over and into the high glass area will at some point end up marking the paintwork.There’s keyless go as standard with the engine being started from a button on the dash but this does mean you have to put the keys somewhere, In between the drinks holder just in front of the gear stick is a little slot to locate the keys but you can’t close the cover so looks untidy.
When you do start the engine it wakes with only a murmur before settling down to a smooth 700rpm idle, just sipping fuel while it waits for instructions from your right foot. Other fuel saving tweaks as standard on this 5 Series are stop/start, brake energy regeneration (meaning the alternator is used less to charge the battery), low rolling resistance tyres and aerodynamic flaps inside the grille which open and close to reduce drag at speed. These all help towards the CO² figure of 123g/km and a combined 60.1mpg, although we saw closer to 50mpg on test. Pretty impressive stuff considering the sheer size of the car and performance on offer.The real star is the ZF gearbox mated to clever computing power, providing silky smooth but also quick gear changes with set operating ranges for whichever mode you select. When plodding around in comfort mode the engine uses very low revs between 1,500 and 2,200rpm and short shifting to be smooth and efficient. At the motorway limit it cruises nicely at just 1700rpm. When you want to liven things up, select sport mode and the engine now does its work between 3,300 and 4,300rpm and I found it very smooth for such a narrow powerband, working the 8 speed ZF gearbox very hard.
The engine is also a smooth unit with plenty of noise insulation so an oil burner is not second choice anymore; combined with the ZF box it is the natural choice for the car and to gain similar economy or performance from a manual box would give the driver an aching forearm in no time. The gears can be manually selected using the joystick or for an extra £135 you can have paddles on the steering wheel but I see little point when the self shifter is so intuitive and extracts the best from the engine in terms of both performance and fuel economy. Performance is on the healthy side with a 0-62 time of 8 seconds flat and the useful 280lb/ft torque means it doesn’t feel underpowered. These figures are on par with 6-cylinder petrol 5 Series of old.As a driver’s car it is great fun as the combination of M Sport suspension, high structural integrity and rear wheel drive means balance and handling are class leading. Direction changes are quick for such a big car and it is genuinely chuckable at roundabouts with a subtle steering feedback felt through the wheel.
To drive it is entertaining but having spent 200 miles as a passenger I can confirm it is not a nice place to spend a long journey. On the motorway the ride is fidgety and seems to pitch back and forth while on B roads every pothole and grid is harshly felt within the cabin. The problem with the ride quality is down to the combination of sports tuned suspension and run-flat tyres despite the wheels being a fairly standard sized 18 inch in diameter. BMW obviously recognise this as the M Sport package is available with non-sport suspension which I would definitely recommend for what is after all a family car.
In addition, as a passenger I found the offset glovebox hits your knees when you open it and there was notable wind noise from the top of the A pillars which I didn’t notice when driving it. It is a shame these little gripes put a bit of a downer on what is a an extremely capable family car and one that will save you money at the pumps and from the tax man.
The combination of a well refined small turbo diesel engine and that silky smooth gearbox in the BMW 520d Touring provide the best of best worlds meaning socially and personally you no longer need the extra 2 cylinders. Would I recommend it? Definitely, just make sure you delete the sports suspension!
Positives – cracking gearbox, smooth efficient engine and good looks.
Negatives – harsh ride, poor interior storage, elephant hide trim.
Price – £37,365
Price as tested – £38,915
Engine – 2.0 turbocharged, diesel
Transmission – 8-speed automatic
Drive – rear wheel drive
0-62mph – 8.0 seconds
Top speed – 137 mph
Power – 181 bhp
Torque – 280 lb ft
Economy – 60.1mpg (combined)
CO2 – 123 g/km / BIK 20%
Kerb weight – 1,715 kg