There was a time when the 5 Series from BMW was the best car in the world. It ruled in the late 1980s because it was the right size and price for the time, as well as a great drive. It was not the biggest, or the fastest, or the flashiest, but it was, as Goldilocks would say, just right.
The mid-sizer from Munich was eventually out-gunned by the S-Class battleship from Mercedes-Benz and the three-pointed star has held my top spot for considerably more than a decade. But the car world has also fragmented and exploded since the famous Five, with cars as diversely impressive as the Rolls-Royce Phantom, Benz SLS Gullwing, Porsche GT2 and, yes, really, Volkswagen Golf GTi. Each of those currently makes my personal pick for top-car shootout.
And now there is a new Five and I cannot help recalling the earlier glory days of the mid-sized hero, thanks to an impressive twin-turbo engine, a lively chassis and excellent quality.
PRICING AND EQUIPMENT
And the price is, for the class, extremely reasonable from less than $100,000. This Carsguide test Five is much closer to $130,000 but the inflated bottom line reflects the many new systems BMW Australia wants to highlight, from lane-departure warning and the latest active steering and dynamic drive systems to a 360-degree camera view system for easy parking in any tight spot.
There is also the luxury of a sunroof, special leather and more. It's also the 535i package, with a 225 kiloWatt power pack, currently best-of-breed until the arrival of the new M5.
I like the look of the new Five, which is smoothly understated and a welcome change from the brutalism of everything from endless SUVs to the latest Subaru Liberty and Mercedes E-Class. It's also Audi-style refined inside, with a nice emphasis on the driver, and the cabin is a sensible size for everyday families with a useful boot in the tail.
The 535 reflects a return to the engineering-first principles which have always driven BMW, with the exception of the time when design boss Chris Bangle turned his take on car style into the most talked-out area of any new BMW.
So the new Five has a rock-solid chassis with fully-independent suspension and big brakes, the six-pack engines get a turbo boost, there is an eight-speed auto coupled to old-school rear-wheel drive, and all sorts of computer driven tweaks to the economy, safety, comfort and more.
The life of the Five is made easier by a new E-Class Benz that, despite its many strengths and great new engines, is too brutal in its design and not as involving to drive. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
DRIVING Paul Gover
There is something very feline about the new Five. It is sleek and elegant, feels good, is well groomed, and it can run. It also has a slightly raspy tongue, but we'll get to that.
The design strikes me first because it is a return to the stylish-but-distinctive BMWs of the past, in the body shape and the cabin work. It's not adventurous or confronting, just smooth and timeless.
It's the same when I drive for the first time. The car does the job, does it well, and gives you a nice feeling as it goes about its business. The twin-turbo six can really crack if you ask the question, especially for overtaking, and I like the new gearbox. Eight speeds might be a bit of a gimmick, and a hit back at Lexus which got there first, but it means you are never lost for a gear for a fun and the performance is seamless.
The brakes? Great. Suspension? Supple and smooth. Equipment? More than I need and a little more than I can cope with, but, like an iPad, the 535i is a device you can explore over time and get to like. Not that I will ever like iDrive. It's better than ever but still not as good as rival systems, especially from Jaguar.
And that, together with some bump-thump on sharp surfaces with BMW's runflat tyres, is the thing that grates in the 535i. As I said, there is a bit of bite to the tongue, but nothing major.
The more I spend time with the 535 the more I like it. Passengers like it, too.
I find the 360-degree camera system is a gimmick, although I like a good rear-view system for parking, but the lane-departure warning is good and the security of all those airbags and anti-lock brakes is also welcome.
Well then, is the new feline Five the best car in the world? It's a definite maybe for me.
SHE SAYS Alison Ward
There is nothing about this car I do not like. It is Beemerlicious. Yes it is expensive, but many of the nice things in life cost a bit more. And it's pretty good value if you think about the Benzes and Audis it's up against. All the things that spell BMW for me are in this car, especially smoothness and quality. And it's stylish, not designed like a row of council flats.
As a drive, it's smooth and enjoyable. Like my old 3 Series, but 20 times better. As a family car it's definitely got enough room for everyone and the boot is excellent. Nice space and easy to load.
Would I like one? No... I'd love one. It's a car I'd happily park in the garage. I cannot think of anything negative, and that's a nice change after the last BMW I drove (the X1).
THE BOTTOM LINE: A legend returns.
BMW 535i SEDAN
PRICE from $128,900
ENGINE 3.0-litre twin-turbocharged six cylinder
POWER 225kW at 5800 revs
TORQUE 400Nm from 1200 revs to 5000 revs
TRANSMISSION Eight-speed automatic, rear drive.
BODY Four-door sedan
DIMENSIONS Length 4899mm, width 1860mm, height 1464mm, wheelbase 2968mm, tracks front/rear 1600mm/1627mm
STEERING Power-assisted rack and pinion power steering
SUSPENSION Aluminium double wishbone front aluminium integral-V rear
FUEL TANK 70 litres
FUEL TYPE Premium unleaded
FUEL CONSUMPTION 8.4/100km combined
SPARE TYRE Runflat tyres
BRAKES Anti-skid all-round discs
WHEELS 18-inch alloys
TYRES 245/45 R18
SAFETY GEAR Dual front, front side and curtain airbags, electronic stability control, traction control, anti-skid brakes, brake assist, front/rear foglights, runflat tyres, corner braking control and brake assist, dynamic brake lights, high-beam assist, active headrests, active bonnet
CO2 EMISSIONS 195g/km.
Mercedes-Benz E350: 82/100 (from $128,900)
Audi A6 3.0 TFSI Quattro: 79/100 (from $107,400)
Jaguar XF 3.0 V6 Luxury: 80/100 (from $105,990)
Lexus GS300 Luxury: 75/100 (from $106,900)