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BMW 520i 2011 Review

EXPERT RATING
8

Question: Can a four go into a five?

The answer, so far as the question has related to BMW's 5 Series, has for some time been yes. The qualifier's been that the four in question is a turbo diesel, it being accepted that any Bimmer four cylinder engine that sips petrol has about as much power in practice as a UN resolution. 

But there is legislation to which the marque synonymous with exhilarating inline sixes isn't immune, such as that of the EU which heavily taxes larger capacity engines and the juice that fuels them. So it's auf wiedersehen to bigger, naturally-breathing powerplants and in with smaller, more efficient units with turbos attached.

If that means little or nothing to you, just know that when it comes to German cars, less engine really does mean better performance and economy. Take the Opel unit that powers the Holden-built Cruze.

The new entry level 5 Series sedan is powered by an engine that not only makes a mockery of those who worship size for the sake of it, but which - when it also goes into the new 3 Series next year - could wrest class leadership from deadly rival Mercedes-Benz.

VALUE

At $77,900 the 520i is about par with Audi's well-meaning A6  2.0 TFSI and a good six grand under the nearest equivalent E-Class. Standard kit includes 17-inch alloys, stop/start function, nav screen, front and rear park distance control, cruise control (with automatic braking), Bluetooth and audio streaming and anti-dazzle interior mirrors plus the fixtures you'd expect.

So it starts from within the meat of the forthcoming 3 Series range, bringing it within reach of a new tier of buyers. The point is, that unlike the outgoing entry-level 3, there's nothing try hard about this Fiver.

TECHNOLOGY

Feel free to skip to next bit if you're not fussed by what lurks beneath the bonnet and do so safe in the knowledge that it does the job exceptionally. For those who wish to know more, BMW has finally clambered aboard the direct injection turbo four bandwagon that's long been driven by in this segment by Audi and has since been joined by Mercedes.

This, the milder tune of two versions of a new 2.0-litre engine, is good for 135kW/270Nm due to a twin-scroll turbocharger in which DI is abetted by variable valve and double camshaft control. That makes for a respectable 0 to 100km/h dash time of eight seconds and highly respectable juice use of 6.4L/100km.

That's in a good part due to the eight-speed automatic. We - well "I" actually - have sneered at octo autos as mere one gearmanship, what with Mercedes running a seven. Well, it works so seamlessly here that it redefines that word.

DESIGN

When Carsguide had the top whack 535i at last year's COTY, Gover said approvingly that BMW had decided to make the 5 Series a luxury car once more. After the confronting shape and spartan cabin of its Chris Bangle designed forebear, we saw at once what he meant.

The great thing is you can move from the cockpit of a $150,000 5 Series into this and discern little or no difference. Audi is no longer the benchmark for cabin quality, fit and finish.

The slightly longer front overhand of this generation Fiver might fly in the face of BMW convention, but it certainly doesn't hurt the aesthetics. Actually, seen sitting next to the previous model, it's not so great a departure as it appears initially. It's the sort of continuity that enhances resale.

SAFETY

Tick them off. Five star Euro crash rating, full outfit of airbags et al. Optional is lane departure warning and radar cruise control with automatic braking. Anti-lock brakes, which allow steering under emergency stopping, are one thing, but the perfectly balanced front to rear weight distribution and the rear wheel drive tactility to take full advantage of that steering are quite another. Dynamics such as these put the "active" into "active safety".

DRIVING

Again the European dilemma - petrol or diesel. Both fours go happily into the 5. This time though, the gas sipper rather than the oiler gets the nod if only for what BMW are pleased to call "sheer driving pleasure". There's been sufficient precedents in the past few years for us not to be surprised by the ability of turbo DI fours to shift bigger European cars. Yet the new block astonishes afresh, not for scorching acceleration - though this is impressive - rather for relentlessness.

There's hesitation off the mark  as the turbo spools up, but only the slightest - all the torque arrives from 1200rpm and remains on hand till 4000. Unless you're bashing the redline - which it's quite willing to do in manual mode - it's almost always giving you all the grunt its got and sound tastefully crisp and rorty as it does so.

Capable when married to the diesel, the octo slusher is happier still with this unit, which at some 200km/h on the autobahn is barely north of 4000 revs in eighth gear. Australia's freeway limit is hardly going to tax it. And this, remember, is the lowest tune version.

It will surely be only sweeter in the much lighter and more nimble 320i which arrives in our parts later next year after March's initial new 3 Series launch. In the meantime, we're bound to ask if the entry level 5 Series is too good for BMW's own good?

Some 20 grand under the 528i and almost 60 under the twin turbo six 535i, it's difficult to mount a case for either in our part of the planet after cracking on in the 520i. Yes, of course it'd get flayed by its six cylinder slinging kinsmen in a straight line dash, but we're talking elegant sufficiency here, not glorious excess.

Some of us have carped that the costly optional drive select mode has to be switched to optimum modes in order to achieve the dynamics you're entitled to expect from a BMW. The 520i's lighter front end makes for an engaging drive even without troubling Sport or the all out Sport Plus setting. When making the tyres yelp a bit, this feels very much like a slightly overgrown 3 Series - and that's as good as it gets.

VERDICT

All the executive sedan you could want or need, the best 5 Series is the "least" of them.

4 stars

BMW 520i

Price: $77,900
Warranty: 3 years/unlimited
Resale: TC
Service Interval: 15,000/12 months
Engine: 2.0-litre 4-cylinder turbo petrol; 135kW/270Nm
Body: four doors, five seats Dimensions: 4899mm (L) 1860 (w) 1464 (h) 2968 (wb)
Transmission: 8-sipped automatic; RWD
Thirst: 6.4L/100km; 149g Co2 km
"Want 5 of the best? Look no further"

Pricing guides

$22,490
Based on 24 cars listed for sale in the last 6 months
Lowest Price
$14,999
Highest Price
$25,999

Range and Specs

VehicleSpecsPrice*
530d Gran Turismo 3.0L, Diesel, 8 SP AUTO $23,300 – 31,680 2011 BMW 5 Series 2011 530d Gran Turismo Pricing and Specs
520d 2.0L, Diesel, 8 SP AUTO $14,300 – 20,130 2011 BMW 5 Series 2011 520d Pricing and Specs
535i Touring 3.0L, PULP, 8 SP AUTO $21,300 – 28,930 2011 BMW 5 Series 2011 535i Touring Pricing and Specs
535i Touring Sport 3.0L, PULP, 8 SP AUTO $22,100 – 30,030 2011 BMW 5 Series 2011 535i Touring Sport Pricing and Specs
EXPERT RATING
8