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BMW 5 Series 2010 Review

Spicy hatch needs plenty of salt

SAT 06 MAR 2010, Page 012

The hype is overdone, but the 5 GT adds flavour to a plain sedan

IF you ask BMW what sort of car its 5 Series GT is, it will tell you that it's something unique: a groundbreaking vehicle that combines the best bits of a sedan, SUV and grand tourer; BMW boldly going where no brand has gone before.
Of course, car-maker hyperbole should always be taken with a pinch of salt. In this case, it should be generously seasoned, baked in a salt crust, then served on a bed of salt crystals with a saline jus.
The 5 Series GT is something new for BMW but, viewed objectively, it's a luxury four-door hatchback. Other luxury makers are already making these, as they diversify madly into smaller and smaller niches. Recent examples include the A5 Sportback, a hatchback variant of Audi's mid-size A4; the Panamera, Porsche's first sedan; and Aston Martin's Rapide.
Of course, the idea itself is nothing new. Saab used to recruit loyal buyers with the unusual -- at the time -- hatchback styling on its four-door cars, until General Motors poured cold water on its Scandinavian-ness.
The trick when expanding into niches is to use as many pre-prepared ingredients as possible. On price, the 5 Series GT fits between the 5 Series large sedan and the 7 Series extremely large sedan. However, its dimensions are closer to the latter and it has an identical wheelbase because it's built on the same underpinnings.
That length helps the designers achieve the low roofline and shallow side glass.
From the rear it looks odd; too tall and a bit confusing. But from the front it's one of BMW's most attractive recent designs. It achieves some of the advantages of an SUV, such as an elevated ride height, without any of the environmental odium. At the same time, it looks more interesting than a straightforward sedan and less ostentatious than a limo.
It has something in common, from a conceptual standpoint, with the multi-purpose vehicles so popular in Europe. The French, in particular, have made a huge success of these people-movers aimed at young families. But their MPVs have tiny engines and cabins constructed out of the plastic used for picnic plates.
By comparison, the 5 GT and its ilk are business-people movers.
Their occupants need enough room, facilities and comfort to accommodate four high-fliers after a long lunch discussing the size of this year's bonus.
The cabin, suitably up-specced with DVD screens and other goodies, is pitched somewhere between boardroom and loungeroom. The back seats are slightly raised off the floor in people-mover fashion but the comfort and refinement levels are much higher. Headroom in the rear isn't an issue, thanks to a sculpted ceiling, and leg space feels generous, especially in the four-seat configuration.
Material quality is on a par with the 7 Series and the cabin is well sealed for quietness.
Some clever design isolates the load area from the occupant space, avoiding the boomy noises that wagons are prone to. Door sealing is also good, despite coupe-style frameless windows.
Even on large wheels, ride quality is a standout, although with a slightly perched-on-suspension character in comfort mode.
Plenty of light enters the cabin, thanks in part to an oversize glass sunroof. In the regions of Europe where these cars are designed, watery sunshine is the best you can expect for much of the year and so large expanses of glass are becoming increasingly popular.
In Australia, they should be delete-options rather than standard, as here. At least the fabric cover is reasonably opaque.
The load area is cavernous and the rear seats fold in a 40-20-40 pattern, just like a French MPV. The flexibility extends to the tailgate itself, which can be partially opened like a boot to stash smaller stuff. In this case the cabin remains isolated, so that the air-conditioning isn't working in vain.
BMW claims its dual-action tailgate is unique, but luckily I had another barrel of salt in reserve. Skoda was the first with this idea in its Superb large car last year.
The difference is that BMW's system is automatic, and just as well. The full-size tailgate is so large and heavy you would not want to be lifting it yourself.
It rises on telescopic struts that could have come from a cargo plane to open as wide as a yawning hippo, or to owner-preset heights to allow for the low ceilings in many garages.
There are plenty of gadgets for the driver, including BMW's excellent head-up display, cornering headlights, parking radar and a rear camera.
The brand's interiors have been slowly returning to form after the wrong turn taken under former design chief Chris Bangle and this car continues the positive trend. So the layout and general ergonomics are good, although the lack of a cowl over the control screen can make it hard to read in some lights. BMW's unique (yes, really) gearshifter design feels more substantial than usual.
Vision out the rear isn't bad, despite a letterbox quality to the rear glass, and while the wing mirrors are sedan-sized rather than the monsters on most SUVs, they seem big enough to do the job.
Dynamically, the 5 GT drives like a BMW despite weighing two tonnes. BMW always manages to engineer a similar behind-the-wheel feel into its cars, regardless how big they are, although as they get larger and more luxurious they tend to seem more remote from the driver.
The test cars, driven on the sinuous roads of Victoria's Mornington Peninsula, were fitted with many of BMW's dynamic options, including adaptive dampers and active anti-roll bars (collectively called Adaptive Drive) and active steering. A large car with all these can almost defy the laws of physics.
Performance comes from the top end of BMW's engine range, with the 3.0-litre diesel or 4.4-litre V8 already offered in the 7 Series. This car also comes with the latest version of BMWs 3.0-litre turbocharged six, which gains direct injection -- a genuine first, so hold the salt.
The standard transmission is the eight-speed automatic offered -- so far -- only in the most expensive V12 version of the 7.
Both the petrol six and V8 were available on the launch drive and both are every bit as good as you would expect. The tendency of turbochargers to lag throttle inputs has been virtually eliminated and power delivery is nicely linear in both, with little hesitation off the mark.
The V8 has plenty of character and can hit 100km/h in 5.5 seconds, which is respectably quick. The six has to work a bit harder, but never feels like it's doing overtime. The transmission is so smooth it almost goes unnoticed.
Whichever engine you choose, the 5 GT benefits from a selection of BMW's efficient dynamics technology, including brake regeneration, which harvests energy under deceleration, and low-rolling resistance tyres.
The V8 achieves an average of 11.2 litres per 100km, which is hardly punitive for the performance it can deliver, while the diesel returns 6.5, which is remarkable.
So in this respect, as well as a few others, the 5 GT is the large car you have when you're not having a large car. Although less extreme than BMW's other recent niche success, the X6 SUV-coupe, the 5 GT is far from bland.
For those tired of plain meat-and-three-veg luxury sedans, the 5 GT has a bit more spice despite the need to add salt.

VEHICLE: Large luxury hatchback
ENGINES: 3.0-litre turbocharged diesel or petrol six-cylinder; 4.4-litre turbocharged petrol V8
OUTPUTS: 180kW at 4000rpm and 540Nm at 1750rpm (530d); 225kW at 5800rpm and
400Nm at 1200rpm (535i); 300kW at 5500rpm and 600Nm at 1750rpm (550i)
TRANSMISSION: Eight-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
PRICE: From $143,400 (530d) to $192,900 (550i) plus on-road costs
ON SALE: March 27

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Range and Specs

530d Gran Turismo 3.0L, Diesel, 8 SP AUTO $25,520 – 31,570 2010 BMW 5 Series 2010 530d Gran Turismo Pricing and Specs
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