2010 BMW 550 Gran Turismo Review
A great luxury sports sedan.
Many find the five-passenger 5 Series a near-perfect size. It seems more substantial than some small luxury or sport sedans, with more usable interior space. At the same time it's not so physically bulky as large sedans, and easier to park or maneuver in tight spaces.
BMW's recent approach to exterior design has been discussed as frequently as any in the car world, and more than occasionally criticized. On the 5 Series at least, the curvy front-end, flat sides and high rear deck stand out less than they once did. That could simply mean we've grown more familiar with the shape, rather than more appreciative.
The critics contend that, with the kabuki-eyebrow look in front and the chunked-off shape of the trunk lid, the 5 Series seems almost like two halves taken from different cars. In our view, the lines create a fairly compact appearance, and that may be part of the problem. The 5 has the appearance of a well-built mainstream sedan, and that may not be the precedent one expects for an expensive European job. It also has a few too many lines. Those character lines crossing the rear end, or the double creases framing the hood, seem a bit overdone. In any case, none of this seems to have hurt 5 Series sales, and five years into its model run the current generation has subtly evolved.
The clear headlight covers have chrome surrounds highlighting individual lights inside. The chrome edging on BMW's trademark double-kidney grille is flush with the surface on the front air dam, while the full-width air intake below the front bumper curls up in the corners to match the shape of the headlights. In back, the rear lights are covered with the same clear glass as the fronts, and the turn signals are LEDs.
Those comma-shaped, wraparound taillights apply a technology introduced by BMW that has spread to a number of makes. The company calls them adaptive brake lights, and they illuminate more intensely, over a larger area, when the ABS system engages or, in other words, when the brakes are being applied as hard as possible. The point is to inform drivers in cars following the 5 Series that it's stopping quickly, possibly in an emergency situation. It could help, but only if the driver following correctly interprets the increased intensity of the brake lights.
The 5 Series Sports Wagons offer more load-carrying potential and versatility than the sedan. The rear gate opens electrically, with a switch on the key fob or dashboard, and swings very high for easy access to the load floor. A big reflector on the bottom of the gate adds an element of safety in darkness.
The gate also has a soft-close feature. When it's lowered, it automatically closes itself, with no slamming required. The glass window opens separately, which is convenient when dropping a briefcase or a couple of bags in back.
This 5 Series sedan is roomy, warm and inviting. Front and rear passengers have sufficient shoulder, head and leg room, and the cabin space puts the 5 Series on solid footing with key competitors like the Mercedes E-Class, Audi A6, and Lexus GS.
The finish and quality of materials inside are quite nice. Soft plastics covering the dashboard and doors are handsome and rich to the touch, and the seats feature a draped-leather look, with the upholstery hung loosely rather than pulled taught over the seat frames. Leather inserts in the front door panels compliment the seats.
The door panels have a two-tone finish, with the tops covered in black while the lower portion matches the interior color. The look adds depth and enhances the visual integrity of the doors and dashboard. The same goes for the amount of wood trim, which flows from the instrument panel into the door panels, creating an integrated look.
The Bamboo wood trim is stained close to black. We liked it a lot. The walnut-colored dark Poplar trim is the most traditional, while the light Popular is almost blond. Any of the three are available at the customer's choice, at no additional cost.
The standard 5 Series seats are very good, with above-average support and just enough give to keep from feeling hard. The seats in the optional Sport Package on the 550i have so many adjustments that those who lean toward obsessive/compulsive may start stressing out as they try to settle in. If you can get them set just right, save the position in memory, because these are some of the best seats in the business. They're firm, but not church-pew hard like the previous-generation sport seats.
The 5 Series dashboard applies BMW's familiar double-wave theme, with one wave or bubble over the instrument cluster, defining the driver's area, and another that begins over the dash center and sweeps toward the right side. From a functional view point, it's an effective design. The instrument cluster features two gauge pods, with the gas gauge wrapped inside the analog speedometer and a miles-per-gallon gauge inside the tach. The tachometer has a variable warning LED that circles the gauge. When the engine is cold, this LED extends to 4200 rpm, then gradually increases the rpm limit to the redline as the oil warms up.
The dash center is dominated by a large electronic screen that displays various control functions, system readouts and the navigation map or Night Vision image when the car is so equipped. There are vents below the screen and on either side off the steering column that move an impressive quantity of air with minimal fan noise.
The window switches are flat in the armrest on the door, and sit right at the fingertips when the driver's arm lies on the rest, and the mirror adjustor sits just beyond the window switches. Beyond these, manual control switches are few. Three big climate control knobs sit below the display screen, for fan speed, temperature and airflow direction. There's also a volume knob next to the CD slot, a station selector on the right steering-wheel spoke, and phone controls on the left spoke. In short order, these knobs will become the 5 Series driver's best friends.
That's because almost everything else, including some basic stereo functions, is controlled by iDrive, the computer interface that manages virtually every system in the car. The master control is a big knob on the center console. The knob is easy to locate from the driver's seat without a glance, and with each move of iDrive, menus appear on the video screen. In effect, the system works something like the point-and-click operation of a computer mouse, though there is no cursor.
In general, it can be confusing using iDrive; at best, it's difficult to master and takes time to get used to. Operation becomes more intuitive with time, but many still find it a cumbersome way to make some fairly basic adjustments.
The enhancements for 2010 help a lot. The new screen has attractive graphics and is easier to read and understand. The controller benefits from biomechanical science, and operates with a better feel and more clearly-structured motions. A graphical depiction of the controller in the display also helps orient the user to the next step in the sequence. In practice, rotation of the controller takes the user through menu selections and pressing it makes the choice – just as using a mouse on a computer. And, it is now easier for the user to view relatively numerous options without switching screens, and the various functions are arranged so that the most important options are reached more rapidly.
An additional enhancement is the placement of four direct-selection keys, next to the controller, for those menus used most frequently, thus allowing quicker selection of the CD, radio, phone and navigation menus. Three other keys are for general use: One (MENU) takes the user directly to the start menu, another (BACK) to the most recently active menu, and the third (OPTION) offers various options within the currently used area.
Finally, there are now eight Programmable Memory Keys, which are arranged above the audio controls and allow the user to capture and store favorite functions, such as radio stations, phone numbers or navigation destinations. Furthermore the keys are sensitive to touch, so touching a key will show the function on the display, and pressing the key will activate it.
When iDrive was first introduced a few years ago several people found it very intimidating, but BMW has made serious strides in simplifying its operation and greatly enhancing its user-friendliness.
Any 5 Series model can be loaded up with high-tech electronic systems. Our test car had HD radio, and it's great, with a caveat. When it locks on a signal the clarity and fidelity is amazing, especially on the AM band. The problem is that, depending on where you're driving, the radio can fluctuate from HD to standard broadcast as signal strength changes, the same way a conventional FM radio can switch from stereo to mono when the signal weakens. It can happen several times a mile, and become a big annoyance.
BMW's optional head-up display projects a six-by-three-inch rectangle on the windshield, focused so the display appears to be at the end of the hood, rather than right on the glass. The driver can adjust the HUD's intensity and the information it displays. Options include road and engine speed, various warnings prioritized according to urgency, cruise control settings and navigation instructions. Some of us like it, some of us don't.
Storage inside the 5 Series is so-so. The door pockets are deep enough to actually contain something like a CD case. They're also lined with a velveteen material, which keeps sunglasses from scraping on hard plastic if they slide in stop-and-go traffic. The glovebox is fairly big, but so is the portfolio that holds the owner's manual and other reference material, and usuable space in the center console is small.
The back seat in the 5 Series makes good accomodations. There's plenty of space for two average-size adults, or three in a pinch, with all the amenities. The reading lights are excellent. Our 550i had rear-seat heaters, with switches on the back of the center console, along with two high-flow airvents and a pair of 12-volt power points.
With 14 cubic feet of trunk space, this BMW is mid-pack among sedans of similar dimensions. Load height is just above the rear bumper, and the 5 Series will accommodate even larger items with the folding rear seatback, which is optional. It's hard to imagine a buyer not wanting the flexibility the folding seat offers, and the seatback can be locked to prevent access to the trunk. Still, if hauling pets or cargo is a priority, there is always the 535xi Sports Wagon.
The 5 Series wagon gives up nothing to the 530xi sedan in terms of handling, accelerating and braking, and it adds another dimension of utility. We like it. Cargo volume is 33.6 cubic feet, floor to ceiling, with the rear seat in place. With the rear seat folded forward, the 5 Series wagon can swallow up to 58.3 cubic feet of stuff, or more than the typical small SUV. The load area is flat, too, and nearly four feet wide. The cargo area is fully lined with thick, soft carpet, and it's full of convenient features, including four separate enclosed bins, cargo tie-downs, bag holders, a power point, a cargo cover at seat height and a roll-out cargo net.
• For more information such as specs, prices, and photos of the 2010 BMW 550 Gran Turismo, click here: 2010 BMW 550 Gran Turismo.