2021 BMW 540i xDrive Review

Perfectly capable without the emotion


Amos Kwon, Editor-In-Chief



Positives: Excellent power levels with the mild hybrid addition, technologically impressive, truly luxurious digs, roomy for five.
Negatives: Lacks driving emotion and thrills, sharp learning curve with all the tech features, too many shiny bits inside.
Bottom Line: The 5-Series has just about every tech tidbit and creature comfort you'd want, but it lacks driving thrills typically associated with the 5-Series name. It's powerful, luxurious, and tech-laden, but it isn't very fun to drive.
It's been a long time since we've loved the 5-Series. Sure, the new BMW M5 is a supercar of a sedan, but the standard 5-Series hasn't been nearly as dynamic as the E39 version back in the early 2000s. That was a gem. BMW's 5-Series has become a technological wonder, but in the process, it's become a bit numb and not as thrilling, despite the gobs of power on hand. The use of the 7-Series platform hasn't helped matters, despite its composure and solidity. We drove the 540i xDrive decked out to the nines to see if we could be won back. Read our full review.
 

Driving Experience

8.4

 

The 540i is unquestionably powerful and smooth, but with all it's refinement the mid-sizer has become a bit of a snoozer. While it's by no means slow, the fun of the E39 from the late '90s is long gone. It's traded thrilling dynamics and control for composure, all-wheel drive sure-footedness, and driver aids.

Ride Quality: BMW continues to provide good dampening for a smooth ride without completely eliminating road feel. It's a good balance.

Acceleration: The 540i xDrive gets a leg up on the RWD version by a few tenths of a second, arriving to 60 mph from a standstill in a quick 4.6 seconds. The mild hybrid system helps it move better compared to the last-generation 540i. The transmission in Sport mode shifts quickly and smoothly.

Braking: The brakes are powerful and progressive. We had no issues bringing the 4,050-lb sedan to a stop.

Steering: Steering is precise, and turn-in is fairly quick. We just wish there was more feedback through the 540i xDrive's electric power steering wheel like the old E39's rack and pinion steering.

Handling: The AWD system helps keep things planted, and body roll is manageable. The 7-Series platform is heavy, and it shows here. There's just not much fun or dynamism built into the experience.

Technology

8.9

 

Like the E-Class Mercedes the Bimmer competes with, there's just a lot of fancy tech. Some of it is fantastic, like the big 12.3" touchscreen and the responsive Drive. Others, like the pointless Gesture Control, are frustrating and a bit gimmicky. We just wish there was less tech and more driving fun.

Infotainment System: The touchscreen is sharp, colorful, and responsive. The control knob in between the seats actuates very well. Menus are complex, but you get used to them after a couple of stints in the driver's seat.

Controls: Despite the fact that most of the center stack and center console buttons are covered in fingerprint and dust-magnet piano black, they're well laid-out and easy to use. Steering wheel controls are easy to operate, as well. That said, we really hate the shift knob because it looks like a bbq meat thermometer handle, but we don't hate is as much as the E-Class's shifter stalk on the steering column.

Styling

8.1

 

The 5-Series is an attractive sedan, but it's not exactly distinct. It has become less bulky looking than the last two generations, which is a good thing, but for this kind of coin, it should look more dramatic. We're at least happy it hasn't received the monstrous grilles from the 3- and 4-Series. The Genesis G80 will easily get more looks than the 5-Series.

Front: While there's nothing especially eye-catching about the front fascia, it all blends well together: the wide kidney grilles, the protruding headlights, and the simple lower intakes. We just wish something stood out.

Rear: Much the same as the front end, there's nothing that stands out from the back view. The LED taillights look handsome, but we're not huge fans of the strangely shaped ellipsoid taillights. Bring back the round ones, please.

Profile: The proportions are right, but the only stylistic high point is the bladed vent behind the front wheel. It just looks a little plain here.

Cabin: The 540i xDrive is very well appointed inside, and finishes are excellent. The center stack is nicely canted toward the driver like Bimmers of old, and the rich quilting on the mocha leather looks great.

Comfort

9

 

The 540i xDrive has ample space for five occupants, and its overall ergonomics and materials are some of the best in the business.

Front Seats: The broad seats have excellent adjustability, and we love the bolstering. These are great long haul seats.

Rear Seats: 36.5 inches of legroom mean a six footer can seat behind a tall driver. The Genesis G80 has over two inches more legroom in row two, so the 5-Series isn't the biggest. The rear seats are nicely contoured, and even the middle occupant gets a slightly dipped seat cushion.

NVH (noise/vibration/harshness): copy text

Visibility: Visibility all around is very good, aided by a good driving position.

Climate: We miss the micro-adjustability of old Bimmer's, but at least our tester's system worked very well.

Safety

9

 

The 5-Series is a very safe automobile and rated well in crash tests. It also comes with a strong set of safety features and some very advanced technology.

IIHS Rating: We were surprised it didn't earn one of the top accolades here because it nailed every crash test with "good" results, as well as "superior" accident avoidance technology. Its only demerit was "acceptable" headlights.

NHTSA Rating: Not tested.

Standard Tech: The 540i xDrive comes with a rearview camera, Park Distance Control front and rear, and Active Driving Assistant w/ Active Blind Spot Detection (which comes with a huge suite of tech including Forward-Collision Warning with Pedestrian Detection, Low-Speed Automatic, Emergency Braking, Lane-Departure Warning, Blind-Spot Warning and Rear Cross-Traffic Warning).

Optional Tech: None.

Storage/Cargo

7.4

 

The 5-Series is about average in terms of overall cargo and storage space. It's not huge, but it's also not the smallest. In terms of in-car space, the front occupants could use more practical storage space options.

Storage Space: The wireless phone charger has a sliding door, and the cupholders are also concealed within. It's a good space to keep items out of sight. The center armrest is small, but you can keep a camera or other valuables there. The door pockets are, thankfully, well-sized.

Cargo Room: The 14 cubic feet of trunk space is about average, a tad larger than the G80 and about the same as the Audi A6. The Lexus LS's trunk is about four cubes larger.

Fuel Economy

6.5

 

Our numbers were certainly lower than the EPA estimates since we drove in Sport mode. Even with the mild hybrid power, we were consistently under, which isn't a total surprise.

Observed: 18.7 mpg.

Distance Driven: 73 miles.

Audio

9

 

The $1,850 Premium Package doesn't cost much, and you do get a great premium sound system with the Harman Kardon setup. The sound is clear, crisp, and has plenty of bass. It's a great system that befits the near $80k luxury sports sedan.



Final Thoughts

The mid-size luxury sedan segment is hot. You have to be quick, luxurious, high-tech, roomy, and attractive. The 540i might not be the best in the set, but it's still very good. The E-Class Mercedes feels better to drive, and it also looks better than the Bimmer. The less-expensive G80 is the one to beat in terms of standard equipment, safety technology, and styling. It's even quite good to drive. The 540i needs to get its mojo back, but it's still a very capable luxury sedan.
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