2017 BMW 540i Is Faster and Smarter Than Ever

Welcome back, BMW 5-Series. We’ve missed you. Let’s all take a seat at the Enthusiast family table, where we offer sloppy toasts to manual transmissions, and forget those screaming fights we had. Fine, so we called you cold and disconnected, told you straight to your face that you were losing it. But you know how frustrated we were, when we looked back on all your youthful accomplishments, including those unforgettable E39 years. No midsize sport sedan could hold a candle to you, my Bavarian bro.

Well, BMW fans, it’s time for some forgiveness. You might not know it from looking at the seventh-generation “G30” edition, but the 2017 5-Series is all-new and markedly improved where it counts: Rewarding handling, certainly, where the 5-Series reestablishes its rule over the middle kingdom in luxury sport sedans. It’s no longer an undisputed performance crown, not with the likes of the Cadillac CTS V-Sport and Jaguar XF skulking around and sticking their own sharp knives in Caesar’s back. But the BMW is the dynamic equal of the Caddy, a touch sharper than the Jag. And it’s more comfortable, luxurious and technically proficient than either.

540i in its element, flying below radar, BMW

The name suggests eight cylinders. So does the speed

And lord, is this 5-Series fast. The 540i moniker used to designate a V8, but we won’t quibble with the half-dozen cylinders: The company’s turbocharged 3.0-liter inline six is upgraded to 335 horsepower and 332 pound-feet of torque, up from an even 300 in the previous 535i. In tandem with its  superb wingman, BMW’s 8-speed automatic transmission, the overachieving engine makes us wonder again if BMW is sandbagging more than the Ford GT at LeMans. Its maker says the 540i dashes to 60 mph in 4.9 seconds, or 4.7 seconds in xDrive AWD form, and it feels even quicker. Both numbers are 0.7 seconds quicker than the previous model. And the 540i emits a supple, galloping roar of Germanic superiority while you’re doing it. Whether I was cruising under elevated train tracks like Popeye Doyle in The French Connection, or playing grown-up Hot Wheels with the Bimmer on the winding Sawmill Parkway, the BMW basically smoked anything that tried to keep up.

It’s a handsome fella, too. Although the way the 5-Series proliferates in certain locales, like post-college lacrosse men at a Hamptons wedding, you might not notice its new suit right away. Headlamps are widened, and for the first time in a 5-Series, create a sexier hook-up with the enlarged double-kidney grille. That grille adds active shutters to reduce drag at highway speeds. Yes, the 5-Series looks much like a scaled-down 7-Series, but that’s hardly a capital offense.

Headlamps and kidney grille run from ear-to-ear, BMW

Familiar BMW interior, stubbornly so, but still a step up

BMW seems determined to preserve its basic interior layout until the year 2037 or so, like the bubble that suspends sci-fi astronauts. But like the 7’er, the 5-Series shows they’re making a real effort to up their game, likely to stop the body blows they’ve been taking from Mercedes and Audi. The latest iDrive 6.0 system actually one-ups the version in the 7-Series, with new, tiled grapical icons for main functions that superimpose over navigation and other screen data. The iDrive has become one of the smartest infotainment systems in the luxury game, the twirls and clicks of its rotary controller finely tactile and satisfying – including a fingertip drawing pad that you’ll actually want to use. This 2017 model also adds redundant touch screen operation to the rotary and steering-wheel controls.

The latest, greatest iDrive 6.0, BMW

Materials are visibly upgraded, the sensory effect heightened by contrasting ambient lighting. A two-layer cake of coffee-colored wood frosted with rich ivory leather seemed well worth the $1,000 upcharge, especially after I got a load of what the other options cost. What a load it was: From a $57,445 base price, my 540i added $25,000 in options, nearly half again the price of the car, to reach $82,610. That included eight – eight! – separate packages of bundled options.


Hang onto your wallets: Here comes the BMW options list

I’ll argue that the 540i feels so extravagantly quick and capable that there’s no pressing need to get the pricier M550i version with its 462-hp, twin-turbo V8. But with BMW calling the M550i (on sale in April) the fastest 5-Series in history, I’m probably just afraid to see what BMW will charge for the fastest 5-Series in history. Now a roughly 600-horsepower M5 is on the horizon, along with another speed- and-price record.


Even this 540i raised a conundrum of modern luxury cars: Once you get used to some optional feature, it’s no longer a an expensive trifle, but something you can’t live without. Just about any enthusiast will defend the $3,200 Dynamic Handling Package, along with the $2,600 M Sport Package, because they deliver concrete performance gains. Dynamic Handling features include adjustable adaptive dampers and active anti-roll bars; the latter now fully electric rather than part-hydraulic, which trims some weight and eliminates hydraulic fluid for more enviro-friendliness.

The M Sport group further tightens the performance screws with stiffer springs and dampers; 19-inch M double-spoke wheels with all-season or summer tires, both run-flats; a body lowered by 10 mm, including for the first time on xDrive versions; an aero body kit and dark exterior trim; an M steering wheel and more choices in interior trim. My tester also added $650 worth of M Performance brakes with larger rotors and painted calipers. Motorized soft-closing doors added another $600, then $575 for a power rear sunshade, $650 for ceramic-coated interior controls and $500 for a power trunklid that one might argue should be standard fare. Buyers can also add 20-inch V-spoke wheels for $950, which aren’t available on the four-cylinder 530i models. Those wheels do look bodacious, but I wouldn’t mess with the 540i’s gracious ride quality on 19’s.

Adopted from the 7-Series, the $190 Gesture Control is a relative pittance, especially for something magical-seeming, that charms every passenger who encounters it. Twirl a finger in the air, and audio volume rises or falls according to your clockwise or counter-clockwise move. Point at the screen to accept an incoming call, or wave it away to send it to voice mail. It’s yet another BMW innovation that some people initially scoff at, but within a few model years, becomes standard-issue for every luxury rival.

A remote-control Bimmer for grown-ups. 

The $750 Remote Control Parking does seem a parlor trick for now, but again it presages a brave new world of self-driving cars. It allowed me to, in the words of a BMW rep, “take your BMW for a walk,” using the nifty Display Key fob and its LCD screen display to remotely guide the BMW forward or back from outside the car. The idea is to let your car squeeze into parking spaces or garages that are too tight to let you open the doors. Its sensors make sure you won’t bash into your kids’ bicycles, a brick wall or even the Rolls-Royce Ghost that I used as a $400,000 guinea pig. Sorry, Rolls, but not a scratch.

Spoiled by the BMW’s excesses, I began to feel that the optional Bowers & Wilkins audio system, with its seven diamond tweeters and illuminated speakers, was actually worth the stiff $4,200 upcharge: Where some “premium” audio systems have lately struck me as more cynical marketing exercises, this sparkling 16-speaker B&W unit gives your ears a genuine workout.

For me, one easy money-saver is to call off BMW’s electronic watchdogs, most bundled into a trio of available Driver Assistance packages. They offer everything from adaptive cruise control, blind-spot and cross-traffic alerts to automated braking and pedestrian protection. In a wicked Manhattan rush hour, using camera, short- and long-range radar, the new Traffic Jam Assistant actually did a fine job managing the BMW’s throttle, brakes and steering, with not much ping-ponging between lanes. Still, the novelty tends to wear off quickly. You bought a BMW to drive it yourself, right?

Coffee and cream is served with optional mocha-colored wood and ivory leather, BMW

About the only key option not on my 540i was the $1,150 Integral Active Steering. On the previous 5-Series, its automated adjustments of the steering ratio could feel oddly intermittent and unpredictable. The new unit ditches a planetary gearset and computerized logic for a system that mimics Porsche’s simplified approach: The more you turn the wheel off center, the quicker the steering ratio becomes. The ratio now moves from a slowest 14.5:1 in the straight-ahead position to a speediest 8.5:1.

I was perfectly content with the 5-Series’ non-active steering and its full-time 16.3:1 ratio. In tandem with a trimmer, stiffer chassis, the heightened steering helps reestablish the things that made the world fall in love with the 5-Series: Gym-rat athleticism, but never at the expense of a quiet, supple ride. The BMW has shed up to 137 pounds (depending on the model), mainly by using more high-strength steel and aluminum, but not the “carbon core” construction of the 7-Series. That leaves the 540i pushing 3,847 pounds, on par with the Jaguar and about 150 fewer than Caddy’s CTS V-Sport. It all made for a crackling good time on obscure Hudson Valley roads, even if I might still prefer more road feedback and encouragement through the handsomely wrought wheel. Sensitive glutes may also feel a touch of float when you’re sailing over crests  or hammering sweepers, a foamy layer over the fiery goodness below. But this 5-Series feels so supremely confident, even at superhuman speeds, that it’s almost churlish to complain. That is, about anything but the price. Such is life in the modern La La Land of BMW. The consolation is bringing back some of 5-Series’ fondly remembered retro dance moves, the ones that had everyone tapping toes and humming along to the BMW beat.


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