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Review: 2011 BMW 535i


Up Front

If you've always coveted a top-of-the-line BMW (BMW:GR) 7 Series sedan, you'll probably love BMW's new 5 Series. Completely redesigned for the 2011 model year, the 5 Series (which includes the entry-level 528i, the 535i, and the pricier, V8-powered 550i) is now bigger, more luxurious, and more conservatively styled than before, while maintaining the 5 Series' quickness and handling. On top of that, the 2011 is more fuel-efficient than the previous 5 Series—and actually costs less.

The net result is that the 2011 535i sedan, the model I recently test-drove, was just a small step down in size from the regular-wheel-base version of the new 735i—at a lower price than the previous-generation 535i. At 193.1 inches, the new 535i is two inches longer than the previous one and has a wheelbase that's 3.2 inches longer. It's still more than half-a-foot shorter than the 735i but when you slip into either of the front seats, you'd never know it. In the most important respects—front-seat head and leg room—the new 5 Series offers almost exactly the same space as BMW's top-of-the-line sedan.

Surprisingly, the 535i's rear seat is only a tiny bit more cramped than the 735i's, with adequate head and knee space for an average adult and plenty of foot room under the front seats. And the trunk, at 14 cu. ft., is the same size. (Optional fold-down rear seats cost an extra $475.)

Starting price for the 2011 535i is $50,475, which is a bargain in BMW terms. It's $1,650 less than the 2010 535i and a whopping $33,400 less than the 2011 BMW 750i. It's also only $5,000 more than the new 528i, but $10,000 less than the new 550i. Just keep in mind that drawing on the long list of expensive optional equipment can quickly jack up the price.

Like the new 7 Series, the new 535i features a beautifully appointed, wood-trimmed interior; a ride that's comfortable, rather than stiff and sporty; and tasteful, if conservative, exterior styling. The controversial "flame-surface" exterior that turned off many reviewers and some shoppers has been dropped.

The Bimmer also is quicker and handles better than most of its rivals. The engine in the new 535i has the same 300 horsepower rating as the one in the previous 535i, but instead of twin turbos it now has a single twin-scroll turbocharger that manages to deliver both improved throttle response and better fuel economy. There's a choice of an eight-speed automatic transmission (up from six speeds) with manual shifting function or (in the 535i and 550i only) a six-speed manual. All-wheel drive costs an extra $2,300.

Fuel economy is up , too—surprisingly because, at 4,056 lbs., the new 535i weighs nearly 400 lbs. more than the previous one, according to BMW. With an automatic transmission and rear-wheel drive, the new 535i is rated to get 19 miles-per-gallon in the city and 28 on the highway, for an average of 22 (up 2 mpg from the previous 535i). The 528i does even better, averaging 25 mpg.

The 2011 535i doesn't yet have government crash-test ratings but earned a "Top Safety Pick" designation by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Stability and traction control, four-wheel anti-lock brakes, and front-, side-, and head-protecting side curtain air bags are standard. Optional safety gear includes night-vision ($2,600), blind spot and lane-departure warning systems (part of a $1,750 package), plus intelligent cruise control ($2,400) with a crash-avoidance feature.

The new 5 Series has done well worldwide, with all of this year's production already sold to the dealer network. In the U.S., results so far have been mixed. In July, 5 Series sales jumped 9.6 percent compared with the same month a year earlier, to 2,724. However, sales then fell 13.8 percent in August from the same month last year, to 3,047.

BMW says the new 5 is in short supply because of high demand. Many potential buyers also are waiting for all-wheel-drive versions of the car to become available. The xDrive 535i and 550i won't hit showrooms until October and the 528i xDrive won't be available until September 2011. A spokesman says all-wheel drive accounts for 93 percent to 98 percent of demand in states such as Massachusetts, Vermont, Maine, and Colorado.

Behind the Wheel

The engine in the 535i seems about right to me. By comparison, the 528i, which is powered by a 3.0-liter, 240 horsepower inline six, seems a bit sluggish. And unless you're really into speed and power, I don't see the need to pay an additional $10,000 for the 4.4-liter, 400 hp. V8 in the 550i (similar to the V8 found in the new 7 Series sedan).

Despite its 400 lbs. weight gain, the new 535i will accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 5.7 seconds, BMW estimates—about a second faster than Daimler-Benz's (DAI:GR) Mercedes ES 350, the Lexus ES 350, the Cadillac CTS Premium, and the BMW 528i. The V8-powered Jaguar XF Premium can match the 535i's speed and, at 5.9 seconds, the new turbocharged Audi A6 3.0T is only a tiny bit slower.

The BMW 550i accelerates from 0 to 60 in 5.0 seconds but costs more and averages only 20 mpg, 2 less than the 535i. If you opt for the stick shift in the 550i, the average falls to just 17 mpg, 5 less than the 535i.

It's a plus that BMW continues to offer a manual transmission in the 535i. It doesn't hurt fuel economy as it does in the 550i, and I found the stick shift in my test car tight and quick. However, the new eight-speed automatic is remarkable, with innovative technology that makes use of four planetary gear sets and five clutch packs. Among other things, the transmission can downshift from eighth to second without going through any intermediate gears. What that means is that when you punch the gas at cruising speed, the car takes off like a rocket.

The new turbocharger setup in the 535i is equally remarkable. The 535i's engine generates 300 lb. ft. of torque, equal to its horsepower, and maximum power is available from 1200 revolutions per minute to 5,000. What that means is that the car smoothly delivers enormous oomph as you shift through the gears.

A couple of options worth considering are the $2,700 Dynamic Handling package and the $2,200 Sport Package (which come together). The Sport package gets you 19-in. spoked alloy wheels, performance tires, active head restraints, and 20-way adjustable front seats that I found very comfortable.

The Dynamic Handling package allows the driver to adjust the suspension firmness, throttle and transmission responsiveness, and the amount of steering assist. There's a real difference as you move among the "Comfort," "Normal," "Sport," and "Sport Plus" settings. In the "Comfort" setting, the 535i feels more like a Mercedes than a BMW, with a ride that verges on being cushy and steering that requires very little effort. Even in the "Sport" and "Sport Plus" settings, however, the suspension isn't overly stiff. The throttle and steering are touchier, but the new electric steering remains light to the touch while offering a good deal of road feel.

Buy it or Bag It?

The big decision for me would be choosing between the 528i and the 535i. The 528i costs five grand less, gets 3 mpg better mileage, and is quick enough for most owners. However, I just love the extra speed that the 535i offers.

Extra speed doesn't come cheap, however. The 535i's average selling price is $57,390, according to the Power Information Network—less than the 2011 Mercedes E350 ($60,035), but more than the 2011 Audi A6 ($51,109), Jaguar XF ($51,976), and Infiniti M37 ($50,982). According to PIN, the 2010 Acura TL ($36,119) and the Lexus ES 350 ($36,994) are far cheaper.

The Lexus and Acura aren't quite in the same class, but are well worth considering if money is tight. Among the others, the Jaguar is better-looking than the BMW, but has a very cramped rear seat. The Mercedes is a wonderful car, less sporty and more expensive than the BMW. I haven't driven the new Audi A6, but it should be hot.

The 535i lingers fondly in my memory. It's a very sweet car—and a bargain, at least by BMW standards.

Click here to see more of the all-new 2011 BMW 535i.

Thane Peterson reviews cars for Businessweek.com.

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