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New BMW 5 Series Saloon review

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Five million sold worldwide in nearly 40 years but today the BMW 5 Series has never faced such stiff competition and in a recessionary world where hard pressed company car drivers are being forced to downsize because of penal tax costs.

Fleet and business customers account for 70 per cent of UK registrations and diesel engines take 90 per cent of sales.

The sixth generation executive 5 Series Saloon starts being delivered to UK customers this week but the most popular version, the 520d with Auto Start-stop as standard only goes into production in June and this model accounts for 70% of all 5 Series sales, Saloon or Touring. All versions of the new Touring estate models follow in September.

The 5 Series is in reality the icon of the BMW brand, with around 8,000 Saloon sales this year, 12,000 plus from 2011 onwards. Touring models add around 4,000 to these annual totals.

Of course the new front engine, rear wheel drive new 5 Series is good and it needs to be because in a shrinking market the competition is growing stronger.

The Audi A6 is good but past its best sell-by date, the Mercedes S-Class is a stunner, the Jaguar XF very highly rated by customers and early drives by my fellow motoring scribes suggest the new Jaguar XJ is brilliant as well, tough competition in tough market conditions.

BMW 5 Series range

Prices for the new 5 Series Saloons shows an average 3 per cent increase but the added value these new models offer, £2,600 to £2,790 shows just how competitive the range is. There is the choice of four petrol and three diesel engine options and a new eight-speed automatic transmission, the choice of 90 per cent of users.

All models have as standard equipment, leather upholstery, Bluetooth telephone preparation, automatic air conditioning, front and rear parking sensors, a 7-inch display screen, iDrive control unit, electrically operated windows and door mirrors and EfficientDynamics fuel and CO2 saving measures.

Prices range from £28,165 up to £50,528 and of course there is a huge list of extra cost options. Touring estate models will cost around £2,200 more than their comparable Saloon version. M Sport versions are expected to be added in the distant future but the M5 is less certain at this stage due to the economic situation and relatively small sales numbers.

The core sales model the 520d SE Saloon with its 184bhp diesel engine and with CO2 emissions of just 132g/km and a combined cycle fuel consumption figure of 56.5mpg is priced at £28,165 on-the-road. This represents just a £130 price increase over the outgoing version but in fact the added value of extra size, equipment, EfficientDynamics technology and so on is valued at £2,280.

Styling

So what else is new about the latest range? The new 5 Series uses a shortened version of the new 7 Series platform which means a longer wheelbase at 2,968mm, the longest in its sector. Good news for rear seat passengers where legroom is important.

The styling remains deeply contoured with sculptured lines but less controversial than the previous generation. The elongated four door Coupe side profile and wide stance gives the executive car a purposeful appearance.

Inside the fixtures and fittings are all high grade and the greater space will be enjoyed by all except the rear middle seat passenger who might find the wide transmission tunnel obstructive for foot space. A large 520-litre boot completes the package.

Ride and handling

The suspension has a new double wishbone design at the front and a multilink layout at the rear just like the 7 Series. The new front end suspension layout means that enthusiastic drivers can really 'load up' the front end with confidence during high speed cornering as there is massive grip and then use the ample engine power to accelerate very hard out of corners through the rear wheel drive system.

This means the balance of the car is exceptional. The double wishbone system also seems less inclined to move from the desired path due to ruts in the road caused by heavy transport. However the new electronic assisted power steering, either with the front steer or active four wheel steer layout, doesn't feel quite as sharp or offer as much feedback the 5 Series has been famous for.

There is the optional Variable Damper Control or Adaptive Drive packages available where the driver can tune the chassis responses for ride comfort and handling with Normal, Comfort, Sport and Sport+ settings.

Having tried the standard and optional suspension and handling configurations last week over the mountainous and winding routes crossing the Pyrenees, my choice would be to stay with the standard car and save yourself around £5,000.

In its standard suspension form and without the new four wheel steering option, the 5 Series is sure-footed, responsive, extremely well balanced and compliant as well as comfortable despite the standard fit run-flat tyres.

I'd also stick with the standard 17-inch alloy road wheels as larger ones only increase the potential for an unsettled ride over potholed roads.

BMW 5 Series engines and performance

With three diesel - 520/525/530 units and four petrol engines - 523i/528i/535i/550i available to order from launch and more to come, there is a wide choice to fit all budgets in this executive sector.

The 520d diesel with 184bhp and 380Nm of torque, the bread and butter unit has a top speed of 140mph, 0-62mph takes just 8.1 seconds, the combined cycle fuel economy is 56.5mpg and CO2 emissions are 132g/km so the VED road tax from April will be an attractive £110 a year with a low 18 per cent Benefit-in-Kind company car user tax rate.

No wonder this will be the best selling model - all the looks and the useable performance needed for today's driving conditions but none of the high running and taxation costs.

During the first drive event last week only 5 Series Saloon models with the 530d in-line six-cylinder single turbocharger diesel and the new 535i six-cylinder direct injection twin scroll single turbocharger petrol units were available for test driving as the 520d is not in production for a month or so.

As you would expect both units are refined, strong, quiet under load and very powerful. Both were tried with the new eight-speed automatic transmission which was silky smooth with seamless changes.

Driven hard and fast over adventurous roads the 530d returned a healthy real-life 36.6mpg against the official 44.8mpg figure and the 535i did less well with 23.7mpg at best and not close to the official 33.2mpg.

Both are great engines for sure and they allowed us to explore the full potential of this new benchmark executive's favoured method of business travel.

BMW 5 Series MILESTONES

BMW 530d SE Saloon

Price: £37,100 (+£1,495 for auto gearbox)

Engine/transmission: 3.0-litre, straight-six, common-rail direct injection with turbocharger, 245bhp, 540Nm (398lb ft) of torque from 1,750rpm, 8-speed automatic with Steptronic manual shift function

Performance: 155mph (restricted), 0-62mph 6.3 seconds, 44.8mpg (36.6mpg actual), CO2 160g/km, VED £155 from April, BIK company car tax 24%

Insurance group: 40

For: It needed to be good to see off the competition, it is very good and still the benchmark for the sector - but only just. Looks good, roomy, full of technology, lots of safety features, improved residual values forecast

Against: Electronically assisted power steering dulls feedback to the driver, some wind noise, large centre transmission tunnel limits legroom for one rear seat passenger