BMW claims its newest release is a breakthrough in car design. Michael Taylor examines the evidence.
BMW 5-Series Gran Turismo
I have a confession to make. I tried hard not to like this car. Well, that's going a bit too far. I tried hard not to be too receptive to it, at least. That's partly BMW's fault. It's been almost a year since I saw this car in the flesh for the first time, at a secret future-model meeting at Garching, just outside Munich. We were bombarded then about the reasons why it made perfect sense, as if we were morons for not seeing immediately (nobody did) what it had taken them months of clinics and terabytes of data processing to find out for themselves.
It didn't help that they were plugging what it wasn't more than what it was. It wasn't a 5-Series rival, for example, because it was taller and had more rear legroom. It wasn't a 5- Series Touring rival, either, because it had this sportier look and two-stage boot opening (one that didn't open the cabin's bulkhead and a hatchback that did). It wasn't an X6, either, because the X6 was much higher.
So if it wasn't any of that, what was it? In BMW-speak, it was nothing less than a breakthrough. An all-new model segment that had no rival in the known world and, one spokesman even went so far to insist, a pioneer so brave and so right that it could be compared to Vasco de Gama's Africa-rounding voyage. Forgive me for feeling like the GT was being overhyped. Once you get into the car, you immediately find out there are, indeed, a lot of things that the 535i Gran Turismo actually is. For one thing, it is the vessel for the widespread launch of lots of new technology (some of which debuted in the ultra-low-volume 760Li), such as the TwinPower engines, the eight-speed automatic gearbox and the next-generation 5-Series' rear suspension.
TwinPower is essentially BMW's combination of a single, twin-scroll turbo-charger, direct fuel injection and Valvetronic variable-valve timing which, it claims dramatically increases power and drops fuel consumption. More of which later. It's a good engine, too. It's smooth at idle, it's strong on part-throttle and it accelerates willingly from anywhere in its rev range. This strength allows the sublime eight-speeder to hold tall gears up steep hills and, even at 200kph, the 1,940kg 535i GT is still only pulling 3,000rpm. At 130, it's ticking over at 2,000 revs, right in the meat of a torque curve that hits its 400Nm peak at 1,500rpm and holds it, incredibly, right through to 5,000rpm.
If that sounds like a diesel character transplanted onto a petrol engine, then you'll be about right, except that it picks up an angry snarl over 4,800rpm to offset its otherwise sweet spinning, gets angrier as it crests its 225kW power peak at 5,800rpm and darts beyond 6,000rpm. And, for a car this size with just a six-cylinder engine, it's pretty quick, surging its way to 100kph in 6.3 seconds, carried along by a seamless wave of speed that seemingly takes no effort at all. That it tops out at 250kph is only an indication of where BMW puts the limiter, not its potential.
One of the key bits to all of this performance (from a day-to-day approach anyway) is the Dynamic Driving Control unit, which you can use to switch it between Comfort, Normal, Sport and Sport+ modes. These control - and link together - everything from the damping rates to the throttle response and, in between, also cover the gearshift mapping, the steering and the traction- and skid-control systems. Comfort should be reserved for maritime folk on shore leave (and Americans), while Sport+, which holds off the skid control's intervention high levels of panic have set in, is probably too aggressive for most.
That leaves Normal and Sport as the preferred modes and they work superbly. In either mode, the 335i GT rides brilliantly. Bumps under lateral load don't upset it. Those nibbly little suckers don't mess it around, either. Wavy undulations are treated with disdain and the only slight cause for complaint is that there is occasionally some bump-thump noises coming from the rear end over broken ground.
The promises of interior space are fulfilled, too, and the initially soft seats show their mettle over the long haul to provide a superb place to spend hours. It doesn't seem to matter whether you're in the front or the back, either, because, unusually, the rear seats are just as good as the front ones. There are enormous reserves of headroom, even with the standard panoramic glass roof, and you can stretch your legs and even slide (individually) both back seats fore and aft, along with their backrests.
It doesn't give up handling for the sake of comfort, either. Instead, the GT's steering is the best of the electronic breed at BMW, the brakes are strong (even if they're exceedingly messy and ugly to look at) and the thing does, indeed, feel like a cross between a 5-Series and an X6. Yet it manages to create a character all of its own; one that is impossible to rile, whose balance is sublime and whose handling prowess is fuss-free, moderately entertaining and surprisingly rapid.
Yet you don't lug around two tonnes without trading it off somewhere. On our test (admittedly at launch pace) we could only manage 16 litres per 100km - roughly double the official combined city-country figure. It won't help your cross-country patience that the big beastie (it's a couple of millimetres shy of five metres long) only comes with a 70-litre fuel tank. But, on the whole, it's a heavy car that, to our surprise, has been superbly engineered, is superbly comfortable and has carved itself a unique place in the BMW line-up.
You can expect to see the 5-Series GT in showrooms here in the first quarter of next year. Prices have yet to be confirmed. firstname.lastname@example.org