Road test: the 2020 BMW 540i is the absolute daddy of saloons

Nick Francis

16 Oct 2020

It can’t be easy to improve on near-perfection. Sadly I wouldn’t know what it’s like, but making the best even better is the onerous task faced BMW’s men in white coats each time the 5 Series is due an update. More or less since its birth the 5 Series has been the absolute daddy of the mid-sized saloon market, often imitated but never beaten. Cars like the Mercedes-Benz E Class and Audi A6 of course come close, but they still don’t take home the cigar.

As you might imagine then, the changes made for the 2020 facelift of the 5 Series are incremental: minor tweaks which are just enough to keep the competition in the rear view. As seems to be the fashion right now (or necessity) all four and six cylinder engines now have a 48v starter generator mild hybrid system. This adds a not insignificant 11bhp to the outputs and nibbles at the CO2 emissions, and gifts a welcome dose of torque and the low end of the rev band. There are also five PHEV models available now, including in the 530e Touring, and all PHEV versions come with something called BMW eZone, which automatically switches the car to electric driving mode when entering city centre ‘green zones.’ Which is neat, I guess.

In terms of looks you need to squint hard to see what the surgeon and his scalpel have been up to. The signature kidney grille has grown slightly wider and taller, it’s 20% bigger overall, but thankfully it hasn’t gone down the 4 Series basking shark mouth route…yet. The lights have been tinkered with because lights are always tinkered with in a facelift. They’re a sliver slimmer at the front and back, and a laser headlight option is now available for all models. Completing the new look are trapezoidal tailpipe tips across the range. Oh, and you can now option the 5 Series with Beamer’s new ‘Air Performance’ wheels which reduce drag but look bizarre, so I wouldn’t bother.

The thing BMW seems most proud of is the addition of the Apple CarKey, which turns your iPhone into – you guessed it – a key for your 5 Series. On the surface it sounds like an entirely pointless invention, but it does more than just open the car. You can share the key with up to five people, which means you can send them the key from anywhere in the world, and you can also adjust the car’s behaviour. If you give the key to your 18 year old son, for example, you can limit the top speed or horsepower of the car while he uses it. Although anyone who would let an 18 year old drive their 5 Series needs their head looking at in my opinion.

Inside, customers are now treated to the 10.25-inch touchscreen infotainment screen as standard, with the option of supersizing to a 12.3-inch system. Apart from blink-and-you’ll-miss-it revisions to the steering wheel and seat options, it’s just about new tech, like the optional active steering package which helps with slow speed manoeuvring. A lane return function and funky but relatively useless 3D graphic of the road users around you on the digital driver display come as part of the optional Driving Assistant Professional Package, which costs nearly £5K extra so think hard about how much you want your premium saloon to do for you.

The engine line up is generous, as always, starting with the 181bhp 2-litre petrol in the 520i, a host of diesels, and topped by the frankly eye-wateringly powerful M550i which produces 523bhp from a 4.4-litre V8 (makes you wonder if spending £102,000 on full-fat M5 Comp is really necessary when the M550i costs just a smidge over £71,000). Chuck in the PHEVs and the xDrive all-wheel-drive options and your head soon starts to swim.

The model I drove was the 540i xDrive, so that’s what I’ll tell you about here.

Born on the autobahns which carve through Bavaria, the 5 Series is most at home at high speeds, making thunderous velocity which, with most cars, would have them wobbling at the knees and creaking in the corners, seem like the most natural, effortless thing in the world. When pushing 70mph the 5 Series isn’t even beginning to break a sweat: it glides, cocooning the driver from the fury of the wind noise and soaking up every imperfection of the road’s surface to give you a magic carpet ride.

On twisty but fast roads the 540i is impressive too, but the experience was undoubtedly helped by the xDrive system. The German roads were slimy after heavy rainfall and the trees dropping shedding their coats, and even with the AWD system the front end felt ever so slightly squirmy under trail braking, but it never gave up grip. The 5 Series feels big, because it is, but it’s a rewarding drive. Not as sporty as past models, with the focus shifting to comfort, but it’s still imbued with that signature BMW DNA which makes it an entertaining drive. Is it as good a driver’s car as the Jaguar XF? Probably not, but it definitely has the Audi and Mercedes licked.

The 540i’s 3-litre six-cylinder engine is eager to pull, offering a meaty 450Nm torque and 328bhp, and it’s mated to a sublimely smooth eight-speed auto ‘box which is seemingly never found on the wrong cog. The combination also produces a lovely, buttery growl which you wouldn’t get from the smaller four-cylinders. Thanks to the adaptive dampers, the 5 Series slips from fast roads to bumpy town centres seamlessly.

Inside, the 5 Series is supremely well-appointed. And while everything is driver-focussed and logical in its design it is a warmer, less starchy environment compared to the Audi A6. Needless to say everything your fingers touch is either soft or smooth, like being in a high end furniture shop, and the seats are comfy enough to sleep in, although be careful of costs, because upgrading them can start to send the price north very quickly. BMW’s iDrive infotainment system is so good it’s almost become a cliché to mention it, but in terms of responsiveness and graphics it’s class-leading. It possesses the perfect blend of tactile buttons and touchscreen functionality, and there’s a rotary dial which makes everything a doddle to use.

I would love to find something to fault the new 5 Series on, believe me I would. It’s far more fun to tear a strip or two off a car. But BMW has done a superb job once again. I would advise you consider the Jaguar XF if you want driving fun above anything else, but even then the 5 Series doesn’t disappoint in that department, and in terms of an all-round package the Beamer is definitely boss.

Nick Francis

16 Oct 2020

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