BMW 540i: Whiz Kid
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We have the first NZ drive of BMW's tech-savvy 5 Series, and are impressed
At European car launches there are three things you're concentrating on: getting an overall feel of the vehicle while battling jetlag; remembering to drive on the right; and trying not to get lost.
The first two can be achieved (thanks to lots of caffeine) but inevitably you forget to take a turn (I like to blame niggly satnav systems) and get lost.
Most global events now have us driving the vehicle for two half-day sessions (so we slot into a rotation of landing at the venue in the morning, driving that afternoon and next morning before flitting home that afternoon), with technical briefing and expert interviews slotted between the drive routes.
We also have to share the driving with another motoring writer, so that limits our time behind the wheel.
Plus we're in vehicles that we may not get in New Zealand (as we're such a tiny market our requirements aren't important for event organisers), and the vehicles are always specced up to the hilt - again with gadgets that may not be suitable for our market.
So when I drove BMW's 5 Series medium sedan around Lisbon and southern Portugal late last year, I spent more time getting there than at the event (but that's part of the job).
Because of that, I didn't have in-depth time behind the wheel of a 520 diesel with XDrive and 540i model at the launch -- plus our vehicles didn't have BMW's much flouted remote control parking that parks the car from the key fob.
I came away thinking BMW was leaping ahead with technology and refining the styling, but it faced fierce competition from Mercedes-Benz's E-Class and Jaguar's XF.
Then BMW NZ gave me the first local drive of a 540i and I clicked why this vehicle is a revolution for the brand.
BMW New Zealand has just launched the 5 Series here with three models now available, including a 530d ($133,900), 540i ($142,900) and a 520d that comes in at an impressive $99,900.
The 540i replaces the 535i but BMW reckons the 530d will be the big seller for the car, with the 520d attractive to current owners of 3- and 4 Series sedans.
The all-new 5 Series weighs 100kg less than the previous model thanks to the extensive use of aluminium.
The exterior dimensions of the new car are only slightly larger than those of its predecessor. It is 36 millimetres longer than the outgoing model (at 4935mm), 6mm wider (1868mm) and 2mm taller (1466 mm).
Visually the all-new 5 Series has had a major overhaul inside and out - but it's the front end that is the most striking. The front LED headlights merge into the kidney grille, giving it a dynamic appeal. Above the LED headlights is a brushed chrome effect and the lights are now hexagonal as opposed to round.
The side view has more emphasis on the crease lines, giving a stretched look, while at the rear the LED headlights wrap around the side panels.
Inside, the redesigned cabin, a floating infotainment touchscreen reduces the height of the dashboard over the previous model but gains gesture control, as seen in the 7 Series, plus voice control, touchscreen and iDrive Controller.
Driven's 540i had a 3-litre, twin turbo petrol engine that produced 250kW of power and 450Nm of torque paired with an 8-speed sport automatic transmission with gearshift paddles.
The rear-wheel drive car was optioned up, with the technology package (including BMW display key, remote control parking, Apple CarPlay preparation) and comfort package (including seat heating front and rear, steering wheel heating, and ambient air).
It also sat on 20in alloys, taking the total to $147,890 over the showroom price of $142,900.
The remote control parking instantly became a favourite feature for me, so much so I drained the key remote within a couple of hours.
By standing close to the car, you swipe to the parking icon on the key remote, push a button on the side of the fob and, within a few seconds, a "start engine" command comes up on the fob, and then an image of the car with an arrow front and back.
Pushing those arrows makes the car move itself forward or back. It's hours of fun - as I found out.
My colleagues were impressed as I moved it in and out of my tight carpark space at NZME, but my millennial neighbour feigned indifference as I moved the car backwards and forwards in the narrow carpark space beside my house.
Jealous, I reckon.
When you operate it, you also have to be careful of who is around you -- not because you'll run them over (as the car detects people and objects and stops), but because it can startle folk.
I parked the 540i in my local supermarket carpark with plenty of empty spaces around me.
"It will be an interesting test of the car," I thought, "if I come out of the shops and someone has parked too close to me so I have use the remote in real-world conditions."
Thank goodness for an elderly driver who did just that, parking so close to me I would have had to have squeezed into my car and probably banged hers.
She got out of the car and noticed how close she had parked, bless her -- but I said she didn't need to move and told her to watch.
I pointed the fob at the car, started the engine and began to reverse.
The poor dear clutched her chest, and whimpered, "Oh no, no, that's going to give me a heart attack, that is too much".
I gave her a reassuring pat on the arm as the BMW reversed past her, while she murmured that she would stick to her late model hatchback.
The gesture control also garnered some unwanted attention.
To activate the volume of the entertainment system, you can make a circle forwards (volume up) or backwards (volume down) with your pointing finger underneath the rear view mirror.
Doing this is faster than using the knob on the infotainment system or steering wheel buttons. But, I learned, if you do this with your finger directly below the rear view mirror, you look to other drivers as though you have created a new obscene gesture, or are telling them to go around in a circle. ( Gesturing below window-line avoids causing offence.)
The 5 Series also gains BMW's semi-autonomous driving system that sets your speed, the distance between the vehicles ahead and keeps itself in lanes without your input. You can change lanes by just touching the indicator.
It gains bonus points over Mercedes-Benz's E-Class system with its simple-to-activate system via three buttons on the steering wheel (rather than the Merc's complicated stalk).
But with the E-Class you can have your hands off the wheel for up to three minutes; whereas the 5 Series demands fingers back on the wheel after 30 seconds.
I tested the system on an Auckland motorway and held my breath as it guided itself in the fast lane at 100km/h, coming close to the barrier. But as BMW NZ's corporate affairs manager, Paul Sherley, explained: if you go slightly slower, the system can control you through corners.
The 540i showed its true form in Driven's first NZ drive, combining stop-start traffic commuting, open road driving, inner city manoeuvring and plenty of self-parking (luckily the remote fob charges within a few minutes).
For a sedan this size, the 540i was accomplished at handling corners and at speed, though the runflat tyres did cause jolting over pot holes, disadvantaging the proficient suspension system.
BMW NZ will be correct in its predictions that it will attract customers in its other sedans to this highly capable vehicle -- though not a certain elderly woman who lives near me.
Engine: 3-litre, V6 petrol engine
Con: Short self-driving time