October 11th, 2010

Driven: BMW 5 Series Touring

What is The Perfect Car? It’s an oft-discussed topic within motoring circles, but, as with most things in life, the answer depends entirely on who you ask. As such, 21-year-old Matt from Bolton and 68-year-old Gladys from Hastings would probably subscribe to vastly different beliefs on what represents motoring perfection. A Lotus Elise might annihilate pretty much anything else out there when it comes to steering feel, but you can’t use it to ferry a family of six, plus luggage, on holiday. And while the Range Rover may win Let’s Go Greenlaning magazine’s Least Likely To Get Stuck award, throw it into a B-road hairpin and within a very short time, the surrounding scenery will likely be delicately garnished with what you had for lunch.

Clearly, then, The Perfect Car will probably never exist. Instead, we have to rely on the automotive equivalent of that annoying guy at school who’s smart, good looking, sporty and does the lead vocals in the college band. The all-rounder, in other words.

Which leads us rather nicely onto the new BMW 520d Touring. Plainly, there are things that this car can’t do. Beating a 458 Italia around the Nürburgring is not in its portfolio, nor would you try crossing the Amazon Rainforest in one. And it certainly won’t change into a large yellow metallic bloke called Bumblebee and save the world from, er, never mind. Even so, the scope of the 5-series wagon’s abilities is wide enough to have us asking ourselves if it constitutes one of the most complete all-rounders out there.

Let’s deal with the looks first. The new Five represents a return to a more conservative style for the Munich brand, with flame-surfacing guru Chris Bangle now doing other things with his time. Although it doesn’t shout its presence quite as loudly as the outgoing model did, the new Touring is nonetheless a wonderfully resolved design which, to these eyes, is the best looker of any Beemer currently on sale.

Climb inside, and you’re presented with the usual BMW fare: a simple-looking yet ultimately beautifully crafted interior, and while you could argue that it doesn’t have the wow factor of, say, the Jaguar XF, it certainly won’t scare business execs out of their neatly pressed suits.

Elsewhere inside the Touring, a fairly strong if not unbeatable case is presented for the car as a family wagon. Rear leg and head room is plentiful, but the high waistline means that kids may have trouble seeing out of it; blame this on BMW’s positioning of the 5-series towards the sportier end of the spectrum.

Not many will complain about the 560 litres of luggage space (which can be increased to 1670 litres with the rear seats folded), but the Five is comprehensively outdone in this respect by the Mercedes E-class, which allows you to access 695 litres with the seats up, and a whacking 1950 litres with them down.

So how does the Touring acquit itself on the road? In short, very well indeed. Despite only displacing 2.0 litres, the 520d’s 181bhp powerplant makes good work of propelling the bulky 5-series along in most situations. With a 0-62mph time of 8.3 seconds and a top speed of 137mph, the performance won’t set your hair on fire, but it’s certainly more than adequate for most people’s needs.

Twirling the fat-rimmed helm at low speeds is actually quite deceiving: the steering is so light that you begin to wonder if it’ll be suited to hustling the car through the twisty stuff. Thankfully it weights up nicely once you get going, and inspires plenty of confidence for enthusiastic B-road driving, though it hardly offers the ultimate experience in terms of feel.

Refinement, never a quality you’d particularly associate with BMW, is really rather good in the 520d. Key to this is the optional automatic gearbox fitted to the test car, which does a superb job of blurring changes; in fact, Motormorph’s John Slavin commented that, without the noise of the engine to give you a clue, you’d be hard-pressed to tell when the shifts are taking place. Road and wind noise is negligible, and occupants are kept detached from what’s going on under the bonnet.

Of course, one major boon to running a 520d comes at the pumps. BMW claims a combined fuel economy figure of 53.3mpg, and while that may be hard to match in the real world, it’s still no mean feat for a car of its size. Perhaps this can be partly owed to the gearbox, which deals its ratios out in such a way that when you’re trundling at 30mph, the Touring’s 2.0-litre is running at 1,100rpm – just a tad above tickover.

If you’re in the market for a 5-series, one thing I’d implore you to do is to tick the option box for the head-up display. BMW charges a slightly cheeky £940 for the privilege, but the resulting convenience – not to mention safety – in keeping your eyes on the road in all situations, rather than having to continually glance down at the speedo, makes it worth the outlay. In my humble opinion, it should be the law to have HUD technology fitted to every new car.

An on-the-road price of £30,380 for the 520d Touring in SE spec is eminently stomachable, although our test car was loaded with £8,600 of extras. Still, that’s not bad going for an executive load-lugger of the Five’s ability and prestige – not forgetting, of course, that it should hang onto its value better than most.

Of course, the 5-series Touring is by no means the perfect car. But it does do a hell of a lot of things very, very well indeed. Irritatingly well, almost. It looks good, there’s enough space inside for one man and his dog (plus his wife, kids and luggage), not to mention its prowess on the road and upmarket image. It’s a Jack of many trades, make no mistake, but it manages to master quite a few of them too.

Ben Foulds

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