What Car? says...
Few cars have such a broad a range of talents as the BMW 5 Series. Larger and more comfortable than the company’s über-popular 3 Series, yet only slightly more expensive, it has been at the very heart of BMW's range since 'God were a lad'. In that time it has been considered so consistently the best that it's almost the default choice for those looking for a smaller luxury car.
For proof, just look at how the previous model (2009-2016) was a regular winner at our annual What Car? Car of the Year Awards, while the current model picked up the overall Car of the Year title in 2017.
Another reason people like the 5 Series is because it offers lots of options – now more than ever before. For a start, there are saloon and estate bodies (click the link to read about the 5 Series Touring), frugal four-cylinder diesel engines that include mild hybrid tech, gruntier six-cylinder diesels, smooth six-cylinder petrols, four-wheel drive (badged xDrive) and even a plug-in hybrid.
Of course, its big challengers also their merits and produce a range to suit various budgets and requirements. So, are the Audi A6, Jaguar XF or Mercedes E-Class even better than the 5 Series? Read on over the next few pages to find out, where we'll also tell you which trim level and engine in the 5 Series range makes the most sense. And don’t forget that you can save pots of cash when buying a 5 Series, or any new car of your choosing, with our What Car? New Car Buying service; click here to see all our current deals.
Performance & drive
What it’s like to drive, and how quiet it is
Engine, 0-60mph and gearbox
The 520d is punchy enough for most people and is our pick of the range. If you don't believe us, check out its claimed 0-62mph of just 7.3sec, which is plenty for whisking you up to motorway speeds without any fuss. Performance is roughly on a par with the rival Mercedes E220d's, although in terms of real-world driveability (as opposed to outright 0-62mph acceleration), the Audi A6 40 TDI has a slightly wider performance window and is slightly more flexible as a result.
If you want more grunt, the brawnier six-cylinder 530d has it in spades; it’s effortlessly quick and, in everyday driving, just as rapid as the more powerful 540i petrol. That, by the way, is the most powerful 5 Series you can buy – aside from the full-fat M5, for which we've assembled a dedicated review here. The 540i is brilliant to drive quickly, delivering scintillating pace that gets you to 62mph in well under five seconds.
The four-cylinder 520i and 530i petrols are the least recommendable, because they need revving hard to achieve their best. If you want to avoid diesel and desire efficiency, we'd recommend strongly the plug-in hybrid 530e. In our hands, it managed an electric-only range of 18.1 miles on a full charge (officially it's meant to do 29 miles), which is ideal for city commutes. But once the batteries are depleted, it works like a standard hybrid, recharging its battery under braking ready to give bursts of assistance to improve both the efficiency and performance of the 2.0-litre petrol engine. That means it's lively enough to do 0-62mph in an impressive 6.1sec.
Suspension and ride comfort
The way the BMW 5 Series rides depends largely on whether you go for the standard suspension, the stiffer M Sport version, or do what we’d suggest: tick the box for the reasonably priced optional adaptive Variable Damper Control. If you do that, and don't specify huge wheels or run-flat tyres, the 5 Series rides superbly. It's forgiving at low speeds and rides pockmarked British A-roads and motorways calmly. Few cars – in any price bracket – ride as smoothly yet still offer its composure over wavy crests and falls.
On the standard SE suspension, the 5 Series is supple enough around town over big bumps, but there’s always an underlying shimmy through the car on anything other than super-smooth roads. If you do lots of motorway miles, you’ll probably find that is quite annoying. At least if you stick with the SE trim's standard 17in wheels you won't exacerbate the problem, which you will by adding bigger wheels and run-flat tyres. M Sport suspension is quite stiff for what's supposed to be a luxury car. If you don't want to spend the money on adaptive suspension with M Sport trim, we suggest ticking the no-cost option to deselect M Sport suspension.
Unlike BMW's traditional strapline, we'll stop short of classing the current 5 Series as 'the ultimate driving machine', but it certainly snaps at the class champion's heels. That's the Jaguar XF, by the way, which has delicate and informative steering that the 5 Series can't quite match. The 5 Series' steering is accurate and nicely weighted, though, and more intuitive than the Audi A6's and Mercedes E-Class's.
The 5 Series doesn't have quite as much front grip as its key rivals, either. But drive it at eight-tenths – exploiting its sublime rear-wheel-drive balance, rather than leaning too heavily on its front tyres – and there’s still plenty to savour about pedalling it down a snaking A-road. As you might imagine, going for the xDrive version (four-wheel drive) improves traction considerably in the wet.
Keen drivers should bear in mind that the extra bulk of the 530e’s battery pack and electric motor is felt in corners. Although it remains predictable and enjoyable at a fairly brisk pace, you’ll find it less keen to turn in and change direction than the regular versions, but it remains far more pleasurable to drive than the Volvo S90 T8.
Noise and vibration
The 5 Series does a brilliant job of keeping wind and road noise at bay, even at high speeds; it's designed very much with fast German autobahns in mind, after all. For library-quiet cruising manners, though, avoid the big 19in wheels and run-flat tyres, which drone and slap more over expansion joints.
The type of noise your 5 Series makes depends, in part, on which engine you go for. The 540i petrol is the best, sounding deliciously smooth and sweet even when you hoof it. The six-cylinder 530d is also remarkably muted, merely taking on a pleasant growl when you work it harder. Our favourite engine, the 520d, is hushed at 70mph but isn't as smooth as the Audi A6 40 TDI's diesel engine. The quietest car, at least in town, is the 530e. As long as you have juice in its battery and it's running on electricity, it's mute. When its 2.0-litre petrol engine starts up, it's far from noisy, too. The same is true of the 520i and 530i.
All engines come with a superb eight-speed automatic gearbox, which is never anything but ultra-smooth through its gears.