By: Chris Chase
As a teenager in the early 1990s, I was completely smitten with the BMW 540i. I didn’t care that it was one of the first 5 Series powered by a V8 engine. No, my affinity for that particular version of the car had more to do with its purposeful, understated appearance and near-perfect proportions.
While the 540i name persisted after BMW redesigned the 5 Series later that decade, nothing bearing that badge since has connected with me in quite the same way.
Nevertheless, the seventh generation of the 5 Series brought back those teenage memories with its reintroduction of the 540i label on a mid-range six-cylinder model instead of a flagship V8 variant.
This isn’t a nostalgia tour on BMW’s part, but rather a move that brings this mid-sized sedan’s naming convention in line with the one recently introduced on the smaller 3 Series. Cars with the entry-level four-cylinder use a 30 suffix, six-cylinder cars like our 5 Series tester are dubbed 40 and the range-topping V8 version is now known as 550i.
BMW’s latest turbocharged inline six-cylinder sticks with a 3.0-litre displacement, but gets a power bump over the one used in the last-generation 5 Series, to 335 hp and 332 lb-ft of torque. Those aren’t particularly big numbers these days, but from a standing start this engine feels so strong we’d guess there was a V8 under the hood if we didn’t know better.
A six-cylinder engine remains integral to this particular 5 Series’ essence, but this latest generation marks a turning point in the model’s evolution as it adopts a more extensive suite of technology than any previous version of this sedan has enjoyed.
For years, critics have made it clear they don’t like that BMW’s cars are becoming less driving machines and more computers on wheels, with which the person behind the wheel interacts rather than engages. We’d argue BMW’s decision to move in this direction was a nod to the way the industry is going; if one is to remain competitive, it’s sometimes better to get on board.
In this instance, the 5 Series follows the lead set by Mercedes-Benz’s latest E-Class in adopting active safety features that effectively give this BMW the ability to drive itself. An upgraded adaptive cruise control system monitors the speed of the vehicle two ahead of you, to allow smoother braking and acceleration. If needed, it will bring the car to a complete stop and then drive away again when traffic moves. And if the car directly in front brakes suddenly at highway speeds, a new evasion aid will automatically steer the 5 Series in order to avoid a rear-end collision.
Forward-facing cameras work with sensors and automatic steering to keep the car in its lane and, along with the adaptive cruise system, also provide a traffic jam assistant function that moves, stops and steers the car as necessary in heavy traffic, simply requiring the driver to maintain light contact with the steering wheel.
Among the 5 Series’ niftier tricks is a remote parking feature the driver can use to move the car into a tight parking spot while standing outside of it. It’s novel, but we can see its usefulness.
We can only hope the new 5 Series enjoys driving itself as much as the brand’s loyalists did its older models.
Regardless of any connection you may have to BMWs past, a few people who rode shotgun seemed to immediately bond with the massage function built into both front seats. With a seemingly infinite range of adjustment, finding a suitable seating position initially seems overwhelming, but is helped by touch-sensitive controls that broadcast their function to the infotainment screen to preview what each button does.
If you want a limo-like rear seat, you’re more likely to find satisfaction in the larger 7 Series; the 5 offers a useful kind of spaciousness, rather than luxury. The trunk is vast, however, suggesting a foursome could head out of town for the weekend and not have to give much thought to packing light.
In all seriousness, if the new 540i is less engaging for a human driver, it’s still a pleasant car to pilot. Select the sport drive mode and the drivetrain rewards your choice with excellent throttle response. Our test car also had an adaptive suspension that tightened up in that sport setting, giving this big sedan the feel of one that’s lighter and more compact. It doesn’t just feel lighter, either; it actually is, thanks to BMW’s judicious use of aluminum to cut about 100 kg from the car’s curb weight.
Between that and a fuel-saving eco drive mode, BMW promises fuel consumption as low as 11.4/7.8 L/100 km in city and highway driving respectively; our tester averaged about 12.0 L/100 km in a week of city driving.
The 540i is a $69,000 car to start, a fair-sounding figure, but our tester’s long list of options drove the tag up to about $90,000. Those include the active safety features, massaging seats, steerable LED headlights, soft-close doors, hands-free power trunk, head-up display, remote parking and adjustable suspension, among others.
I had good reasons for falling in love with that original 540i; I suspect a new generation of gearheads and technology enthusiasts will have no trouble finding reasons to be smitten with this one.