Way back in the 90s, before the turn of the millennium, BMW released what is arguably the best car they have ever made: the E39 M5 saloon car rocket ship. Earth-shattering firepower aside, the car began as a 5 Series saloon that was breathed upon by the German automaker’s skunkworks M Division; but that is not the important part: what we are interested in is the “5 Series” aspect. While the 7 Series has always been BMW’s flagship, the 5er has been its face.
So what made the E39 such a good car? The looks, mostly. The good looks were either because it was understated or despite the fact that it was understated. It depends on what your starting point is. The E34 before it was equally staid and not half bad either, but the E39 took that design rulebook and flipped forward one page. The E60 that came after it did not turn over the rulebook so much as chew it up, spit it out, walk all over it and flush it down the toilet. That design, to date, still takes some getting used to. The F10 that is only just exiting stage left to pave way for the all-new G30 was a wee bit anonymous at risk of blandness. It looked like yet another random Euro-box and, coming after the oddball E60, could be said to almost lack identity. The G30 is more of a refresh or an update of the F10, same way the E39 was an E34 update. Maybe the E39 is back. Maybe.
(BMW SA installed me into the business class seat of a South African Airways Boeing 737-800 for the sole purpose of my thrashing their precious baby around the mountain passes of the Western Cape near the towns of George and Knysna (‘nice-nah’); thrashing which I did with considerable glee right up to the point where I drove into an unforeseen traffic stop and had my passport details recorded for reasons that were not disclosed to me. Two weeks later, I am still unsettled as to what that policeman wanted with my 100% LEGITIMATE travel document; because he asked for my driving license and I, for a variety of reasons mostly based on “forgetfulness”, may have failed to present it for his perusal. Pray for me)
The G30 looks both sharp and conservative; as is to be expected of anything that comes out of Bavaria (but is not always the case). The lines flow, the seams match, the panels blend and all those other noun-verb combinations that mean good things, until you get to the back where the upper two-thirds is ever so slightly evocative of the E34’s tail-lights (sweet) and the lower one-third is shrouded in black cladding that looks a lot like plastic (meh).
[*Note to self: If I ever buy a G30, it has to be in a dark color. Toilet Seat White doesn’t seem to work that well as a hue]
It’s not an absolute fail on the design part to be fair; but it does cheapen the look ever so slightly. A dark color, such as grey or navy blue – or even black – at least dilutes its effect so that you don’t notice it much. I’d also like to know what the options are on painting that plastic shroud, because I would really like mine to come in body color.
The face is typical blue-propeller complete with the kidney grille and is unmistakable. The ///M badges on the front quarter panels of our test cars are a hint of what is to come; but here we have to pause again and ponder what the world is coming to. Once upon a time, German performance badges meant something: seeing an ///M or ///AMG or RS decal on a car meant that you were looking at proper muscle. Nowadays, more so with Mercedes-Benz and BMW, they could either mean real muscle… or a muscle shirt. They denote an appearance package as much as they do a performance one.
The face is ‘corporate’ -a decade-old fad of making all of one’s products resemble each other – that every automaker has now embraced. That means it is the same face you will see on any new BMW you come across. That is not necessarily a bad thing, the current face works.
Now we’re talking. Modern trends are immediately visible from the deployment of glossy black surfaces, brushed aluminium, mood lighting and digital gauges. Mercedes-Benz put a giant tablet in place of a dashboard in their new E Klasse, so naturally BMW plopped one in their E Kla… – sorry, their 5 Series – as well. The difference is the three-pointed star stretches its tablet across 60% of the dashboard and replaces absolutely everything that a driver could previously see and touch, save for the steering wheel. BMW have stuck to their driver-oriented roots and maintained a traditional layout (instrument cluster with rotary dials and gauges…) with a modernist touch (… all digitalized).
The driver orientation continues in the centre console which is canted ever so slightly towards the driver, a feature that harks back to earlier models such as the E34.
Rear legroom is ample, for lack of a more flamboyant description. There is a sunroof, which is a nice touch. The seats are leather all across the available test cars, but there may or may not be cloth options for the light of pocket and for vegetarians*
[*This is not a joke. Strict vegetarians take the meat thing very seriously; and that includes sitting on or being surrounded by animal organs, processed or not]
Me being me, I of course notice a few things. The glossy black surfaces such as the tablet and the HVAC controls (touch-screen, for all intents and purposes) are pleasant to look at but they collect fingerprints like an overzealous federal agent on the trail of a serial killer. Obsessive-compulsive types may need to keep a soft dry rag handy because there will be a lot of wiping down of that interior the more you use these features, and you will want to use them, because 1. why not? and 2. they make life so much better. Heated seats, anyone?
I found it odd that the 530d had electric steering adjustment while the higher-ranking and better equipped 540i had a mechanical one.
Of particular note is the reduced all round visibility. Fancy new cars come with new-fangled technology that enhances safety and drivability, but this seems to be at the expense of long-held protocols, such as actually looking outside to see what is around you rather than relying on cameras and sensors. The A pillars on the G30 are “yuuuge!“‘; couple this to the steeply raked windscreen and the rear view mirror and the result is you might as well not bother looking out the passenger side because you will not see much. Rely on warning beeps from within and sharp toot-toots from without to herald impending disaster during a lane change. This is quite a flaw; the explanation is the A pillars house the curtain airbags and as such they need to be thick, but still… they are not so much pillars as they are Ionic Columns.
Over the two-day drive period, I got to test drive the 540i (current range-topper before the M550i comes around followed by the mighty M5) and the 530d. I know the numbers say otherwise, but would you believe me if I told you that, as far as sensations go, the diesel car yields absolutely nothing to the petrol one when you put the hammer down? No? Well, believe it, lady.
Both cars pull convincingly, and by convincingly I mean astonishingly. It’s shocking how easily and how fast you will reach 200km/h in these cars when you flex your right foot. Both cars will chirp the rear inside tyre when exiting a junction “enthusiastically”, a habit I am finding difficult to shed any time I am in a RWD car; traction control be damned.
The explanation is simple: both cars sport one of the most scrumptious powertrain layouts ever: a 3.0 liter turbocharged inline-6 engine at the front with a diff at the back; the petrol power screams all the way to 340bhp while the diesel engine grunts in with 620Nm. Whichever path you take, you will be acquiring pace a lot faster than most other road users with the taps fully open.
This is typically the part where I start spewing a word salad about throttle openings, forward surges, excitement, sweaty palms alongside a few twisted metaphors to try and paint a clearer picture of what really went down, but this time round I will keep it simple. The car goes exactly like you think a BMW should, in both petrol and diesel iterations; and like a typical premium German car, you don’t feel how fast you are going until the head-up display reminds you that you have been consistently flouting speed limit regulations by a substantial margin for the past hour or so.
[*In keeping with the times, now we have videos of the cars in action. Forgive the quality of workmanship, but I am yet to reach Francis Ford Coppola’s skill level]
Another avenue of anxiety for yours truly. The origin of my unease is the absence of ABS in my own twin turbo longroof Subaru. This absence has been occasioned by the removal of certain key elements (mostly fuses) from the braking system; the reason why is not important but the effect is I now have to watch out for what I call “skating” (floating noisily over the road surface on locked tyres) and the subsequent crash that may follow. This has made me three things: 1. very nervous whenever emergency braking is involved 2. insanely accurate as far as braking distances go and 3. very good at trailbraking.
Now, when palming the wheel of a car that costs almost 17 times as much as my ABS-less wagon, braking is a whole different affair. Hard driving also means hard braking, which the car did with poise and aplomb; however, the real test came on the freeway when we were…ummm… “hustling along” and a bakkie (pickup truck) cut us off just as we were about to pass it on the right. Several prayers accompanied frantic deceleration as images of a massively expensive wreck loomed large in our minds. This car stops, and stops very well with no drama whatsoever: no shimmy, no dance, no squeal. All you need to do is stand on the pedal and the car will do the rest; a tactic I am cagey about using in my old warhorse lest I break its knees.
Ride & Handling
The ride is as smooth as one can want it to be, but wander onto a dirt track with those low profile tyres and thumping ensues. It is not that big an annoyance, but it is not exactly pleasant to live with either. Can we get back on the tarmac please?
The handling is excellent, but there may be one or two flecks of dirt in the ointment. It may have been just me but on tight corners or those of reducing radii, the car’s weight started to make itself felt the tighter it became, in the way a typical large luxury saloon usually does, and a setback that Jaguar seems to have fully cured in their own cars. The larger XJ saloon felt more sorted compared to the comparatively compact 5 Series (this is a very brave statement to make, I know, but it is what I observed). The stiffening “active” steering feedback is also not that much of a plus, it makes one tired after a while. I much prefer the evenly-weighted, static-ratio setups of yore. The response is dead accurate, however, and chucking the large saloon about in a touge-style car chase down a narrow switchback road is free of histrionics, more so if the driver I was pursuing would just man up and ease up on the overzealous braking (it later transpired that “manning up” was not a choice phrase to use, as the driver was a woman)
Equipment & Audio
The G30 is well equipped; apparently even better equipped than the first-born son, the 7 Series. There is plenty of stuff to spec up your car with, particularly the 540i: what with the tablet screens, digitalized clusters, touch-sensitive HVAC controls, leather, head-up displays, lane-keep assist and…. shut up and listen for a minute here. There is one party piece that trumps absolutely everything else.
Remember Tomorrow Never Dies, the James Bond film from 1997? There was a scene where our martini-loving protagonist gets mugged in a parking lot and for scripting and product placement reasons, drives himself out of trouble in spectacular fashion; controlling his gadget-laden car remotely using an Ericsson® JB988 brick cellular phone. It may or may not be a coincidence that the fictional spook was piloting another BMW, the boxy E38 “750iL” (it was actually a 740iL with 750iL badgework).
In a case of life imitating art, you too can drive your G30 remotely, just like 007. The functionality may not be available as a phone app yet, but the feature is activated and operated using the massive key fob on which is a tiny little screen flanked by two buttons that you press to move the car forward or backward as desired.
Unlike the British secret agent’s over-endowed transport solution, the G30’s remote driver technology has ‘limitations’, and I’m using the word loosely here. While the object of Miss Moneypenny’s affection hooned himself out of a tight spot from a parking garage and into sunlight, the G30’s drone feature is meant to only get in and out of tight spots, literally. The range limit is 10 meters back and forth (combined); that is as far as you will go before evil minions pepper your shiny new car with NATO rounds while cursing you in eastern European accents. You also cannot steer left or right. Expect Audi to do one better and introduce extended range and steering capability before the year 2020.
Part of James Bond’s action-packed getaway drive may also have involved mowing down henchmen foolish enough to step into his E38’s path, but there will not be any perpendicular vehicular homicide with the G30; at least not while driving it with the key. A front-mounted sensor array ensures that the 5 Series ‘sees’ anything that threatens its facial integrity and brakes itself… very hard I might add; a stunning revelation that was demonstrated using one of us as a potential crash test dummy henchman. It’s the stuff of science fiction and/or YouTube videos watching a driverless grey German saloon creep up on a leggy blonde and stop itself dead in its tracks inches from her knees.
During the test drive, when my co-driver took the wheel, an animated conversation involving a lot of hand movements led to a surprising discovery: the presence of gesture control. It is quite a strange feature, and one I derided on these very pages but a year ago owing to the scope of randomness available in the permutation table of hand gestures, but the long and short of it is this: wiggle your secondary driving hand, or the one nearest to the dash-based tablet like you are conducting an orchestra and things happen. It is quite odd and a little unnerving, but it could also be a matter of convenience where instead of fumbling around for the stereo’s volume control buttons to lower the decibel levels, just draw a ‘6’ in the air and voila! Nothing happens. Until you draw another 6, then another and another until there is dead silence, volume is now at 0 (drat!); so now you have to draw a ‘9’ to bring it back up again, nothing happens, another 9, and another….
Just use the center console knob; it’s a lot more straightforward.
For the first time I have no solid answer for this and the reason is fairly simple: the price has not been set yet for our market. Expect it to undercut the Mercedes-Benz E Klasse ever so slightly, which means the price will hover somewhere in the region of 9-10 million bob for the more ‘ordinary’ version (520, 530) and maybe up to 20% more if you want to pretend to star in the next film adaptation of Ian Fleming’s novels.
This will make it really good value, because I cannot say enough just how exquisite the new 5er is; and this is coming from a man with an irrational dislike for BMWs ever since an E46 deliberately introduced itself broadside to my front offside fender as I was ferrying my then-unborn son and his mother around the city (that driver qualifies as an exemplary candidate for James Bond-style perpendicular vehicular homicide, if I ever see him again). That, though, is beside the point.
The G30 is good to look at – especially when dark-skinned; it has a lovely, contemporary interior; it is as wonderful to drive as BMWs are supposed to be; and it is not just relevant, it is actually very important to the future of the motoring industry as a whole courtesy of the tech it carries; a disquisition point I will delve into further next week. See you then.