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BMW 5 Series Gran Turismo (05/2009) (an.niedermeyer)
BMW 5 Series Gran Turismo (05/2009) (an.niedermeyer)

2010 BMW 550i Gran Turismo

BMW's rich ride for a road trip Add to ...

The BMW 550i Gran Turismo ($79,600) seems to be the Bavarian auto maker's answer to less-than-worldly Americans who still think hatchbacks are small and cheap and utterly dull.

The 550i GT is a big, roomy, fast, luxurious and marginally practical hatch, one with a tall stance, an arresting design, loads of luxury features, seamless power and nimble handling for a rig that - oh, my gosh - is almost as long as a aircraft carrier (4,999 mm) and weighs as much as a tank (2,240 kg).

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With 400 horsepower and 450 lb-ft of torque on tap, the GT doesn't exactly sip premium fuel - 14.4 litres/100 km in the city and 9.1 on the highway - but it does have a 70-litre fuel tank, so while the fill-ups will be big, they won't be overly frequent.

The 4.4-litre V-8 is a gem; smooth, responsive and linear in applying power. Enjoy this sort of V-8 while you can. Even the luxury brands are slowly and steadily moving to smaller engines with turbos or superchargers or hybrid drive to squeeze out power.

Now as far at the luxury hatchback thing goes, the GT is hardly a novelty. The Porsche Panamera ($115,100 base) is a hatchback. The Aston Martin Rapide ($199,950 base) is a hatchback and so, too, the Acura ZDX. In fact, the Acura is really a designed-in-California version of the GT - from Honda's luxury brand, of course, and for a lot less money.

All of these are niche models aimed at empty-nesting folks who occasionally need a back seat. The hatch at the rear is convenient for loading cargo, though in all cases - including in the GT - cargo space is pretty limited.

How limited? Well, Honda sells a hatchback version of the Accord sedan called the Crosstour for less than half money of the BMW GT ($34,900 base) and it has a 728-litre cargo hold, while the GT holds 440 litres. (For the record, the ZDX at $55,900 has "just" 300 hp, but 745 litres to hold cargo.)

Obviously, no one is buying the GT for hauling furniture. And it doesn't look like BMW expects anyone to buy simply the base version, either.

What I mean is, if you go wild ticking off a few boxes on the options list, you'll send the final price well beyond $90,000 before you've even added in the $2,095 for freight and air conditioning tax: nappa leather seat trim ($1,700), Executive Package with rear-view camera, power sunshades, front ventilated seats, rear heated seats, head-up display and Sirius satellite radio ($4,000), rear bucket seats ($4,000); Dynamic Handling Package ($3,900); Sport Package ($2,500); active steering ($1,900). And so on.

All those practical matters aside, the GT is what it's intended to be - big, and fast and sexy. This is what a Grand Touring car should be.

If you're on the West Coast, well, this one is for scooting to Whistler. Calgary? To Banff. Toronto? Cottage country or perhaps Vermont for a bit of skiing (with a roof rack on top, of course). This is your (rich) ride for a road trip. And yes, people still take road trips.

That said, the GT is superb for tackling the 401 parking lot or some other commuter run. It's smooth and quiet both at speed and puttering along in stop-and-go traffic. When you do get a chance to open it up, well, the GT is so incredibly stable in a straight line, it will shock you.

Go find some curves, and for such a big car, the GT slices and dices corners like something half its size. The steering delivers all sorts of useful feedback and there is shockingly little body roll when cornering. In a parking lot, the tight turning circle makes navigating even smallish spaces a snap.

But don't get too distracted by the road manners. You might miss the gorgeous cabin. The interior is a symphony of rich textures and tones and materials. Everything here comes together to make a delicious whole. The smooth wood inserts and the metal trim are just right, not overdone.

The big navigation screen is totally legible, though there is that funny iDrive knob to manage the radio, climate control, navigation and other functions. BMW has had almost a decade to figure out how to make iDrive work and its almost there.

It still takes much pushing and turning and sliding the iDrive knob to do something simple like set a radio pre-set, but overall the thing is not nearly as confounding as it once was. Most functions can be figured out without hauling out an owner's manual thick as a law school textbook.

As for safety, well, let me tell you: BMW has loaded this baby up with airbags everywhere - front, side, overhead. The disc brakes are massively powerful; they'll haul you down from speed in a heartbeat.

Meanwhile, the electronic anti-skid system works to keep you under control when you're over your head, but is not too intrusive. And the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says the 5-Series is "Good" in offset front crash tests.

Yes, the 550i GT is not an entirely practical road warrior and it's certainly not cheap. But it's a lovely hatchback to look at, sit in and drive. And while this might offend tree-huggers, that's the whole point here.

jcato@globeandmail.com

2010 BMW 550i GRAN TURISMO

Type: Large, luxury four-door hatchback

Price: $81,595

Engine: 4.4-litre V-8

Horsepower/torque: 400 hp/450 lb-ft

Transmission: Eight-speed automatic

Drive: Rear-wheel-drive

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 14.4 city/9.1 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Porsche Panamera, Aston Martin Rapide, Acura ZDX

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