A few months ago, the talk in many BMW dealerships across Canada was that a 2.0-litre, turbocharged, four-cylinder engine would look and feel odd in a big BMW 5-Series sedan. Then the surprise.
BMW Canada dealers, most notably the No. 1 dealer in Canada by sales, are having trouble keeping up with demand for the 5 with the four. The people working the floor at Brian Jessel BMW in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby, B.C., say customers are not pushing back at the notion of a faster, more fuel-efficient 528i – even though the creamy inline-six-cylinder of 2011 (240 horsepower/230 lb-ft of torque) has been usurped by a four-banger (241 hp/258 lb-ft).
Yes, the little four does look odd tucked into the engine hold of a big 5-Series. Small? Oh, yes. Yet the rear-drive 528i remains a Top Safety Pick of the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, despite the mass reduction in front.
Muscular? The 0-100 km/h sprint takes 6.3 seconds, says the factory, or nearly half a second better than the old 3.0-litre six. Even at that, the 2012 5 with the four gets substantially better fuel economy: 8.6 litres/100 km city/5.7 highway versus 9.2 city/6.2 highway for the 2011 with the six.
In fairness, the fuel economy gain is partly the result of a new stop-start system integrated into the eight-speed automatic gearbox. But that’s hardly the whole story.
When anyone buys a Bimmer they expect fancy drivetrain engineering and they get it here – almost all of it on a mission to maintain power and performance while pushing the BMW fleet to ever-stricter fuel economy goals. The four breathes better thanks to a clever induction system that speeds turbo responses. And direct fuel injection ensures fuel is fed precisely into the combustion chamber exactly when it’s needed.
Purists, I am certain, will argue a four-cylinder can never match the turbine-like smoothness of a straight six and, strictly speaking, they are correct. On the other hand, the 2.0-litre four delivers all its torque as low as 1,250 rpm and keeps on delivering to 4,800 rpm. The power comes on fast and keeps on coming as you race through barely perceptible gear changes.
Frankly, after a week of working the 528 through all sorts of tests, from city stop-and-go to highway bursts, I was impressed. The constant stopping and starting of the stop-start system can grow a bit annoying in heavy traffic – on and off and on and off the engine goes as you lift off the brake and move onto the throttle – but the pure power part is excellent.
And that piece of the story is wrapped up in the excellent eight-speed automatic gearbox. It is smooth as an Obama campaign speech. Better still, you can use the paddle shifters of the Sport automatic to control gear changes manually. That’s something you’ll want to do, working the ratios yourself to milk this engine for all its worth.
But a word of warning: the Sport eight-speed is part of the M Sport package and the Premium package that together add $7,400 to the $56,900 528i xDrive I just drove. That’s not a small bit of coin. The Premium bits include a back-up camera, an automatic trunk, a pass-through between the rear seatback and leather upholstery. The M Sport stuff includes special 18-inch wheels, “M” kick plates in the door sills, a special M steering wheel, various M badging and an aerodynamic kit right down to the rear spoiler.
The M parts are subtle, however; they won’t be immediately noticeable to the casual observer. Real, hard-core Bimmer types, though, will recognize them right away and that’s why I’m betting plenty of 5-Series buyers will, shall we say, buy into the M.
Some will also play around with what BMW calls the “Driving Experience Control.” You do this by working a rocker switch in the centre console to change the throttle response, steering weight, stability control management, transmission shift points and even the responses of the dynamic dampers. Want to go from soft to sporty as the roads go from straight-ahead highway to something more entertaining in the winding countryside? You can and probably will.
BMW bills the 5 as a sport sedan and it is, though it’s a big one (1,815 kilograms with xDrive). Dial up the sportiest Sport Plus mode and you’ve got a firm and response machine in your hands. The xDrive part puts power at the corners and this system has a rear-axle bias designed to deliver the feel of a rear-drive sedan.
You can also go all Eco Pro and save fuel. Dialing up the green setting modifies the air conditioning system and so on to reduce fuel consumption. The car will also coax you to drive in a more earth-friendly way via infotainment system readouts such as “accelerate moderately.” You might appreciate this, or you might not.
Wherever you stand, it’s hard not to appreciate how BMW has engineered a four to behave like a strong six in the 2012 5.
Tech specs: 2012 BMW 528i xDrive
Type: Large sport sedan
Price: $56,900 ($885 freight)
Engine: 2.0-litre, four-cylinder, turbocharged
Horsepower/torque: 241 hp/258 lb-ft
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 8.8 city/5.9 highway; premium gas
Alternatives: Audi A6, Mercedes-Benz E-Class, Infiniti M, Lexus GS