"If you had to pick one car to spend the rest of your days driving, what would it be?"
I've been asked this a time or two over the years: The answer has invariably been a 5-Series BMW.
And I still feel that way after having now experienced all six generations of this mid-range Bimmer following a week with the new-for-2011 535i sedan. Although not perhaps with the same level of ardour I once felt.
To me, BMW's 5-Series four-door sedans have always encapsulated a just-right blend of style and luxury, and of course sports sedan performance, in a package big enough to be practical yet less likely to be deemed ostentatious.
And they've always been a "driver's" car, one in which the human/machine interface has been a very tangible (and often wonderful) one. Although the advent of advanced electronic control over so many aspects of their operation has increasingly introduced an insidious element of sensory deprivation, most noticeable in the last generation.
But either I'm getting used to this sometimes less-than-divine intervention or BMW's backroom boys and girls have figured out how to make the electronic djinns - which in Arabic folklore operate in a parallel universe and can be good, evil or benevolently neutral - perform their magic with more emphasis on the latter.
There's still a fine, if more muted, sense of the mechanical about this car. The rush of revs when you accelerate, the positive way the transmission shifts, the firm, progressive brake pedal and the fluid and connected steering feel, the way the suspension reacts to the road. All this still gets through to the driver despite the level of refinement now built into its systems and the leathery-luxury you experience inside.
While this new 5-Series still manages to connect on a visceral level though, it has undeniably become larger (by 50 mm) and lusher, as you'd expect after borrowing more than a little in design terms, and an extra 100 kg of weight, from its 7-Series senior. And inevitably, as it has aged, it has lost some of its sports sedan character, becoming more polished in its delivery and less obviously athletic.
Sort of like a once-fiery John McEnroe who now delivers slick commentary from high above the antics of a younger generation of passionate players, but still plays a mean game of tennis.
It remains an ideal cruise missile for running along an autobahn at its electronically tamed top speed of 210 km/h, but would not perhaps be as entertaining as the one I drove on the Route Napoleon through the Southern Alps some years ago. Neither of which matters to 100-km/h inhibited Canadian buyers of course, other than in the abstract.
What will is the sleek new styling that more than hints at the bigger 7-Series, an interior the word exquisite could have been coined for and an enthusiastic level of performance.
The $62,300 535i (there's also a $53,900 528i, $64,900 535i xDrive, $73,000 550i and $75,900 550i xDrive to choose from) is the classic configuration with its rear-wheel-drive and potently turbocharged, 3.0-litre inline-six that produces 300 hp and 300 lb-ft of torque, applied through a eight-speed automatic. This will get you to 100 km/h in a neatly punctuated six-second rev-y rush or simply serve up appropriate performance for whatever a driving situation demands.
And it's not particularly thirsty, with ratings of 11.5 litres/100 km city and 7.4 highway.
Inside a wide console creates a sporty twin-cockpit feel up front and the driver, his or her body located positively but comfortably by the seat's bolsters, is positioned perfectly to grasp the wheel, check the simple instrument array, or make things happen with voice commands or twiddles of the more intuitive iDrive controller.
Rear-seat passengers are treated to a little extra knee room, and under the rear deck lid there's 520 litres of luggage space.
The 535i already comes with all the things you need, but BMW, as always, is willing to cater to your wants too with a wide array of standalone options and packages.
The test car came with a $5,400 executive package that added auto trunk opening, 18-way power-adjustable seats, navigation, voice activation and a higher-toned sound system. A $3,500 tech package provided a rear-view camera and surround view, lane departure and blind spot warning systems and park assist. Throw in heated rear seats and you've bumped the price to $71,700.
This latest 5-Series sedan has perhaps lost a little of its allure as a pur sang sports sedan with its increased emphasis on technology and luxury, but it's still a superb automobile - and would still be my choice for a rest-of-my-life ride.
2011 BMW 535i
Type: Luxury sedan
Base Price: $62,300; as tested, $71,700
Engine: 3.0-litre, DOHC, inline-six
Horsepower/torque: 300 hp/300 lb-ft.
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 11.5 city/ 7.3 highway; premium gas
Alternatives: Audi A6, Cadillac CTS, Infiniti M, Lexus GS, Mercedes-Benz E-Class
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