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BMW 525D - Take five


Jazz was never top of mind for a heavy metal listener like me. Once, by accident, I heard a snatch of Dave Brubeck’s Take Five and I was hooked forever. Not that I have given up on metal – it will never happen – but Take Five opened up the fascinating new world of jazz for me. A world of smooth sounds, intensive emotions and liberated spirits. Yes, Take Five does that to you. Well, with Brubeck on the fabulous stereo, this 5 did the same to me.

Superbly engineered, finely balanced and beautifully poised, the BMW 525d was almost perfect in the sportscar territory of my test route. Almost perfect because it is not a sportscar – it’s a fairly large German limousine meant to chauffeur the well-heeled to their respective high-falutin’ destinations. Which means it not was not light, it was not stripped of creature comforts and it did not email everything it traversed right up to your rear inbox. Yet, it provided a wonderfully satisfying driving experience that left me wanting more.

How the hell do these guys in Munich do it? Is it that unique straight-six instead of a V6, and consequently a long front end? Is it the Servotronic steering that uses electronic impulses instead of fiddling around with mechanical linkages? Is it the six-speed automatic that understands your urgency in the way the power should be delivered? Is it the effort taken to keep the underpinnings light but strong? Is it that almost 50:50 weight bias? Heck, it is all of these and more... and it all comes together wonderfully.

Powering the 5 Series through a series of never-ending corners, I am completely taken in by its agility. Really, when the engine at the front powers the rear wheel, leaving the steering to take the corner, it gets pretty addictive. At every subsequent turn, you want to push it more than the previous one. The engine preps up in anticipation, and when you floor the pedal, the gears automatically downshift rapidly and the BMW hunkers down to attack the corner with consummate ease. It’s certainly not a small car, but the way the 5 moves and drives, it’s almost as if it shrinks down in size to become all nimble and sporty. This is its piece de resistance.

Yet, if you do want the big car feel,all you need is to experience it on the highway. Even when you are doing 120 kph, the sensation inside is so undisturbed and serene that you feel you are doing 80 kph tops. Hmm. So you have heard that before, read it in road tests of most luxury cars before, so what’s new about that, right? Well, I know it’s a cliché when I say that this car is so well-built, luxurious and powerful that you barely feel it doing illegal speeds, but I can’t help it. You see, many clichés are actually true. The 5 is good enough to keep the elements out and pamper you inside. Yes, it’s so good that it doesn’t feel like there’s a big, throbbing diesel motor outside.

Powering the 525d is a 2993cc 24-valve DOHC straight-six that uses third-generation common-rail diesel technology and VGT to develop almost 195 bhp at 4000 rpm and a brilliant 40 kgm of torque from just 1300 rpm onwards. BMW is particularly chuffed about the fact that they have used an all-aluminium crankcase for this motor, which gives them great savings in weight. There is virtually no moment when you feel the lack of power, it’s always on tap, and there is barely any perceptible turbo lag. For a large, well-appointed luxury sedan, it’s mighty fast and quick too (have a look at the test data!). But more than just figures, there’s something else about the motor. When you are out on the highway cruising at 120 kph and floor the pedal, the gears downshift quickly, the engine suddenly becomes high strung, gets the bit between the teeth and rushes towards the horizon. And that’s something I really liked in this car, the seamless transformation from an easy, long-distance cruiser to a performance thoroughbred.

The smooth flow of power and the fine balance and refinement thanks to the six-inline layout means that this motor can proudly wear the propeller badge even though it may drink the sticky fuel. Okay, it’s not that gut-wrenchingly powerful or torquey that it pins you down to the seat, but remember that this same engine is used in various states of tune in the 530d and 535d (how about 286 bhp and 59 kgm in the 535d?). So am I cribbing? No, because BMW has safely bet on the fact that most Indian buyers are not going to miss much when it comes to performance with the 525d, and it will more than match their expectations. Things will change when motoring journalists can afford and start buying such machines!

Transferring the power to the rear wheels is a six-speed automatic gearbox with that Steptronic thingy that allows you to manually shift gears. Now, the fancy gear lever belongs more to a funky designer furniture shop than in a car. It’s the same one that BMW have incorporated in the new X5, called the ‘pistol grip’. Since everything is electronic now rather than mechanical, it looks like manufacturers can do whatever they want. BMW assures that it follows the conventional PRND format, except that it’s not very obvious initially. No matter which gear position you are in, pressing P at the top of the lever puts it in Park mode. And you press a button on the right-hand side to shift to R, N or D. Nudge it to the left and it falls in the Sport mode (DS), and at the same position, you can manually shift gears in a sequence. But it’s a bit cumbersome to get to reverse when you are in the DS or manual override position. Phew! Sorry for the rather long-winded description, but really, it is one of the highlights of the car. The new transmission is again something that BMW engineers are pretty happy about, as it is significantly quicker and the new torque converter technology that it showcases does not allow much loss of power either.And this is best felt when you are driving in the DS mode, when the intelligent gearbox does the thinking for you and lets you concentrate on enjoying the car’s fine balance and handling capabilities. I feel that the manual override option of shifting gears sequentially is just a sop for those who think they want control. I think there’s no such ‘control’ thing with these hypercomputer-run gearboxes anymore and nudging that gear lever up and down doesn’t excite once the novelty value quickly fades off. You see, for control, I’d take a manual gearbox with a proper clutch pedal any day. So the moral of the story is this: get more bang for your buck! Let the car do the shifting! Those poor BMW engineers didn’t work their asses off for you to decide when to shift!So instead concentrate on the joy of a steering wheel instead, and the way it provides the right amount of feedback without compromising on comfort. The Servotronic steering system is brilliant and it is sporty without overtly losing the fact that it is doing duty in a luxury car. And that, believe you me, is quite a difficult thing to achieve, and BMW engineers have once again cracked it. Because in a luxury sedan, you want ease of steering and don’t want irregularities of the road transferred to your arms, and on the other hand, being an Ultimate Driving Machine means it can’t absolve itself of the experience either. The only crib I could find was that after driving nearly 100 km up and down on really curvaceous roads, my two thumbs were sore, as they were resting on the arms of the steering wheel most of the time, where the stitched leather is a wee bit rough. 

Okay, maybe the boffins were not completely successful in making the ride quality of the 5 up there with the Mercedes E-Class. It is way better than the 3 Series and does a decent job in the damping department. Yet you want some amount of cushioning, especially for Mr Moneybags at the rear seat. But since it’s a BeeEm, their priority is to give you a car that handles flawlessly instead of giving you an ultra comfy ride. And that’s exactly why you’d buy one, right? Still, the suspension does its job well on good roads, so a 5 Series owner shouldn’t have anything to complain about. 

BMW has used aluminium for the entire running gear, which means its light yet strong, and that helps it achieve better handling prowess. Then of course there is BMW’s Dynamic Stability Control and a whole lot of abbreviations that go with it to ensure the car keeps to its intended trajectory. Psst... you can deactivate it if you want to (if you think it’s safe to do so, of course). The Dynamic Traction Control, that’s available at the touch of a button placed lower on the central console, is something that the enthusiast 5 Series owner may want to try out when the coast is clear. Though it’s chief function is not to do so, it can help you get into a controlled powerslide! As luck would have it, I didn’t have the chance to try it out, but when the 530i comes to us for a test perhaps...

That’s the best part of 5 Series Beemers. They give you the sporty feel of the 3 with the luxury of the 7 and the combination is unbeatable. I can tell you about the now sorted-out iDrive function when the 530i comes along. And its smashing looks  as well (when I first saw the 5 Series in the pictures in 2002, it wasn’t impressive, but in real life, it’s quite awesome to look at, even after five years). Or those unique headlamps with coronas that make it really, really dramatic and special. And whatever else I missed out. Really, the 5 Series is just like good jazz. All great elements have come together to make a brilliant innovation.