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BMW 520d

words - Ken Gratton
Price-leading 5 Series hits the mark for value, but spend the extra for the 'Professional Pack'

prestige new cars  » Get the best price on a new BMW 520d

Local Launch
Central Victoria

What we liked
>> Flexible, frugal, refined four
>> Traditional 5 Series handling and steering attributes
>> Relative value

Not so much
>> Steering 'wander' at the straight ahead
>> Ergonomics
>> Styling

Overall rating: 3.5/5.0
Engine/Drivetrain/Chassis: 4.0/5.0
Price, Packaging and Practicality:3.5/5.0
Safety: 4.0/5.0
Behind the wheel: 3.0/5.0
X-factor: 3.5/5.0

About our ratings

In the past, people reluctantly bought the el cheapo entry level models of a German marque, mindful of being tagged a badge aspirant. Remember the W201 C180 or the E34 520i?

We're pleased to report that those days appear to be behind us. A case in point is the new 520d from BMW.

This is a car that has most of the hallmarks of BMW's current E60 generation 5 Series -- for a price markedly lower than other cars in the range. Yet it is not just some heavily de-speced beancounters' delight with a price just low enough to scrape into the nearest $10,000 bracket.

It's fairly generous in its specification and, in some aspects, actually performs better than more expensive petrol 5 Series variants. The new 2.0-litre turbodiesel which made its first Australian appearance in the 120d is a pretty good unit in this car, well able to handle the avoirdupois of the 5 Series.

If there's a fly in the ointment, it's the lack of the Professional Pack gadgetry as standard. We'll discuss that in detail elsewhere, but BMW highly recommends buyers of the 520d opt for that package when ordering the car -- and we would tend to agree, even if it slightly tarnishes the 520d's value credentials.

Based on the current E60 generation of 5 Series, the 520d is introduced to the Australian market since the 'Life Cycle Impulse' (LCI) upgrade earlier this year and so scores the mildly restyled front fascia, improved door trims, gear shifter and 'favourites' pre-sets for the iDrive system.

Sneaking in below the $80,000 price barrier (at $79,900), the 520d undercuts the 523i with its petrol six by a substantial $5000 margin.

In light of that pricing, it's not unreasonable to expect the 520d to be a 'stripper', but it's well equipped by the standards of large German cars. Standard features include a tyre pressure indicator, cruise control, front fog lights, a rain sensor for wipers and auto-on headlights, remote central locking, a 6.5-inch colour monitor (replaced by the 8.8-inch monitor in the Professional Package), Bluetooth connectivity, a multi-disk CD changer in the glovebox, USB interface for the audio system, high-gloss woodgrain veneer, dual-zone climate control, multi-function leather-bound steering wheel, trip computer with external temperature display function, Dakota leather upholstery and electrically adjustable seats for height and recline.

Adding the 'Professional Package' to the price is just a $2500 impost and represents fairly good value as a package.

If you consider that the Professional Package includes front and rear parking sensors (Park Distance Control normally retails for $1680 as an option), head-up display ($2600 alone), Bluetooth mobile Business ($500), satellite navigation with TV, voice recognition and 8.8-inch monitor (priced at $4000), it's money well spent.

Toni Andreevski, PR & Corporate Communications Manager for BMW Group Australia, said that the the Professional Pack is worth the extra because: "you don't want your car to be an orphan."

On top of the Professional Package goodies, in true Germanic style the 520d is available with a multitude of other options.

The crux of the 520d is the all-alloy 2.0-litre, four-cylinder turbodiesel. This engine, already introduced to Australia in other models (120d and 320d), employs common-rail induction and a variable geometry turbocharger to produce 125kW of power from 4000rpm and 340Nm of torque from 1750rpm. The torque is also an outcome of the engine's undersquare dimensions (84.0mm bore x 90.0mm stroke).

Combined with a smooth-shifting six-speed automatic transmission, the engine pulls well and there's no gap in straightline performance anywhere along the way.

Fuel efficiency courtesy of the engine's DOHC valvetrain is enhanced by the ZF automatic's contribution. On the ADR81/01 combined cycle test, the 520d returns 6.1L/100km and emits 162g/km of CO2. With figures like those, it should come as no surprise to learn that the engine is fitted with a diesel particulate filter and complies with the current Euro Stage IV emissions standard.

Being able to rely on the engine's innate torque to pull through the gears, the 520d offers unfussed motoring with a ratio of 0.691:1 in the overdrive sixth gear and running through a 3.23:1 final drive ratio. This sort of gearing is similar to that of a small to medium-capacity six-cylinder car.

With a first gear ratio of 4.171:1, the 520d's acceleration from a standing start is brisk enough for most drivers and BMW claims that the 520d will reach 100km/h in 8.6sec. At a speed of 100km/h, the engine is running just above 2000rpm, meaning it's virtually generating maximum torque, so if there is a need to accelerate the 520d will happily do so.

As for all BMWs other than the SUVs, the 520d drives solely through the rear wheels, which are suspended by a multi-link IRS system. At the front, the 5 Series adopts a variation on the MacPherson strut theme, with the wheels regulated by a computer-controlled ('Servotronic') power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering system. The 520d is the sole E60 5 Series model Down Under to eschew Adaptive Steering. Since the steering ratio in the Active Steering is more direct at speeds below 120km/h and becomes less direct above that speed, it's largely redundant in the Australian environment anyway.

Brakes comprise ventilated discs with single-piston calipers at front and rear. The rotors at the front measure 310 x 24mm and at the rear 320 x 20mm. Standard wheels are a five-spoke design cast in alloy and measuring 7 x 16-inch. Unlike other 5 Series variants, the 520d's 225/55 R16 95V tyres are not the run-flat variety.

Since the E60 platform was introduced to the Australian market in October 2003, there have been no major changes to the basic structure of the car in the interim, so the packaging is a short story.

Overall, the 5 Series is slightly larger in every direction than the W211 E-Class Mercedes. At 4841mm, the 5 is 23mm longer than the E and with a measurement of 1846mm, it's 24mm wider too.

Wheelbase (2888mm) is 34mm longer than the Mercedes' and the BMW is 18mm higher than the Mercedes (1468mm for the 5 Series). These are not big differences, but they are significant and they do translate to the interior, although the Mercedes offers identical front headroom (993mm) and even has the advantage in the rear seat (967mm for the BMW) -- albeit by just 2mm.

BMW's luggage capacity figure for the 5 Series is 520 litres, which stacks up pretty well for a car with drivetrain components under the boot floor.

A skiport is an $1110 option for the 5 Series, if there's a need to carry long objects that will project into the rear seat from the boot. Presumably a roof rack would be a cheaper alternative.

With the LCI upgrade, the 5 Series has inherited a new gear lever, revised inner door panels and eight 'favourites' presets for the iDrive system.

BMW's philosophy with iDrive is to simplify the look of the dash and fascia. In this respect, Munich has blazed the trail for others to follow (Mercedes-Benz with the 'Comand' system and Audi's MMI). All three systems encourage users to operate comfort and convenience facilities through one controller and a single LCD interface in the fascia.

In BMW's view, there's no getting away from this as consumers call for more luxury features in their cars. However, iDrive has been controversial and the latest version incorporates some desktop computer-style functions to help users (literally) feel more at home. The new 'favourite' pre-set buttons emulate the desktop computer icons or the 'bookmarks' and 'favourites' menu selections found in web browsers.

This appears to be a case of BMW backing away from the 'no compromise' stance adopted with the original iteration of iDrive.

Give BMW its due, there's no cost-cutting in the 520d where safety is concerned. Dual front airbags are complemented by head airbags for front and rear seat occupants, plus side impact (thorax) airbags for front and rear seat occupants. That's a total of eight.

Three-point seatbelts are standard for all five seating positions and -- in the front seats -- come with pyro-technic pretensioners. Active headrests are also part of the vehicle's specification, reducing the potential for whiplash in a 'rear-ender'.

From the perspective of active safety, the 520d is fitted with ABS and DSC with ASC+T (stability and traction control systems).

It's not really a 'safety' issue as such, but the 520d will do its level best to preserve your insurance no-claims bonus and reduce repair costs through impact-absorbing bumpers rated for 'walking-pace' impacts up to 4km/h and replaceable crumple zone elements for impacts up to 15km/h.

With the 520d, BMW has found a hole -- and filled it. For the money and the specification, the 520d is out on its lonesome.

Different buyers will have different priorities and some will choose the BMW for the badge appeal versus the price. Others will buy the car for the 'true cost of ownership' and some will buy for the traditional BMW sporting and dynamic attributes in a relatively cost-effective package.

However you cut it, there's no one single car in the Australian market that can encompass all these criteria. The Audi A6 2.0TFSI is priced lower than the 520d and produces similar levels of power, but torque is not comparable (60Nm less) and some will shy away from its FWD drivetrain or lack of BMW-style cachet.

Chrysler offers the 300C, which can be specified with the turbodiesel V6 for a considerable cost saving over the 520d. It's also RWD and offers a lot of 'volume value'. But, it's still lacking that prestige factor and driving dynamics.

As a wildcard entry, there's the Saab 9-5 Aero, which is priced the same as the 520d -- down to the last dollar. It's also a pretty big performer with a 191kW engine, but that doesn't make it clean, lean and green in the way the BMW is. The 9-5 is also very different in character from the 520d and let's face it, in the eyes of many, shared aero industry background aside, Saab is not BMW.

That leaves us with the Mercedes-Benz E200 Kompressor. The E-Class variant is significantly more expensive than the 520d, even in the Elegance level of trim ($88,000). Power from the supercharged petrol four is ahead of the diesel BMW, but torque is a long way behind and fuel consumption can't compare.

There's still some added status in owning a car wearing a three-pointed star, but not necessarily $5700 worth of status (if comparing the Elegance grade up against the 520d with Professional Package).

The 520d made available for the launch drive program was finished in a pleasant exterior colour named Deep Green metallic and complemented by Cream Beige leather, although the Bamboo Anthracite grain wouldn't be our personal choice of interior trim highlights -- but that's personal choice for you.

Styling of the 5 Series, as with other BMW models, looks good from some angles and certain styling details are better than others. Has anybody else noticed that Holden's Epica echoes the 5's front end look?

Nothing you're about to read concerning the 520d will come as any great shock if you're a long-serving reader of 5 Series reviews.

Through the fast, sweeping bends beyond Sunbury, north-west of Melbourne, the 520d acquitted itself very well, offering terrifically tactile steering and beautifully controlled handling and roadholding. Each new bend was a cause for celebration, with the car communicating precisely what it was doing and tracking along a clearly consistent path that was very close to neutral. This sort of winding road is where the 5 Series just excels.

Unfortunately, the electro-mechanical steering system is prone to wandering at the straight-ahead. It has the potential to be fatiguing over longer trips, with the driver keeping a constant vigil on the car's course -- but it must be said that 100km/h seems to be an 'eye of the storm' speed for this symptom.

Getting a little above 100km/h, the steering's apparent Attention Deficit Disorder quietly disappears. Below 100km/h, the steering never gets around to wandering as far and wide. It's disappointing, because the steering works really well when it's doing what it's supposed to do... Steer.

Diesels are typically grunty and charming in their own gruff way; sort of a diamond in the rough among combustion engines. In the 520d, the 2.0-litre turbodiesel is very refined and -- without paying particular attention to the tachometer -- you could be forgiven at times for thinking the car is fitted with a petrol engine. Open it up a bit and there is a diesel note at relatively higher engine speeds, but that's only very apparent at speeds around 3000rpm and with the accelerator all the way to the floor.

Over half a day's driving, we never came close to the ADR81/01 combined cycle figure of 6.1L/100km, but the average figure displayed by the trip computer rarely varied from 7.1-7.2L/100km for the entire day. Most people would readily live with that.

As mentioned in the Mechanical section, the engine works very well with the six-speed automatic. Ratios for the transmission and the final drive match the engine's broad range of torque to any realistic road speed.

Gear changes are effected by using the new shifter, which has a left-hand plane for sequential shifting and what amounts to a toggle set-up to change from Drive to Neutral to Reverse or otherwise. The Park mode is selected by pressing the button marked with a 'P' icon on the head of the lever. To downshift sequentially, the driver must push the lever forward in the sequential shift quadrant. Frankly, the shift lever's mode of operation may not be to everyone's liking.

On the subject of ergonomics in general, there's good news and bad news. BMW has introduced eight 'favourites' -- pre-set buttons for the iDrive system. These can be programmed much as conventional audio system pre-sets are -- by selecting the setting you want and then holding the pre-set button depressed until it accepts the setting into the memory for that 'favourite' button.

Where it departs from conventional audio pre-sets is in the way you can load other types of settings (a destination in the navigation system, for example) into each pre-set. Pre-set #1 may be your favourite radio station and pre-set #2 may be the satnav settings of a business client you visit irregularly. Buttons on the steering wheel can also be programmed through the iDrive set-up to carry out functions other than the factory defaults.

The iDrive system itself features built-in redundancy, so such tasks as resetting the tripmeter or changing radio stations and CD tracks can be carried out by means other than the iDrive controller.

BMW's reworking of the iDrive system is a step in the right direction, but one cannot help thinking that the next (major) step in the right direction is to strip the iDrive controller of most of its functions and allocate them to the voice recognition command system. Perhaps leaving the iDrive controller to engage the voice command system when required and to act as a fail-safe if the voice recognition facility malfunctions. THAT would be a major ergonomic advance.

A word about the head-up display -- in bright sunlight, it worked very well and certainly allowed the driver to monitor speed fully without once needing to take the eyes off the road. As against that, the cruise control stalk is never going to keep Benz engineers awake at night with worry. The Benz equivalent is simple and genuinely intuitive to use.

Life's a bit like that in the BMW. If you buy the 520d and you have more than half a day to adjust to the way all the sytems work -- and you enjoy the satisfaction of extracting the last poofteenth of efficiency from any technology -- the 5 Series is a car for you.

It's as if the consumers who buy the 5 Series and strongly support the iDrive philosophy are the same sort of people who run Linux instead of Windows. As for all the Microsoft drones out there, it's back to the Calais V...

But this is a test of a diesel engine in the 5 Series, not the electronic gadgetry alone. As it turns out, the 520d's turbodiesel is a formidably capable engine which despite its relatively small capacity is well matched to the 5 Series package. For a car of this distinction, with such a level of competence and a fair value for money factor, the 520d is definitely a car to keep on your shopping list.


prestige new cars  » Get the best price on a new BMW 520d


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Published : Wednesday, 19 December 2007

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