BMW is at a critical inflection point in its history. Gone are the days of the precision analog sports sedans upon which BMW made its name. Ever since the E46 3 series and the E39 5 series left their lineup, they have pushed their brand further upmarket while trying to appeal to a more sedate, pedestrian crowd of car buyers.
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That’s not necessarily the worst thing a carmaker can do, especially if it pads their coffers enough to continue making the cars we love and we can get in the different dealerships, since now business can use subprime leads for independent dealers to promote different cars. But at this point, it’s beyond apparent that the Munich automaker has entirely lost its way.
What we are witnessing, at this point, is BMW cashing out of their heritage harder than a trust fund baby whose Instagram account is being held for ransom.
Think about it. This is the brand that self-appointed their cars as “The Ultimate Driving Machine.” Particularly in the United States, people want that badge primarily for the pride and status that comes with it.
For a while, BMW’s M cars were truly something special – the hottest version of the car with all of the performance bits to go with it. A car that could be taken directly to the track and, in the right hands, could smoke just about everything else without flinching.
For decades BMW put in the work and earned that reputation (and deservedly so). Nowadays, things have changed. They still have the M versions of most of their major models, but their ‘M’ portfolio doesn’t stop there.
With most all BMW vehicles you can also get an ‘M Sport’ package on their normal models that includes some of the suspension and styling upgrades without the rest of the M hotness. On top of that, they also have entire models that have ‘M’ in the name but aren’t actually true ‘M’ cars (for example, the BMW 530i featured here, versus the M550i, and the actual M5).
Basically you can get a real M car, or you can just get a normal car that looks like an M car but isn’t. Or you can get a car that actually says ‘M’ on it, but also isn’t. They’ll let you have it however you’d like it, that way anyone can feel like they’re driving a pure performance car.
You see, BMW wants to sell you “The Ultimate Driving Machine,” but as of late it really doesn’t seem like they want to build it.
Nowhere else is this more evident than in the new BMW 5 series. Ever since 2003 when the aforementioned E39 5 series was replaced by the fifth generation E60 5 series, BMW has slowly taken away most of the performance edge that made the 5 series so special.
A little loss in throttle response here, a little loss of steering feel there, and pretty soon we’re left with the latest G30 5 series that debuted in 2017.
We stumbled upon this car as a rental on a recent trip to the Florida Keys. The guy at the rental counter tried to upsell us on it, then after we refused they just gave it to us anyways for no extra charge. Gotta love traditional rental agencies.
From an exterior perspective the car is pretty underwhelming. It has the usual derivative BMW styling with the kidney grills, the hofmeister kink, the hockey stick, and the whole nine yards. In my opinion the exterior styling of BMWs has grown incredibly tired and is in need of some innovation. Even the most astute of enthusiasts could be forgiven for not seeing the difference between the last three generations – there’s not a whole lot to see.
Jumping to the interior – the initial impression that the car gives is that its sole design objective is to be luxurious, and I think it does that rather well. The interior is largely the same as BMW interiors have been for the past decade, but some of the material choices in the cabin have improved, and it generally presents well. With the windows up it’s deathly silent, and there’s plenty of room in the cabin for everyone to get comfortable. There’s even LED mood lighting around the dash and door panels, and that’s pretty neat.
One of the biggest successes would be the seats – BMW seats never fail to impress. They can be adjusted infinity billion ways, including inflatable side bolsters, and adjustable shoulder positioning. But, every time you set off from a stop the seatbelt tensioner automatically tightens, forcing you into the back of your seat like your worst surgical patient nightmare. At least when you’re being pinned to your seat you’ll notice that the leather is soft and supple, as one would expect.
Technology was evidently another huge focus for the car (this is 2019, after all). Just about everything is controlled through the large infotainment screen which is equipped with Apple CarPlay. There’s a 360 degree camera, and all sorts of other active safety features. The dash and gauge cluster is entirely digital, and the digital gauge style changes depending on the selected drive mode.
Speaking of drive modes, there are three: Eco Pro, Comfort, and Sport. Let’s ignore Eco Pro and Comfort for now though, since both of those make the car damn near undriveable. Sport mode is all but mandatory, but even in sport mode performance is lacking.
The problem really isn’t about the powertrain, though. The 248 hp and 258 ft-lbs of torque from the engine certainly don’t make the car quick, but do provide an adequate minimum for a car of this size; fitting for a base model.
Nor is the problem with the suspension and handling. While the Florida Keys certainly aren’t a great environment for putting it through its paces, from what I could gather the car was very well balanced and it handled mid-corner bumps with grace.
Really, the problem was from the way you experience the car as the driver. Even in sport mode the throttle response was far too delayed. The 8-speed transmission was just fine and as quick as one could expect, but it was let down by a sometimes greater than one second delay between depressing the throttle pedal and actually seeing the engine rev.
And then there’s the steering. While the steering is certainly direct, and further sharpened when in sport mode, there is still no discernible feel for what the tires are doing when turning the steering wheel.
Couple the poor throttle response with the absolute lack of steering feel and it makes for a numb and emotionally distant driving experience. And that is plainly not BMW.
Despite that, overall I would still call the 530i a good car. If it was made by just about any other manufacturer, one could argue that it’s a great car. But this is BMW, and if it’s going to bear the “Ultimate Driving Machine” nameplate, it has to be subjected to different standards.
This car perfectly demonstrates the fork in the road that BMW is facing. If they want to make cars that are focused on luxury, comfort, and technology, then that’s just fine. In fact, they’ve executed it in the new 5-series quite successfully.
But if that’s really the case, then why is their brand so desperately clinging to their performance reputation? Perhaps they’ve studied their market and found this to be best. I posit that their average buyers want to think they have a performance car for the bragging rights and prestige, but don’t actually want all of the compromises that come with a performance car. So if they sell their customers on performance but actually deliver comfort and luxury, then they would satisfy both.
Regardless of their reasoning, that’s the reality BMW is facing; they’re selling performance and delivering comfort and luxury. It’s bothersome to enthusiasts that love BMW’s performance heritage, but it seems to have contributed to their sales increases and general success in the market. I guess I understand it, but I’m still disappointed.