Final report: BMW 5 Series Touring long-term test
17 September 2021
Author: Pete Tullin
Our now-departed 5 Series looks set to be sorely missed.
|BMW 520d Touring M Sport Pro Tech |
|P11D price:|| £50,780|
|As tested:|| £56,685|
|Official consumption:|| 51.4mpg|
|Our average consumption:|| 48.7mpg|
Final Report: A fond farewell
Old Billy Shakespeare probably summed it up best when he penned the line 'parting is such sweet sorrow'.
Now don't get me wrong, I'm far too long in the tooth to get emotionally attached to cars and being a motoring journalist, I'm accustomed to test vehicles coming and going on a regular basis, but there was something about our BMW 520d Touring that caused me to mourn its passing more than most.
Maybe it's because I suspect that given the rapidly changing world we're living in, the 520d could possibly be the last diesel car that I ever run, but more likely it's simply because the Touring suited my lifestyle so well.
Although I understand the compelling need to reduce fossil emissions and embrace a cleaner, electric future, I will certainly miss the 520's wide breadth of talents, not least its ability to complete the 300-mile journey to my spiritual homeland without ever having to stop and pay the highway robbery fuel prices being asked by sketchy motorway service stations.
Not that the Touring ever quite managed to achieve its claimed 55.4mpg and although some wag at BMW was keen to point out that it was probably something to do with the extra weight the car was carrying, in the guise of my heavy right foot, I know this simply wasn't the case.
At the end of the day, the shortfall had more to do with me spending more time than usual in stop-start town traffic conditions. I know, because according to the trip readout, the four-cylinder oil-burner did its best work sitting at around 70-80mph on the motorway.
This, of course, is the total opposite to what the future holds, as it is well documented that electric cars devour huge swathes of energy at these kinds of speeds and do their best work in city circumstances.
As for the lifestyle aspects, I will hold my hands up now and admit I am one of the 5.2 million sad individuals in this country who regularly chase a little white ball around a field. I'll also admit that because I'm no longer the man I was, I have given up on hauling my bag of sticks over my shoulder and I have invested in an electric golf trolley to ease my burden. Although this sparky retinue folds up like a contortionist's accordion, it still takes up a fair bit of boot space, but even with mine and my mate's gaudy golf bags on board, there was never any need to drop the rear seat. There was enough space left over that I never needed to decant the assorted tool bags and associated travel gubbins that always take up residence in any long term vehicle that happens to come into my orbit.
Knowing my next long-term car will be the striking-looking Cupra Formentor plug-in hybrid, and also knowing much of that vehicle's boot space is taken up by its battery pack, I suspect its rear seatbacks will need to adopt a permanent state of repost to get anywhere close to matching the Touring's 560-litre boot capacity.
Other aspects that I will miss about the BMW include its fabulous iDrive infotainment system. My admiration for its intuitive interaction only grows more profound when compared with the increasingly complex and increasingly distracting touchscreen systems that are being adopted by more and more manufacturers.
The ability to use its reassuringly precise scrolling device rather than manically waving a hand in mid-air trying to hit a chosen icon while being buffeted by road surface imperfections is so superior, it beggars belief that the iDrive hasn't been nominated for the equivalent of an accident avoidance BAFTA.
Of course, it's not just the everyday convenience aspects that make the 520d such a brilliant car to live with. It is such an intuitive car to drive with a slick power delivery, sweetly weighted steering and a chassis that displays such an excellent blend of comfort and control that it has that happy knack of always feeling smaller and lighter on its wheels than its substantial dimensions suggest.
How would Old Bill have put it? 'They have their entrances and their exits and one BMW in its time plays many parts.' Or something along those lines.
6th Report: Lightning strikes twice
Me and my big mouth. Just when I was beginning to feel fate's fickle finger had tormented me sufficiently for one calendar year and almost everything was beginning to come right with the world again, the little fella raised his crooked digit once more and fired a spiteful pointy projectile straight through the tread of our BMW's low-profile tyre. Again.
Jinxed? Well how else do you explain two punctures in the space of less than three months. And, at £235 a pop for premium Pirelli P Zeros, it hasn't exactly been a particularly cheap
Still, as they say, first world problems, and if I'm honest, when I set these annoyances against the backdrop of running around in a 520d Touring, it would be churlish of me to squeal too loudly.
As anyone who knows me will testify, I am inclined to be somewhat picky when it comes to assessing motor cars.
That's probably why, of the thousands of motors I've driven, I can count on one hand the number I have lavished with unqualified praise. Actually, unqualified, is probably a bit strong.
Sure, over the years I've driven plenty of exotic machines, usually with equally exotic sticker prices, but given the sums involved, many of these ultra-desirables have left me feeling somewhat short changed.
I'm more inclined to cars at the top of their games, regardless of the asking price. Cars like the Ford Fiesta, the Volkswagen Golf and our current charge, the BMW 5 series Touring.
Certainly, there are plenty of rival manufacturers offering similar products and many get within sniffing distance, and some even better the 5 Series in certain areas, but there are good reasons why the 5 Series has remained at the pinnacle of my assessment graph for so long; mainly because it does so many things so well and so few things poorly.
Of course, whenever I point anyone in the direction of this benchmark model I'm usually met with the same counterpoint. Something along the lines of, 'well that's a pretty dull choice'.
Now, if you don't find the styling particularly inspiring or you're concerned about the 5 Series ubiquity, as nearly everyone in your office has got one, then I have some sympathy for that view, but please don't try to tell me the 5 Series is dull.
I will concede that the most recent model is not as agile as its forebears. How could it possibly be given the heavyweight customers' demands for ever more connectivity, luxury and refinement additives, alongside the requirements of certain safety bodies insisting on ever increasing amounts of autonomous driving camera systems.
Given the added weight and electronic admonishments, its nothing short of a miracle that the 5 Series remains as joyful to drive as it undoubtedly is. What's more, as we stand at the beginning of a new all-electric dawn, this last rendering of the 5 Series may come to be revered in history for its eager driving characteristics.
Recently, I took part in a giant EV shoot out and, although electric cars have much to recommend them, including some stunning straight-line acceleration, the overriding impression I came away with is just how much weight these battery laden beast of burden are asked to carry. Turn any of them into a bend and despite being low slung, the overriding sense of mass makes its presence felt, so much so that the future may see agility make it on to the endangered species list.
Of course, many may argue that this is a price worth paying for zero tailpipe emissions and cleaner city air, and I have plenty of sympathy for that view, but for now and not too far into the distant future I will continue to enjoy the inherent balance and intuitive reactions of the 5 Series. Unless, of course, Mr. Fickle has other ideas.
5th Report: A moving experience
Modern cars are big. Too big? Well, I guess that depends on your point of view.
Like half the world, I've long given up parking cars in my garage. Mainly because that space has long become a burial ground for a ragtag collection of offcuts of wood, half-empty paint cans and a general malaise of mechanical odds and sods, which, at the time of deposition, were all deemed 'sure to come in handy one day'.
To be honest, even if I'd had the requisite energy and inclination to roll up my sleeves and shuttle half this mountain of detritus down to the dump and post the remaining half on a 'free to collect' website, it would have helped. It would still have taken immense levels of concentration on my behalf and every one of our 520d's dizzying array of cameras and bleating parking sensors, to slot it into the narrow confines of a 1980s garage, and avoid a bruising encounter with some unforgiving scarlet brickwork.
Worst of all, getting the Touring in would just be the easy part, as even a slim-hipped lad like me would have to suck in every sinew and open the driver's door with the dexterity of a safecracker to avoid leaving a streak of black metallic graffiti on the wall and an embarrassing tell-tale sliver of exposed primer on the door frame.
How do I know this for sure when the internals of the garage represent such an impenetrable pile of junk? Well, a couple of weeks ago I got the all-clear to move to a new house, so without so much as a scintilla of sentimentality or hint of nostalgia, I hired a skip and binned the blooming lot.
What's more, come the day of the big move, any thoughts I may have previously harboured about big, heavy cars creating untold damage on road surfaces and any feelings about the ridiculous amount of stress involved when trying to squeeze a pair of these leviathans past each other in narrow suburban streets miraculously vanished into thin air.
Although most of my stuff went in the back of the removal van, having already forked out the fat end of £400 in advance, only to be told on the morning of the move that the stuff I hadn't included on the website calculator would cost an additional £100, I flipped down the rear seats, removed the twin load covers and in true Victor Meldrew fashion, started frantically filling every available litre of the Touring's expansive load bay.
I may have mentioned previously that I can't help feeling the 5 Series is too much of a thoroughbred for such commercial undertakings, and I am rather ashamed of some of the arduous tasks I have subjected it to and the general carnage I have created while doing so. I do promise that once I've settled into my new abode, I will treat it to a thorough wash and brush-up, and I'm confident it will come up sparkling like a new pin once again.
Certainly, despite its recent travails, it still drives with a level of refinement and engagement that is hard to fault. Regardless of load and regardless of whether it is sitting in stuffy traffic, spearing down a B-road or ponding up a motorway, the Touring still performs flawlessly, with a degree of competence and a level of panache that turns every journey into a joyous occasion.
It's not just the drive that makes it feel so special, either. It is as much to do with the fact that everything you come in contact with exudes an air of quality and precision. Whether it be the sound and weight of the door slam or the consistency of the damping of all the switchgear, or even the subtle cough of the engine being summoned back into life by the seamless 48V stop-start system, it is patently clear that the 5 Series is an outstandingly high-quality product.
4th Report: Touring proves its worth
What with getting snowed in, followed rapidly by discovering a nail lodged slap bang in the middle of the offside front tyre, I was beginning to think my time with our BMW Touring was looking a wee bit jinxed.
Now though, and this may well be tempting fate, I'm pleased to report that since those two incidents absolutely nothing has gone wrong with the 520d and if anything, the driving elements have only improved.
While the 2.0-litre four pot engine and eight-speed automatic gearbox seem to be working ever more harmonious as I begin to tackle longer post lockdown journeys, I'm also appreciative of the i-Drive system's ease of use and the ache relieving benefits of the supportive driver's seat, complete with muscle relaxant heated elements.
Just as encouragingly, I've also noticed an uplift in fuel economy. Now I know that an average 48.7mpg is only a teeny gain over what I have previously been achieving and this is still quite a bit short of the official 55.4mpg BMW claims the Touring is capable of, but given diesel is more expensive than liquid gold, I'll take it.
Whether the improvement is down to a sunnier, less leaden-footed disposition on my part or whether after 4,500 miles the engine is freeing up a bit, I'm not entirely sure, but as my daughters are always keen to remind me "life is all about small gains".
Speaking of which, as a Dad to two girls - one of whom can't tell one end of a screwdriver from another and who could easily get lost in a phone box - I often feel like a member of International Rescue. No, not Parker.
I like to think I'm more of a Virgil type character, turning up just in the nick of time with a bulging toolbox containing enough specialised kit to fix everything from a blown fuse to a busted boiler. If my visit happens to coincide with a meteorite honing in on Peckham town centre, well, I'll give that a go, too.
The Touring certainly does more than a passing impression of Thunderbird 2. Once the twin roller blinds are removed - one magically covers the load bay in silky unison with the theatrical closing of the electrically powered tailgate, while the other elevates to create a pooch incarceration are - and the rear seats flipped forwards, step ladders, flat-packed cupboards and half the contents of the Screwfix catalogue can be all swallowed up with a minimal amount of fuss.
Trouble is, I can't help feeling the Touring is just a bit too 'lifestyle' for these commercial undertakings. After all, it comes with a split tailgate, allowing the rear screen to be popped open independently of its hatch surround; ideal for delicately dropping in a box of gift rapped French fancies but not much use if you need to load a few bags of ballast to stabilise that precariously leaning flower bed.
The boot is also lined wall-to-wall with high-quality carpet and, although I'm not overly concerned about its durability and I love its ability to cushion more fragile componentry, I do wince every time I attempt to slide anything that isn't completely smooth bottomed over the silky aluminium finish of the adjustable lashing point floor gutterings.
Equally, although the lack of load lip is brilliant at minimising the strain on my lumbar region, the fact it sits so flush to the floor automatically places its burnished finish in jeopardy. Consequently, every time I proffer heavy items such as my electric golf trolley, I gingerly lift it over the polished flashing and into the elongated cargo hold. So much for reducing my chiropractor bills.
Of course, any self-respecting tradesman would simply avoid these traumas by unfurling a protective tarpaulin but then again, I don't think I've ever seen Virgil hurtling towards his pilot's seat carrying a roll of tarp under one arm.
3rd Report: Deflated but not defeated
What is that saying? 'The course of true love never did run smooth'?
This definitely seems to be the case with our BMW 5 Series Touring.
Now, before we go any further, just as I did in March, I will caution the 'I knew German cars weren't as reliable as everyone thinks' brigade before they jump to any inauspicious conclusions.
I will admit, it has only been a matter of weeks since the Touring's rear-wheel-drive layout and its inability to gain traction saw it stranded on my drive under six-inches of snow, and yes, another debilitating problem in such short-order could be seen as a pointer to sketchy unreliability. However, once again, the cause of the 5 Series woes had more to do with the fickle finger of fate, rather than any mechanical meltdown. Yes, I'm talking about the curse of the flat tyre.
If you're a high mileage person then you'll probably consider this deflating experience an inevitable consequence of the job and regard it with Zen-like calm, knowing that, depending on where and when said incident happens, it will either put an inconvenient dent in your working day or completely ruin your weekend. Probably the latter.
Fortunately, and much as I'm loathe to say it as over the years I have been a severe critic of the technology, my experience turned out to be little more than a minor blip, because the Touring is fitted with run-flat tyres.
I'll go into the reasons for my dislike of run-flats in a moment but for now, all I can say is they pretty much saved my bacon.
Setting out from Kent, facing a 70-mile journey to Hampshire, I had just cleared the confines of Sevenoaks and within spitting distance of the M25, when a low-pressure warning light pinged up on the Touring's big central infotainment screen.
Concluding caution is nearly always the better part of valour, I speared off down the slip of a road less travelled, so I could ascertain whether I was the victim of a pernicious nail or just a rogue sensor.
With older generations of BMW, you were left to play a quizzical guessing game, trying to identify which was the stricken member of the rubbery quartet, and because of their structural integrity, it was a devil of a job to identify which of the four had pulled a sicky. Thankfully, the latest 5 Series does the Poirot work for you and delving a little further into the menus revealed the near-side front tyre was ailing. Our 5 Series also comes with a concierge-style helpline, so I pressed the summoning button and sure enough, it connected my phone to an angel of mercy in BMW's call-centre. Unfortunately, she told me that although they would be happy to dispatch a rescue vehicle, little could be done in the way of on-the-spot repairs and the total of their endeavours would be to escort me to the nearest tyre fitting centre.
Agreeing with their diagnosis and given the rigid stiffness of run-flat tyres will allow the vehicle to continue at speeds up to 50mph to a suitable place of exchange, I continued my journey via back B-roads until I could get home and arrange for a new tyre to be fitted the next day.
As I said earlier, my dislike of run-flats is well documented, because of their unyielding structure and the negative effect this has on ride quality. Given the Touring is fitted with 20in wheels and lowered M-Sport suspension, my fears were the next six months would turn out to be more torture than Touring.
Thankfully, the Touring's ride, although taut, is far from harsh, due in no small part to the adaptive dampers that are part of the £2,495 M-Sport Pro package, but also the Touring's self-levelling rear suspension appears to give it a comfort advantage over an equivalent 5 Series saloon.
So, providing the fates don't intervene once again, I'll crack on enjoying all the delights the Touring has to offer.
2nd Report: Spring brings light relief
Is there anything more frustrating than getting a new toy and not being able to play with it? That's exactly how I felt about our new BMW 520d Touring, because within 48 hours of its arrival it was undrivable.
Before you get carried away with thoughts of 'I knew German cars weren't as reliable as everyone thinks' I confess, the Touring's malaise had more to do with the fickle hand of Mother Nature than any mechanical meltdown.
Although, putting its power to the road via the rear wheels did play a significant part in its ignominious demise. Stuck on my inclined driveway, under six inches of crusty snow, atop a Teflon glazed surface and despite my judicious scatterings of grit, copious amount of swearing and sweaty shovelling, the rear wheels were rendered incapable of gaining any sort of purchase.
Thankfully, after a couple of frustrating days of working from home, the sun finally put its hat on and I was able to extradite the Touring from winter's icy grip.
Had we specified out Touring with xDrive would things have been any less debilitating? Possibly. That said, I'm less inclined to think of four-wheel-drive systems as a wintry silver bullet than most. Yes, all-wheel drive undoubtedly boosts traction, but they are no help when it comes to braking on icy surfaces and that additional component mass can actually exacerbate stopping distances.
Winter tyres have long been legal requirements in chillier parts of Europe once the nights start to draw in, and they are undoubtedly the best solution to keeping matters moving.
Here in the UK, we still see the added expense and hassle of storing additional black hoops as too much of a faff, and we continue to muddle through with crossed fingers.
I feel that attitude might be quite different if more folks realised the traction, grip and associated braking performance of non-winter tyres is significantly reduced even at a relatively balmy 9°C; something to consider the next time you find yourself travelling a bit too close to the car in front on a dark, chilly night.
Despite its stuttering start to life with yours truly, I simply love the Touring, thanks mainly to its strong power and excellent refinement. I'm a particular fan of quiet cars and their ability to ease the working day because noise is a significant fatigue-inducing factor.
Given the Touring's 500-mile travelling capability on a full tank, it is all too easy to spend long periods behind the wheel and the Touring has several tricks up its sleeve to help keep me alert. These include a sensory reinvigorating programme, which delivers a face full of refreshing aircon and a rather evocative scent, accompanied by an upbeat musical melody.
All good stuff, but the highlights for me are the Touring's optional Icon Adaptive LED Headlights. This select and forget arrangement does a brilliant job of reducing soporific inducing eye strain, as it automatically adjusts a matrix of individual lenses to block out certain areas of the road so as not to dazzle oncoming drivers while leaving complementary lenses unregulated to provide maximum road coverage.
It can also dim areas consistent with the rear of vehicles I may be following, while continuing to shine past the flanks of said vehicle and off into the distance.
If I'm honest, I nearly fell off my chair when I saw the price. At £1,000 I was set to pronounce them an extravagant dalliance until I awoke my old Porsche Cayman from its slumbers and took it for a cobweb blowing cruise prior to a MOT appointment the next day. Caught short by the failing light, the intense eye strain and heightened levels of concentration required to navigate a country road lit only by pallid xenon lights did more than anything to convince me of the extraordinary safety benefits the Touring's epic illumination system delivers.
1st Report: Generation gap
I'm not one for nostalgia, but when editor Simon Harris suggested I run around in a BMW 520d Touring for the next few months I did get a wee bit dewy-eyed. That's because my long-term relationship with the 5 Series stretches way back to 1995.
Although the 5 Series in question was supplied via the BMW-approved used scheme, with 20-odd thousand miles on the clock - and at first sight, I wasn't entirely convinced by the rather questionable maroon paint and distinctly iffy beige velour interior - I didn't care; it was a 525i and it was mine, well, at least it was for the next six months.
Excited almost to bursting point at the prospect of unbridled performance from its pearly 190hp six-cylinder motor - be still my beating heart - imagine my chagrin when the subject of my adulation turned out to be an absolute clunker.
Most of my bubbles were popped by the combination of four-speed slush-matic gearbox and Noah's ark torque converter technology, which, together, took about a quarter of a mile to fully engage and always felt as if they were on a mission to reduce the engine's power output by at least 50%.
Strangely enough, our new 520d's four-cylinder diesel engine develops an almost identical power output to the old six-pot. But how a 1990's petrol burner and a modern turbo diesel engine go about generating their power is as different as the combustion processes of a nuclear fission plant and a coal-fired power station.
Linked to the now ubiquitous eight-speed automatic, which was initially developed by transmission gurus ZF in conjunction with BMW, the immediate lock-up of the clutch packs married to the 2.0-litre motor's immense torque, aided by an 11bhp 48V starter-generator, are on a scale that would leave my old nail rattling its tappets in sheer disbelief.
At 55.4mpg, the 520d's official WLTP fuel consumption is different gravy also when compared with the mid 20s mpg a Marlboro-smoking '90s business traveller would have expected to achieve. That said, early indications of my mainly motorway drives, suggest I'm achieving closer to mid-40s mpg, although I am expecting this to improve as the engine beds in.
The 520d's engine is RDE2-compliant (as are all new car engines for 2021), so it isn't affected by the 4% benefit-in-kind tax diesel surcharge. But it does produce 146g/km of CO2, giving it a BIK rating of 32%, which looks pretty punchy next to the 10% implication that drivers of many of the latest generation of plug-in hybrids enjoy.
I'm more than happy though, because not only am I able to luxuriate in the 520d's effortless power delivery, but I'm also completely blown away by its phenomenal refinement. Along with the 48-volt mild hybrid system, which helps soften the coughs and shudders of stop-start events, the combustion rattle of the motor is so unobtrusive that most of my passengers so far have been unable to tell its pop-bang signature from that of a petrol engine.
Undoubtedly, some of this is down to the latest infinitely variable valve timing and rarefied fuel strategy, but it's also a product of bathing the engine in a thick synthetic coating to help reduce mechanical whirrs and lashes. Yes, some tingly vibrations can still be felt through the floor and if I place a hand on the steering column I can sense some subtle engine pulses, which may go some way to explaining why BMW seems obsessed with fitting such thick-rimmed steering wheels to its vehicles.
Our M Sport spec car features a vast array of equipment, so I'll save detailed analysis for my next report. Suffice to say, I've always considered BMW iDrive controller to be the best and safest way of selecting and displaying infotainment menus.
BMW isn't oblivious to the growing appeal of touchscreens, however, so this and voice activation are included as an interaction portals. Consequently, I will be making a concerted effort to spend more time prodding and engaging in conversations over the next few months. That said, I draw the line at gesture control, which allows a rotating hand in mid-air to increase or reduce the system's volume. The last thing I need is for a fellow road user to mistakenly think I am giving them the Royal wave.
Automatic transmission with gearshift paddles, M Sport suspension, run flat tyres, roof rails, leather seats, heated front seats, automatic air conditioning, BMW Live Cockpit with online services.
Adaptive LED headlights with high-beam assist - £1,000
Technology pack: including head-up display, Harman-Kardon surround sound system, enhanced Bluetooth with wireless charging and gesture control - £2,495.
Comfort Pack: including steering wheel heating, comfort front seats and luggage compartment package - £2,495
M Sport Pro Pack: including 20in Alloy wheels, M Sport braking system, sun protection glass, M seat belts - £2,495
Panoramic glass sunroof - £1,495
Parking assist plus - £650