DRIVE TIME


Car Review: BMW 535xi

Value, elegance and (unfortunately) iDrive



By Frederic Fane Wolfer, Kiplinger's Personal Finance

Sticker price: $52,375
Dealer cost: $48,245
Horsepower: 300
MPG: 17 city, 25 highway
3-yr resale value: 59%
5-yr resale value: 41/%
Cargo space: 14 cu. ft.

Highs: Smooth, powerful engine; sports-sedan competence.
Lows: iDrive system needlessly complicated; gear selector and some other controls unintuitive.

The 2008 BMW 535xi sport sedan is a satisfying automobile to drive. It's good enough -- and enough of a value -- to earn Kiplinger's Best in Class for sedans over $45,000.

Going down the road, it’s a blast. The car helps you do whatever you intend -- and maybe some things that you wouldn’t have thought about absent the car’s superlative handling and 300-horsepower, twin-turbocharged inline six-cylinder engine.

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BMW makes faster versions of the 5-series -- the marginally quicker 550i and the faster-than-most-sports-cars M5 -- but the 535xi is still plenty quick. The 200-pound weight penalty of the test car’s all-wheel-drive system didn’t seem to be much of a hindrance. BMW says that the 535xi will go from standing still to 60 miles per hour in 5.6 seconds.

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Playing it safe

So it’s a good thing the car comes with a long list of safety equipment. It has standard front and side airbags for the people in the front seats, as well as head-protecting airbags in the front and rear. The seatbelts have automatic pretensioners and force limiters that go into action if you hit something solid. And BMW has equipped the 5-series with four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes with BMW’s Dynamic Brake Control. It stops darn well.

The all-wheel-drive system never made its presence obvious. I drove the car in light rain and wasn't aware of it doing its thing. The car stays planted and makes you feel safe. The automatic windshield wipers worked well, too.

The model BMW sent over had a few options that boosted its $52,375 base sticker price (including destination charge) to $61,825. My test model came with an adaptive cruise control that adjusts your speed automatically should you approach slower-moving vehicles, as well as parking-assist feature that beeps as the car gets close to objects around it.

A premium package added leather and auto-dimming mirrors, and a "Sport Package" provided some exterior trim, a grippy steering wheel and upgraded front seats (which adjusted ten different ways and were very comfy). The car also had an optional premium sound package and HD Radio. Very nice -- decent power and good tone made the Chili Peppers sound even better than usual.

iDrive blues

Of course, to operate that sound system you’ve got to go through BMW’s iDrive. That’s when the frustration begins.

First, there’s the matter of its basic operation. Depending on which iDrive menu you happen to be in, sometimes you turn the control knob and sometimes you move it left, right, up or down. Despite on-screen indicators, it’s easy to do the wrong thing -- in which case you must pause for a moment to figure out what you should have done.

Second is the matter of making simple things more complex. For example, before you can even tune in a radio station, you must first punch up the radio dial on the iDrive screen (starting with the "Entertainment" menu, not the "Communications" menu).

But get the radio dial on-screen and you find that it works like an old-style stereo tuner. Why does iDrive include a feature that mimics technology some of its younger drivers may not even remember? And why, if BMW prefers old-school radio dials, did it not simply put in a radio with a dial?

Go to BMW’s Web site and you can watch a short video about iDrive (and click on the iDrive link) in which Chris Bangle, design director of BMW AG, tells you it is "an intuitive approach to driving ergonomics" and that "it puts the driving experience first." That’s debatable.

A couple of other nits: BMW has forgone a conventional gear selector in favor of a joystick-like control. It seems to work well enough, although an operation that was once intuitive is now less so. Was this a problem that needed fixing?

And the turn-signal stalk is different, too. Press the lever slightly and the turn signal blinks a few times and then shuts off. Press the lever harder and now the signal stays on. It will self-cancel when you’ve finished your turn. But if you’re just switching lanes in town and you press the lever too hard, you’ll have to cancel it. If you do so by moving the lever again, there’s better than a 50-50 chance you’ll signal a turn in the opposite direction.

But in the end, I could live with the quirks. All annoyances aside, the 535xi really is a joy to drive.



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