BMW, Road Test Reviews, Vehicles

2008 BMW 535i – Road Test

Chris Bangle has been castigated relentlessly for a few years now since he completely re-designed the BMW 7 series. Fortunately, he did a much better job with subsequent re-designs… and they actually look fantastic – especially the 5 series. I’ve always loved the look of the BMW 5 Series, and I think the newest rendition is gorgeous!

The BMW 5 series is the second best-selling vehicle in BMW’s line up (behind the 3 series) and is in a very competitive class that includes the Mercedes Benz E Class, the all-new Jaguar XF, Volvo S80, and the Lexus GS 450 to name just a few. As with the competition, different engines are available from V-6’s to V-8’s with BMW offering a V-8 and a straight 6-cylinder engine. This week’s Road Test features BMW’s twin-turbo version of the inline 6-cylinder engine that is also available in the BMW 335i. Available with BMW’s excellent xDrive all-wheel-drive system, it has to be considered THE perfect engine available today.

First Impressions
Before I go on to the details and how the car drives, let’s get the most important information first – the twin-turbo 300 horsepower in-line 6-cylinder engine. Here’s what the BMW press kit says about it: “Turbo lag is a thing of the past, thanks to our inspired use of two turbochargers, each supplying three cylinders with compressed air. This advanced six accelerates with a force that throws you back in your seat and doesn’t stop until redline.”

Two words: H-O-L-Y C-R-A-P !!!!!!!!!! This thing goes like a rocket ship. It pins you to your seat – just like they said it would – and holding on is all you can do! It offers gobs of power – completely effortlessly and instantly. Having previously experienced this engine with a six-speed manual in the 335xi, I found the six-speed automatic in the 5 series even better! Rarely do I prefer an automatic over a manual, but this is without question the best automatic transmission I’ve experienced to date. There is absolutely no perception of the transmission shifting unless you happen to be looking at the tachometer as the gears change.

BMW offers three transmission choices with the 5 series: a 6-speed manual, a 6-speed automatic with AutoStick or a 6-speed automatic with paddle-shifters. The cost is the same regardless of your preference – it’s included in the cost. Bravo BMW, why can’t everyone do that?

Another design feature that BMW has taken a beating for is the iDrive – an all-in-one climate control/audio system./navigation control system. I was told it wasn’t as bad as everyone makes it out to be, and on the surface it looked like it wasn’t all that bad – but how would it be in day to day living? If you take the time to read the manual and understand it, it’s not as bad as other journalists have made it out to be. Once you’ve chosen you preferences for the heating, cooling etc., it is quite easy to operate. However it’s still more complicated than it needs to be for basic functions – it could be more user-friendly. Unlike the awful Audi system, the iDrive can be circumvented when you want to adjust the cabin temperature and fan speed for example. Changing and storing radio stations is an ordeal – completely frustrating my techno-savvy wife. She can programme a cars’ audio system in a matter of seconds without looking at a manual, but the iDrive infuriated her so much she gave up trying to set the radio stations after 10 minutes. Even after studying the manual I was of no use to guide her on her quest and she refuses to read manuals!

The test vehicle had the optional (!!) satellite navigation system installed. In order to get the SatNav ($4,000) you also have to purchase the Premium Package ($3,800). As a SatNav system it is quite good, with the directions conveniently placed right in front of the driver within the heads-up display on the windshield and programming it is relatively painless using the iDrive. In the 5 series, BMW have found a way to incorporate the DVD based system while offering the driver the option of also listening to CD’s without having to purchase the optional 6-disc CD changer. The DVD drive sits below the traditional CD drive in the centre dash console. Unfortunately, it’s still a single-disc unit (quite unacceptable in a vehicle priced at $70,000+). On the subject of the audio system, one word sums it up – unbelievable! As you’d expect, but not necessarily get, in a vehicle in this price range, the sound is stunning with crystal clear highs and thumping deep bass if you choose to crank up the sub woofers. My only complaint is that it won’t give you any song/artist info on CD’s that have the info embedded. The 535i had the optional ($350!!) USB jack for an MP3 player to be connected to the sound system. Connecting the MP3 player sends the track information to the screen of the audio system for viewing, while re-charging the unit at the same time.

The test vehicle had the optional “M Sport Package” ($5,700 !!) that includes the suspension from the M series as well as a steering wheel badge, run-flat tires, aerodynamic body kit, multi-function steering wheel special rims and the Sport seat among other things. Although I haven’t driven the M5 yet or the 5 series with the standard suspension and steering wheel, at that price I have to ask myself – how bad is the standard suspension to justify adding more than five-grand to the cost of the vehicle? Is it worth all that extra money?

One thing that just might be worth the money is the Sport seats that replace the Comfort seats when you order the M Package. The seats are the most comfortable seats I’ve ever had the pleasure to sit in. If I could find a way to purchase one for my TV room I’d do it! With adjustments ranging from the basic forward/backward to multi-way lumbar, headrest height and tilt to leg extensions and bolsters, it is impossible not to get completely comfortable in the seat. The only difference between the driver and front passenger seat is that the driver gets a 2 person memory feature that includes the tilt/telescope settings, mirror settings and audio/climate control settings.

The Heads Up Display (HUD) ($1,500 stand-alone or in the Technology package) was for me a complete waste of space. I could only see the top of the number, so an 8 looked like a zero and a 5 looked like a T. I tried moving the seat higher but it was very uncomfortable. I doubt it would work for taller people because they tend to sit further away from the windshield – not closer and lower. I tend to sit a little higher than most other people so it should have been perfectly fine for me. When the SatNav instructions were displayed it wasn’t a problem seeing that however. Unfortunately, the speed and lane departure is non-adjustable so I was stuck with half the information available. I even went through the iDrive after perusing the owner’s manual to see if there was a way to make adjustments – but alas, no.

The Dynamic Handling Package ($3,700) was also included in the test vehicle. Apart from the Active steering, you also get Dynamic Drive. The steering feels a little odd when you first use it, but after about a minute it feels quite normal. The most notable effects are when you have to make a sharp turn at slower speeds such as in a parking lot or from a stop. Just turn the wheel a little and the front wheels turn a lot. It’s quite ingenious and very helpful. Whether it’s worth the added cost only you can be the judge of that. It can be ordered as a stand-alone option for $1,500.

Comfort Lock. Locking the car was an art unto itself. Supposedly you just touch the lock cylinder on the driver’s door handle to lock the car and place your hand behind the door handle to unlock. Unfortunately, it didn’t always work quite so and it seemed to have a mind of its own as to which part you touched any given day. Using the fob to lock/unlock the door wasn’t much better – especially if you were any more than two feet away from the car. You can only lock the car using the driver’s door. Unlocking the car is very easy as all you have to do is place your hand behind the door handle on any of the doors and it unlocks (assuming you have the fob on your person of course). Overall the “improvement” over the 3-series (touching the top of any of the 4 door handles) doesn’t make any sense. Also, the 3 series had puddle/ambient lights that were located under the door handles, yet the more expensive and sophisticated 535i didn’t have them. Unlocking the trunk requires caution. When opening the trunk make sure you aren’t leaning forward over the trunk lid because it’ll take your head off as it flies open!! Closing the trunk required a surprising amount of effort – I can only surmise it’s because you are re-setting the pressure chamber that fires the lid open.

The trunk itself is borderline huge. I was definitely not expecting it to be as large as a full-sized car. Thanks to the run-flat tires, there’s even more room in the trunk because valuable space isn’t being taken up by the spare. Combined with a ski pass-through, the rear seats fold 60/40 for even more cargo capacity. The 535i even comes with a ski sack so that you don’t get the interior wet or dirty while transporting them to the slopes.

Rear passengers are treated to plenty of space with plenty of foot and legroom. As with just about any car – it is far more comfortable for two passengers than three in the back. As an added bonus the rear passengers get their own heated seats and temperature control.

A curious encounter with the 535i: One morning I wake up and jump in the car. The temperature overnight had dropped below freezing, but I thought nothing of it until I start the 535i. There’s a low tire pressure warning in the screen as well as the little info centre in front of the driver and just in case I missed that it’s also on the heads-up display. I jump out and have a look at the tires – look OK to me. So I get in and see what info I can find from this wonderful iDrive system. Absolutely nothing. It won’t let me change the screen from the warning info. It doesn’t even have the courtesy of telling me which tire is causing the problem. At this point I’m thinking: What if I was driving through some area that I’m unfamiliar with and this warning pops up and tells me to slow down to 50 km/hr until I can get air in one of the 4 tires? I can’t use the over-priced SatNav system because it won’t let me use it to find a gas station! Genius.

Fortunately, I have a compressor in my garage and I drive over to it. Which tire gets the air? I randomly guess the front right. I don’t even bother getting my tire gauge out – I’m getting a little perturbed by now. I put a bunch of air in the tire and return to the car. The display screen has now changed and guess what – I’ve put air in the wrong tire. It was supposed to be the driver’s front. Oh well, I put some air in that – how much? Dunno. I get back into the car and it wants me to reset the computer. I press yes and wait. Turns out I put exactly enough air in both tires to satisfy the computer. Oh, and I can change the radio station now that I’ve managed to avoid disaster and have gotten rid of the warning message! Out of curiosity, I got my tire gauge out to see how much air is in the tires. It’s a digital tire gauge and it can’t even tell me what the air pressure is – it just says “—“. I try the rear tire and get the same thing. So, this sophisticated TPM doesn’t even tell you what the tire pressure is. Does that mean only a BMW dealer has the tool to read the tire pressure? My wife’s $22,000 Mazda will tell me what tire is low and by how much, but this $80,000 BMW keeps that info to itself like it’s a threat to national security? Hmmm.

The 5 series comes with a dizzying array of options to customize the vehicle to each buyer’s taste and wallet…For more details and options go to: or

The Conclusion
The 535i is an incredible car that makes any journey a pleasure. The driver obviously gets to have all the fun by having the 300 horsepower twin-turbo engine and the smoothest automatic available. Is there a better 4-door sedan out there? I doubt that very much. Granted I haven’t driven every vehicle available – yet, but off the top of my head I can’t imagine any car at any price being this good. It has its idiosyncrasies such as a less than perfect climate control system, and the iDrive could be better, but as a driver’s car it can’t be beat. Is it worth it, and would I pay $59,735 US [$86,900 Cdn]? Fifty-nine – yes. Eighty-six – no chance.

BMW Ultimate Service is included at no charge with all new 2008 and later BMWs. BMW Ultimate Service includes: A New Car Limited Warranty for 4 years or 50,000 miles [80,000 kms]; Roadside Assistance Service for 4 years /Unlimited miles/kms & No-charge Scheduled Maintenance 4 years or 50,000 miles [80,000 kms].

Pricing for the 2008 BMW 535i
As tested: $59,735 [$86,900 Cdn]
Base price: $49,400 [$68,900 Cdn]
Destination & Delivery: $775 U.S. / $1,995 Canada

Fuel Consumption: [Fuel: Premium 91 Octane]
The twin-turbocharged 3.0 Litre I-6 is rated at 19.8 mpg [11.9 L/100 kms] City and 30.4 mpg [7.5 L/100 kms] Highway
I averaged a very impressive 22 mpg [10.7 L/100km] in very aggressive driving.

Absolutely incredible surge of power from the twin-turbo engine
Amazingly responsive automatic transmission
Extremely quiet at all speeds
Awesome audio system
Without a doubt it’s “The Ultimate Driving Machine”

i-Drive is a little too complicated, even after studying the manual and understanding it’s functions
Somewhat bland centre console

Back Seat Driver Test: 9 out of 10
“This is very comfortable, surprisingly roomy”

Immediate Competition:
Audi A6, Jaguar XF, Lexus GS 350, Mercedes-Benz E Class, Saab 9-5, Volvo S80

By The Numbers:
Powertrain:             3.0 Litre DOHC 24-valve I-6, Twin-turbo engine; 6-speed automatic transmission; RWD
Horsepower:          300 @ 5,800 rpm
Torque:                   300 @ 1,400 rpm
0-60 mph:               6.0 seconds
Top Speed:            150 mph / 240 km/h (electronically limited)

10 – Quality
10 – Noise, Vibration & Harshness (NVH)
10 – Cargo Area/Trunk Space
10 – Special Features (SatNav/Heated Seats/ Sunroof, etc)

10 – Ease of Entry/Exit
10 – Front Roominess
10 – Rear Roominess
10 – Driving Position/Controls

10 – Drool Factor
10 – Fit & Finish

10 – Engine
10 – Transmission
10 – Ride & Handling

Ownership Value
8 – Bang for the $$
10 – Fuel Economy

 Total  148 / 150

Copyright © 2008 by Iain Shankland. All rights reserved.
Text: Iain Shankland / Images: BMW & Iain Shankland
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