- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 16, 2004

With few exceptions over nearly 40 years, the Bavarian Motor Works has nurtured a reputation for precise handling even on cars with modest power.

It’s a function that appeals primarily to the driving enthusiast, but it has contributed to an overall perception of performance that has made BMW a leading luxury brand in the United States.

Potential buyers may know nothing about automobiles and never push them harder than would the average Toyota Camry driver.

Nevertheless, they have a notion, however vague, that BMW somehow stands for Best Motoring World-wide.

Now that’s not irrefutably true, but the impression could become more vivid with the introduction for 2004 of the company’s active steering.

It starts on the new 5-Series, and initially only as part of a $3,300 optional sport package. But it’s not hyperbole to say it marks a milestone in handling technology.

The 5-Series, with six-cylinder and V-8 power, is BMW’s midsize sport sedan.

Now in its fifth generation, it has been completely redesigned for the 2004 model year, incorporating some of the styling that caused controversy everywhere when it first appeared on the bigger and more expensive 7-Series.

The styling is the responsibility of BMW’s design director, American Chris Bangle, 47, who was born and grew up in Wausau, Wis.

Although the 7-Series design prompted disparagement by some critics, and has been softened, it has been largely accepted.

The same may happen with the new 5-Series, which probably will be disdained by people who like the crisp lines of the 2003 5-Series.

The new 5’s styling presents a more rounded appearance from the front, with fierce-loo

king headlights. Out back, it flaunts a subdued bustle over the trunk, similar to that on the 7-Series, that will likely draw most of the criticism.

But regardless of the styling, the structure and the sheet metal — aluminum from the front pillar forward for balance — encases the performance parts that have become BMW trademarks.

There are four distinct 5-Series models, starting with the $39,995 525i, which is powered by an in-line 2.5-liter six-cylinder engine with 184 horsepower.

Next up the line, at $44,995, is the tested 530i, with a 3-liter in-line six and 225 horsepower.

At the top of the series is the 545i, which is motivated by a 4.4-liter, 325-horsepower V-8 engine and either a six-speed automatic transmission ($54,995) or a six-speed manual with the choice of a clutch or clutch-free sequential manual shifting ($58,295).

Though all come with decent levels of standard equipment, there are long options lists that can add many thousands of dollars to the base price.

The test car was an example. It had the six-speed automatic, with a Steptronic manual shift mode, the sport package with active steering, which is certain to be a popular option, a navigation system and other extras that brought the suggested delivered price to $55,855.

It is not exaggerating to say that BMW’s active steering is a pole-vault leap in automobile handling.

It combines power rack-and-pinion steering with a small planetary gearbox that is computer controlled, fed by sensors and powered by an electric motor.

The gearbox operates something like a tiny automatic transmission to vary the steering ratio depending on speed and the attitude of the car in differing circumstances.

In practice, it gives the driver tight steering for easy parking and low-speed maneuvers.

As speed increases, so the does the steering ratio, which compensates for conditions and allows more precise steering inputs.

In an emergency situation, it even countersteers before the driver can think to do so.

Other than a general sense of well-being, it’s not something most people would notice in ordinary driving.

But it has the potential to provide a driver with the means to avoid an accident. The only time active steering is starkly in evidence is if you have an opportunity to compare it directly with conventional steering.

On a slalom course that mimics emergency handling, for example, the difference in control is breathtaking.

In other respects, the BMW 530i is a satisfying and comfortable sports sedan with few flaws.

One of them is its lack of front seat belts that are adjustable for height. It means that the belts are uncomfortable, maybe unacceptably so, for some people of short stature.

The front bucket seats on the test car had multiple adjustments, including lumbar supports, and the steering wheel also was power adjustable for both rake and reach, so almost anyone should be able to find a comfortable driving position. There’s a large dead pedal to brace the left foot during spirited driving.

In the back, there are belts for three passengers, but comfort for only two. The two get deep-seated and supportive comfort in nicely shaped seats, with plenty of head and knee room. The center passenger, if there is one, must sit on an agonizing perch with feet splayed on both sides of the driveshaft tunnel.

The 225-horsepower in-line six on the 530i provides adequate oomph to propel the almost 3,500-pound mass 60 mph in 6.9 seconds, according to the manufacturer’s specifications. With the six-speed manual or the sequential manual gearbox, the time is 6.6 seconds. Top speed is governed at 150 mph.

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