REVIEW DATE: 11 Sep 2007
The 523i May Be One Of The First Rungs On The Five Series Ladder But, Thanks To Valvetronic And Brake Energy Regeneration Technology, Buyers Won't Be Harbouring Any Inferiority Complexes. Jonathan Crouch Reports.
The BMW Five Series is a car that enjoys a stellar reputation but the entry level versions weren't always the most wonderful choices in the range. Quite what BMW were thinking of when they plumbed a 1.8-litre engine that generated a feeble 105bhp into a Five only they know. Fortunately, things have changed since the days when buying an entry level model in a BMW range labelled you as nothing more than the most grubbing badge snob. The latest BMW 523i is a car that may prop up the Five Series petrol range but these days it's a lot more than an ego prop.
The 523i is a development of the old 520i which formed the entry-level point for this Five Series range when it was launched in 2003. This was powered by a respectable 2.2-litre 170bhp six-cylinder engine that, though no slouch, still struggled to break the rest to sixty sprint in ten seconds and had to be worked hard to extract its full potential. When it arrived with only 4bhp more on top, the 523i looked to be little different - but that was before you drove it. Then the latest facelift brought an extra 13bhp as well as notable efficiency improvements.
The rest to sixty figure, now down to 8.2s, gives a pointer to the gains that BMW's tinkering has been able to make in this 2,497cc petrol engine made extensively from lightweight materials such as magnesium and aluminium. At the same time, fuel consumption is nearly 17% better at 38.7mpg on the combined cycle thanks to the use of Brake Energy Regeneration technology. This system uses Intelligent Alternator Control to recharge the car's battery with energy that would have been lost on the overrun or during braking. Torque has also been increased by 5Nm with 95% of the engine's maximum torque of 235Nm available between 2,000rpm to 5,000rpm. Maximum speed is 147mph and power now stands at a hefty 190bhp.
It's all enough to make you wonder about the validity of paying over £1,500 more for the 525i, which features a more highly tuned version of this 2.5-litre engine developing 218bhp. This gets you to sixty a second quicker, manages 7mph more flat out and offers just 35Nm more torque. Small beer, even for a BMW driver. Prices for the 523i start at £29,200 for the SE, rising to £32,320 for the M Sport. If you want the Touring estate, the prices are respectively £31,255 and £34,375. For equivalent 525i models, you'll be paying from £30,560 in SE saloon form.
Whichever model you choose, you get a six-speed manual gearbox as standard, while a six-speed automatic with a Steptronic 'manual'-style change option is available at extra cost. The automatic 'box has also been the subject of improvements of late with a 40% increase in reaction times and shift times cut by half. There's also a more ergonomic gear-selector and revised software. The 5-Series remains the only executive saloon that you genuinely justify specifying with a manual gearbox but the auto option is looking increasingly attractive and will help the car's residual value.
"The BMW 523i is a car suffused with intelligence.."
523i buyers also receive DSC+, a development of the already accomplished 'Dynamic Stability Control' system featured on every BMW model. DSC+ adds five features to the standard DSC: Brake Standby, Rain Brake Support, Hill Start Assist, Fading Compensation and Soft Stop. 'Rain Brake Support' realises the onset of rain (through a screen sensor or use of the wipers) and wipes residue off the brake discs in preparation for use.
'Hill Start Assist' allows a manual transmission car to pull away smoothly on a gradient without rolling backwards by maintaining brake pressure for the short time taken to apply the accelerator after releasing the foot or handbrake. 'Fading Compensation' removes the danger of brake fade when the brakes get hot by automatically applying them harder without extra pressure from the driver.
'Brake Standby' shortens stopping distances by priming the brakes if the driver lifts off the accelerator sharply in preparation for an emergency stop. The result is a car that has already commenced the stopping process in an emergency situation by the time the driver applies the brake. 'Soft Stop', meanwhile, allows the car to come to a perfectly smooth halt by releasing a small proportion of the braking pressure at the end of the braking cycle.
The once radical shape of the 5 Series has now matured nicely into a discreet but smart piece of design. In a bid to keep things fresh, BMW has made a few small changes to the latest car. At the front, the headlights and indicators are now clear glass while the kidney grille sits flush with the bumper. The air duct in the rear valance has been revised while the side sill gets an additional contour line and horizontal LEDs are used in the rear light cluster. Inside, the door panels and window switches have been redesigned and there's now eight freely programmable 'favourites' buttons on the dashboard so that drivers don't have to use the infernal iDrive control system quite so much. There's also an optional Lane Departure warning system offered.
The 5 Series remains a big but not bulky car. The saloon gets decent space up front with slightly below average rear leg room and a 520-litre boot. Measuring 4.48m in length, the Touring estate features a 535-litre load capacity with the 60/40 split folding rear seats in place and a hefty 1,650 litres with the seats folded down. There's also a split bootlid with the rear window opening separately for the easy loading of small items. Customers can also opt for a fully-automatic tailgate operation with a press on the key fob opening the hatch and simultaneously retracting the boot load cover.
The BMW 523i is a car suffused with intelligence. The advertising strapline that BMW used to introduce the Five Series range, 'Everything we know about the car. In a car' may sound a little overblown when considering the entry-level model, but evidence of the Munich company's deep understanding in this market sector is everywhere. This thoroughly modern engine certainly provides a strong counter for the argument that diesel power is the way to go in a 'Five'. With improved efficiency, more power and stronger torque, it's a convincing proposition.
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