Test Drive: 2014 BMW 535 and 550 Series

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The 5 series is known as the “executive” car. Lots of reviews out there claim that the new 5 series is boring, soulless and mundane. There is some truth to that notion, but then again, it’s targeted towards a different market. If you want more spirit, you’ll have to either go for a M or something smaller. Nonetheless, what the 5 series lacks in soul and pure driving experience, it makes up in comfort and practicality.

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Yes, it’s a large sedan and there are a lot of options to choose from: 528i, 535i, 535d, 550i and the M5. There’s also a gran turismo version as well as a Xdrive option. The question is, which one is the sweet spot between value, performance and practicality? This past weekend, I drove the 535i and the 550i. In a nutshell, I would lean towards the 550i. It’s a big step up from the 535i, in terms of power, and it’s a tiny step down from the M5. It’s something you can drive every day, and for the occasional spirited run, you have something exciting.

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Power
Let’s just cut to the chase—the 535i gets the job done with its turbo inline 6. Yes, you can accelerate plenty fast, but there isn’t a moment where you say “wow” because of the power. For car enthusiasts, the 535i will feel under powered. The 5 series is a heavy sedan and needs more than 300hp/300lb torque. The engine is always working a little harder than it should in order to get up to speed.

On the other hand, the 550 is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Power (445hp/480lb torque) feels like it’s available at any RPM thanks to it’s turbo V8. Let me emphasize that again—TURBO V8. The power is borderline savage… The brochure says 0-60 in 4.3s—that’s the same speed as a stock 2014 Porsche 911 S. It’s not a Porsche killer, but g’damn, it’s a sleeper. When you put your foot down, it’ll pin you and your passengers. The power is astronomical, yet the car can be driven in a civilized way.

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Handling
Both the cars I drove shared an 8 speed automatic transmission, all season tires, the M competition package, and X-drive. Both cars felt the same around corners, bumps and braking. The automatic transmission made it easy to shift gears, but there is a little latency. That latency is slightly amplified by a minuscule amount of turbo lag in both cars. Overall, the 5 Series feels well planted and handles like a small car.

The biggest flaw is the electric steering feel—you definitely feel disconnected from the ground. The steering wheel provides little to no feedback of the road surface. When people say the 5 series lacks soul, I think the root comes from the electric steering. Without any feedback coming through the steering wheel, it’s very hard to make any corrections. You’ll have to rely on your other senses… including your 6th. The 5 series steering makes you feel like you’re flying a plane, as opposed to be connected. In that respect, the 5 sadly gets low marks.

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Comfort
The 5 series is the “Ultimate Comfort Machine”. You could drive for hours on any kind of road surface, and it just soaks it all up. After test driving numerous cars, I have to say that BMW probably makes some of the best seats in the business. The back seats are just as comfy. There’s plenty of head, leg, arm, and hip room. Everything is snug without being tight. People who drive a 5 series enjoy the finer things in life, and probably would never take a coach seat (even on a short flight). You could say that the 5 series says that the driver lives a more affluent lifestyle.

Oh by the way, the 5 is also super quiet… and that makes conversations with passengers enjoyable. It also makes the music sound better. The BMW is very refined when it comes to comfort and ergonomics. Even the cup holders are in smart places. Based on my experience with the 535 and 550, I think it’s safe to say that any of cars in the 5 series lineup will be a champion of comfort.

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Style
The 2014 5 series has often been described as a “small 7 series”. This claim is very true, both on the exterior and in the interior. Is the 5 series beautiful to look at? I think the design is elegant, sophisticated and modern. I would say that the interior is probably one of my favorites at the moment. The interior styling feels perfect. The 5 won’t turn heads, but then again, I don’t think it’s designed to draw attention. To me, the styling is a huge improvement over the last generation of 5’s.

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Conclusion
In my humble opinion, the 535i is a wonderful sedan that does an exceptional job of comfort. It, however, lacks authenticity that you’d expect in a BMW. If you want better handling, power to weight, and value, go for a 335i instead. Otherwise, the 535i lacks the power to really elevate the experience you’ve always anticipated. In short, it’s too heavy.

If you want a serious BMW experience, get the 550i. It’s much cheaper than the M5 (approximately $30k less), and provides ridiculous amounts of power… yet the car feels balanced. The 550i with X-drive is so good that I’d have to consider it as a candidate for my next car. It does almost everything well. As I get older, I find myself wanting less noise and knife-edge thrills. Instead, I want more comfort and privacy… and the 550 is truly a “sports sedan” that blends all the right things together. The 550i won’t start conversations or turn heads, but damn it’s one hell of a car… and when you need to smoke the guy in the 335i, you’ve got the juice.