Auto manufacturers are staring down the barrel of a mandatory Corporate Average Fuel Economy of 34.1 miles per gallon by 2016. As we draw closer to that time, big engines of the V-8 type are going to become increasingly rare.
“Remember how this feels,” I told my traveling companions while reveling in the fluidic thrust of the twin-turbocharged V-8 in the all-new 2011 BMW 550i, because the experience soon will be the equivalent of lighting up a cigarette — not against the law, but you just don’t get to do it much anymore.
Worries about political correctness slink away as those turbos spool up 400 horsepower and imperiously rocket you away from anybody who dares question this BMW’s primacy. The Germans like their big luxoliners to sustain high speeds. The 4.4-liter twin-turbo V-8 (smaller than last year’s 4.8-liter V-8, but 40 horsepower stouter with an audacious 90 lb.-ft. of extra torque) dials up the speedometer’s big numbers with shocking ease. After the briefest moment it takes both turbochargers to respond to the throttle, you plus 4,400 pounds of BMW, hurtle to 60 mph in under 5 seconds.
Although offering a manual transmission with such a car is an absolute rarity these days, the 550i has it. But we have to tell you about the wonders of the 5 Series’ new 8-speed automatic, which almost always shifts unnoticeably while being a major contributor to our twin-turbo V-8 test car’s reasonable 17 miles per gallon city rating and almost remarkable 25 mpg on the highway. Testimony to the new automatic’s efficiency is that the manual transmission is 3 mpg thirstier on the highway.
Sure, the tester we drove was almost $70,000 and just about anybody would say that’s a lot of jack for a midsize luxury car, but the 2011 550i’s V-8 is such an outrageous experience that you almost don’t realize the rest of BMW’s all-new 5 Series is pretty special, too.
The car borrows a lot of its chassis design from the 7 Series, BMW’s flagship, so 5 Series buyers benefit. Most notable is the first-ever use of a multi-link front suspension rather than the struts BMW engineers have long favored. Although using electric power assist for the first time in the 5 Series, the 2011 550i steers beautifully, as all BMWs should, yet we can’t say the new front suspension is a complete triumph: the ride is typical sport-sedan thumpy with occasional harshness hammering through the optional 19-inch run-flat tires, which do the overall ride no favors, either. Some of the unpleasantness can be dialed back via the complexities of Dynamic Damping Control, but it’s part of the pricey ($2,700) Dynamic Handling Package.
The company knew it went a little overboard with the high-style design of its previous 5 Series. Some people liked the cheeky detailing and oddball details favored by BMW’s now former design chief Chris Bangle, but most of BMW’s conservative customer base didn’t. And they are the ones who routinely visit BWM showrooms to dish out serious money and expect a serious car in return. So the new, sixth-generation 5 Series looks as locked-down, tailored-but-unobtrusive as the 5 Series used to — and we’re fine with that.
The inside of the 2011 550i is everything you’d expect: superb seats and a proper driving position, mostly straightforward controls and genuinely lustrous materials. The only criticism: despite a marked increase in wheelbase, the new 5 Series is surprisingly short of rear legroom. Seems odd in a car that is by no means small. Never mind that nit, though. The 550i’s boisterous, twin-turbocharged V-8 is what this car is all about and provides exactly the bombastic experience you expect from a German sport sedan in full regalia.
BMW’s 2011 550i shoves aside serious competition to once again reign as the benchmark luxury sport sedan. We’re hoping engines this good aren’t an endangered species. — Bill Visnic, Motor Matters
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