2003 BMW 540
2003 BMW 540 Expert Review: New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Quick and comfortable.
Though now in its sixth year of production for the current generation, the BMW 5 Series sedans are the benchmarks other companies use for their luxury sports sedans. They are true sports sedans, offering superb handling and responsive engines.
In addition to the sedans, the 5 Series offers sport wagons (525iT and 540iT) that are fantastic. They offer much better handling than any sport-utility vehicle and better performance than most sedans. Judged logically, they make a lot more sense than BMW's own X5.
BMW's 5 Series comprises three sedans and two wagons. Each model presents a distinct personality and price range, but all are wonderful cars in their own right. A V8-powered 540 is available along with six-cylinder 525 and 530 models.
Retail prices for sedans: 525i ($36,595); 530i ($40,095); 540iA ($51,745); 540i ($54,545). Wagons: 525iT ($37,770); 540iT ($54,245).
525i, 530i, and 525iT sport wagon come almost identically equipped with a long list of standard equipment and leatherette (vinyl) upholstery. Montana leather upholstery ($1450) is optional. For 2002, the 525i, 525iT, and 530i come standard with automatic air conditioning. A power front passenger's seat also is a standard feature on all six-cylinder 5 Series sedans and wagons.
Also for 2002, all 5 Series vehicles come standard with an in-dash CD player.
Other equipment changes for 2002 include the addition of a Multi Information Display with a 10-function on-board computer and BMW universal transceiver (garage-door opener) for the 525i and 530i. The 530i also gets automatic headlight controls. This same headlight technology becomes standard equipment on 540i models. Five new exterior colors are offered for 2002.
525i, as its nomenclature suggests, comes with a 2.5-liter fuel-injected six-cylinder engine. This is a double overhead-cam inline-6 with BMW's Double VANOS system, which means it has variable valve timing for strong power and good fuel economy at all speeds (184 horsepower and an EPA-estimated 20/29 miles per gallon city/highway). For 2002, the Sport Package now includes power sport seats and an M sport steering wheel as well as 17-inch wheels with a new seven-spoke design.
530i comes with a more powerful 3.0-liter six-cylinder engine that generates 225 horsepower and 214 pounds-feet of torque. For 2002, the Sport Package includes power sport seats.
All three models come standard with a Getrag five-speed manual gearbox, though the ratios are specifically tuned for each. An optional five-speed automatic transmission ($1275) is available that features adaptive shift logic and a Steptronic shifter; the Steptronic works just like a regular automatic in normal mode, but the driver can slap it over to the left and shift manually when desired for better control on winding roads or heavy commuter traffic.
540 models are powered by a 4.4-liter V8. This twin-cam four-valve design with the variable valve setup generates 290 horsepower for 2002, an increase of 8 hp over last year, and 324 pounds-feet of torque. Woof! The 540 models come standard with Montana leather upholstery, burl walnut trim, automatic air conditioning, xenon high-intensity discharge headlamps.
540iA is a luxury model that comes standard with the five-speed Steptronic transmission, a self-leveling rear suspension, 16-inch wheels and 10-way power seats.
540i is a special sports model with a 6-speed manual gearbox, sports suspension with firmer springs and shock absorbers, specially tuned anti-roll bars, a lower ride height, and 17-inch wheels with larger rear tires. The 6-speed is distinguished with Shadowline exterior trim, 12-way power sport seats and a three-spoke sport steering wheel.
An optional Sport Package with sports suspension, 17-inch wheels and other hardware is available for all models; it ranges from $2,000 to $2,800, depending on the model.
All 5 Series models come with a comprehensive array of safety features: Seatbelts use automatic tensioners and force limiters, and automatically adjust the upper anchor point as the seat is adjusted back and forth. In addition to dual two-stage Smart front airbags (that can detect whether someone is in the passenger seat, all models come with front door-mounted side-impact airbags and BMW's unique Head Protection System, which deploys tubular inflatable cushions in the areas of the front occupants' heads. Rear seat side-impact airbags ($550 for sedans, $385 for wagons) are an option and can be activated and deactiv.
A year ago, BMW revised the styling of the 5 Series, including a reshaped front kidney-shaped grille, new front lighting units, a new front spoiler, new round front fog lights, new rear lighting clusters with red LEDs for improved reliability and longer service life, body-color side moldings and bumper strips. The overall shape of the 5 Series body is a well-done evolution of a handsome basic design that dates back more than two decades.
5 Series sport wagons differ visually from the sedans only aft of the C-pillar, where an extended roof and tailgate replace the sedan profile and trunk lid. The tailgate has a commendably low opening, giving access to the luggage bay right down to bumper-top level; if smaller items are to be loaded aboard, the rear glass can be raised separately. The 5 Series sport wagons offer a larger cargo capacity than the new BMW X5 sport-utility.
The 5 Series body shell is extremely rigid, a plus in terms of both safety and noise reduction. With its low 0.30 coefficient of drag, the 5 Series is one of the most aerodynamically efficient sedans on the market. Foam-filled body cavities and well-designed door seals help keep noise at bay.
The 5 Series interior gets high marks for comfort and appearance. Trim is sumptuous. The leatherette that comes standard on 525 and 530 models is attractive, with brushed-aluminum accents. The bucket seats feel like buckets; they wrap around your lower back and derriere. Heated seats are available with a Cold Weather Package ($600 for sedans, $700 for wagons).
The 5 Series center console is much more elegantly designed than the somewhat disappointing console in the 3 Series cars. The little cubbyhole with the roll-up lid and the slot for pens on top of the console seem out of place in an otherwise beautiful 5 Series interior, however. Perfunctory cupholders show BMW is still struggling, or is not concerned, with this most American of features.
Studying the audio system owner's manual is needed to fully master the BMW Business CD Car Radio as it's called. It automatically changes volume according to speed, ties into a cellular telephone, and has tuning features useful for traveling from city to city. Once you're reading is done, you should be able to tailor station selection, tone controls, and other settings to your preferences. It's a good-looking system with buttons linked to fields displayed digitally.
The map lights work very well, but a compass would be useful. A nice sport steering wheel that came as part of our Sport Premium Package is elegantly designed without the big pillow associated with older style airbags. It has all kinds of buttons on it to control audio and other functions that may require a trip to the owner's manual to fully master.
The BMW 530i's engine is smooth and responsive. It glides along quietly when cruising, feeling like finely engineered machinery. Freedom from vibration is an inherent benefit of inline-6 engines, and BMW's are among the best.
Nail the throttle and there's a growl akin to BMW's race engines. There's also instant throttle response: the 530i takes off like a rocket.
The 530i we drove offers an excellent balance with high-performance throttle response and handling without the expense of the 540i, which gets stuck with a Gas Guzzler Tax. On the other hand, the 540i offers an incredible 324 pounds-feet of torque for brilliant acceleration performance. The 525 represents an excellent value with the 2.5-liter engine.
From 0-60 mph, the 530i is about a half-second quicker than a 525i; you can feel that. Our 530iA was capable of accelerating from 0 to 60 mph in about 7.5 seconds; it could perform this with the manual transmission in 6.8 seconds. By comparison, a 525i accelerates from 0-60 in 7.3 seconds with the manual, 8.0 seconds with the automatic. At the same time, the 530i returns an EPA-estimated 21/30 mpg city/highway, though that drops to just 18/26 mpg with an automatic transmission. All these BMW engines require premium unleaded fuel.
Both the 2.5-liter and 3-liter engines were updated for 2001: A fully electronic throttle system replaced the electromechanical type. As a result, throttle response is even more precise than before. Also, a new intake manifold and increased valve lift improve performance.
We've tested the 540i in the past and found the 32-valve V8 to be quiet and unobtrusive, making itself heard only when pushed hard. When pushed hard, it's powerful, covering 0-60 mph in less than six seconds with the manual, slightly more than six seconds with the automatic.
The 5 Series BMWs offer superb handling, regardless of suspension package and powerplant. They are true sports sedans, tracking precisely through corners with minimal body roll.
For the ultimate in razor-sharp road behavior, the Sport suspension package is the choice. Stiffer springs and shock absorbers result in a slightly harsher ride quality, but enthusiasts may find this tradeoff in comfort is more than made up for by driving pleasure. Our 530i was equipped with this package and it reacted crisply to steering inputs. Rippled pavement in downtown Washington was quite noticeable through the seat of the pants. For most people, the standard suspension (which is hardly standard) is probably the better choice.
Our 530i's Steptronic automatic transmission was excellent. It responds quickly to a tip of the throttle, dropping down a gear or two as needed. Equipped with adaptive electronics that tailor shift programs to driving style, BMW's manual transmissions work with precision and smoothness.
BMW designed the 5 Series cars to help the driver avoid having an accident. Every model is standard-equipped with Dynamic Stability Control, which acts to help stabilize the vehicle in critical cornering or avoidance situations. Augmenting the four-wheel ventilated disc brakes, DSC includes antilock braking plus Dynamic Brake Control, which helps ensure maximum braking under emergency conditions.
BMW's brakes are absolutely superb: They feel solid, like there's a direct connection between driver and brakes. They slow the car right now, but at the same time are easy to modulate, not grabby like some of the power brakes on old American cars.
Great cars abound in the mid-size sedan segment, but the BMW 5 Series remains the benchmark for luxury sports sedans. The 5 Series is getting a bit long in the tooth, however, and we are beginning to look for a new-generation 5 Series sometime soon, possibly for model-year 2003.
Offering exemplary handling, the current 5 Series models track like they're on rails when driving around fast sweepers. Their suspensions offer a great balance between controlled ride quality and precise handling. The optional sports suspension is on the firm side and transmits road imperfections.
Sedans: 525i ($36,595); 530i ($40,095); 540iA ($51,745); 540i ($54,545) / Wagons: 525iT ($37,770); 540iT ($54,245).
Options As Tested
Steptronic transmission ($1275); Sport Package ($2300) includes 12-way power front sport seats, Shadowline exterior trim, M Sport steering wheel, M shift knob, 17-inch cross spoke composite cast-alloy wheels, 235/45 W-rated performance tires, sports suspension.
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