2011 BMW 550i xDrive
The perfect balance of luxury and performance
Story and photos by Russell Purcell (Twitter @RoadTestRuss)
As I stepped out of the striking silver BMW 550 I noticed a stunning woman gliding gracefully past the luxurious German sedan. “Hey sexy!” she exclaimed. My hopes were dashed (and I suddenly felt a couple inches shorter) when I realized she was referring to the graceful good looks of the BMW. I must admit however, that I do agree with her interpretation of the styling of the latest variant of the 5 Series sedan.
This car represents the sixth generation of the company’s popular mid-size offering and it is obvious that product planners wanted to ensure that the car would set a new benchmark when it came to equipment levels and styling. As I approached the car I marvelled at the many similarities it has to one of my favourite cars, the BMW 750i, which is a good thing, as the latest 7 Series has proven popular with luxury buyers and has helped the brand both maintain, and grow, its very loyal customer base.
The extended red lenses of the taillights stretch across the rear of the deck lid and effectively accentuate the car’s increased width. This gives the 550 a solid, planted look that conveys a sense of stability to the viewer. When illuminated the LED units contained within sparkle like sinister eyes from beneath red lenses, and flash aggressively under hard braking. At the front of the car you will find BMW’s adaptive xenon headlamps complete with the company’s signature halo effect LED rings, as well as the traditional twin kidney-shaped grille treatment.
The car’s hood features a series of aerodynamic ridges that flow forward towards the nose and give the car an aggressive look that hints at what is lurking beneath- a twin-turbocharged V8 that generates enough power to embarrass many sports cars. Seam lines emerge just behind the front wheel arches, bisecting the door handles, and accentuating the car’s waistline and new broad shoulders as they travel around the taper of the trunk. A wind cheating front spoiler is joined by sporty side valances, and a rear fascia that features two twin tailpipes sporting trapezoidal chrome tips. The 550 rolls on 19-inch alloy wheels characterized by a unique W Spoke design, wrapped in all-season run flat performance tires.
The interior of a modern BMW automobile is a study in efficient ergonomics, and the design team has created a layout that is luxurious and comfortable, but also perfectly suited for sport minded driving. The needs of the driver are met by placing all the controls within easy reach of both hand and eye, and in the case of my test unit, steering wheel mounted paddle shift levers were on board to allow the driver to keep focussed on the road ahead. The three spoke, thick rimmed wheel is fitted with a plethora of secondary controls for many of the car’s entertainment and communication equipment, as well as a heating element.
I found it easy to get comfortable in most seating positions, but at 6’2″ and larger in stature the middle seat in the rear compartment was not going to work for me, despite the increase in both head- and legroom offered by the new car. The front seats however, seemed infinitely adjustable and provided exceptional support from top to bottom. These are equipped with heating elements to keep your body warm in the winter, but the seats in my test vehicle also featured the optional cooling system which proved very effective, and would no doubt be a blessing in the summer months. The rather commodious trunk features a flat floor, two side bins, and a full 520-litres of space. Should you find the need to haul longer items, the rear seats feature a centre pass-through, as well as fold down capabilities in a 60/40 configuration.
xDrive is BMW’s “intelligent” all-wheel-drive system. It has been engineered to distribute the majority of the car’s power to the rear axle under normal, dry conditions which preserves the rear-wheel-drive feel so cherished by BMW buyers. However, when the system detects wheel slippage or demanding road conditions it will step in and adjust the car’s drive forces in a manner best suited to the conditions. This system is now widely available in the company’s model line up and has proven very reliable.
The 4.4-litre, twin- turbocharged V-8 produces a prodigious 400 horsepower and 450 lb-ft of torque mated to the company’s 8-speed sport automatic transmission with manual shifting capabilities (Steptronic). BMW literature claims that the BMW 550 will sprint from 0-100 km/h in a mere 4.9 seconds, and after spending some seat time behind the wheel on a quiet stretch of country back road I have to admit, I am a believer. Acceleration is the strength of this well-sorted combination and the ultra-smooth gearbox does an excellent job of keeping the engine’s abundant torque on tap, while at the same time promoting optimal fuel efficiency when operating at highway speeds.
New for 2011 is electric power steering, which is standard equipment for the first time in the model’s long history. Word of this made some of BMW’s purists nervous as they relish the communicative feel of the steering, but the assist is light, and at no time did I feel a loss of control. The car tracked straight and true, carving corners from apex to apex with aplomb.
The longer wheelbase helps smooth out bumps when travelling over rough roads and when fitted with the optional chassis control system (Dynamic Drive), the car feels as agile as a 3-Series. The multi-link suspension design has been sourced from its big brother the 7 Series, and features many aluminum components in an effort to reduce weight. Big disc brakes and BMW’s Dynamic Stability Control package combine to inspire confidence when faced with road hazards or the need to rein in your enthusiasm.
My test vehicle came equipped with all the niceties one expects in a high-end executive sedan – GPS navigation, satellite radio, advanced climate control systems and an incredible audio system – but it also featured BMW’s arsenal of cutting edge safety technologies all operated using the much improved iDrive controller. Features such as active blind-spot detection, lane departure warning, and a full complement of parking aides added to the safety and convenience of the 550i xDrive, but it was the full-featured head’s up display and innovative night vision system that help set the BMW menu apart from that of most of its rivals.
I have no doubts that BMW will continue to be a class leader with the new 5 Series as it offers the perfect balance between luxury and vehicle dynamics in a very stylish package.
Technical specifications: BMW 550i xDrive
Base price (MSRP): $75,900
As tested price: $ 92,895 (Includes Technology Package-$3,000; Dynamic Handling Package – $3,900; Executive Package – $5,500; Night Vision with Pedestrian Detection – $2,500; Destination – $1,995; A/C levy – $100)
Type: 4 or 5-passenger touring sedan
Layout: Front-engine, all-wheel-drive
Engine: 4.4L V8 twin- turbocharged DOHC 32-valve V8
Horsepower: 400-hp @ 5,500 RPM
Torque: 450 lb-ft @ 1,750 RPM
Transmission: 8-speed sport automatic with manual mode
Brakes: Four-wheel disc
Fuel economy (L/100km): City- 13.4 (21 mpg); Highway- 8.4 (34 mpg)