For 2008, the BMW 5 Series has been mildly updated with what the auto industry calls a facelift. Most of the styling touch-up lies in subtle details, but in our view they add character to this luxury sedan.
Looks aside, many buyers will find the five-passenger 5 Series a near-perfect size. It seems more substantial than some small luxury or sport sedans, with more usable interior space. At the same time it's no so physically bulky as large sedans, and easier to maneuver in tight spaces or park.
BMW's recent approach to exterior design has been discussed as frequently as any in the car world, and more than occasionally criticized. On the 5 Series at least, the curvy front-end, flat sides and high rear deck stand out less than they once did. That could simply mean we've grown more familiar with the shape, rather than more appreciative.
The critics contend that, with the kabuki-eyebrow look in front and the chunked-off shape of the trunk lid, the 5 Series seems almost like two halves taken from different cars. In our view, the lines create a fairly compact appearance, and that may be part of the problem. The 5 has the appearance of a well-built mainstream sedan, and that may not be the precedent one expects for an expensive European job. It also has a few too many lines. Those character lines crossing the rear end, or the double creases framing the hood, seem a bit overdone. In any case, none of this seems to have hurt 5 Series sales, and five years into its model run the current generation has subtly evolved.
The 2008 tweaks start in front, where the headlight covers are now completely clear, with chrome surrounds highlighting individual lights inside. The chrome edging on BMW's trademark double-kidney grille is now flush with the surface on the front air dam, while the full-width air intake below the front bumper curls up in the corners to match the shape of the headlights.
Below the doors, the 5 Series side sills have been re-contoured a bit for 2008, apparently to promote a longer, leaner look. In back, the rear lights are covered with the same clear glass as the fronts, and the turn signals are now LEDs.
Those comma-shaped, wraparound taillights apply a technology introduced by BMW that has spread to a number of makes. The company calls them adaptive brake lights, and they illuminate more intensely, over a larger area, when the ABS system engages. Or in other words, when the driver is stopping has hard as possible. The point is to inform drivers in cars following the 5 Series that it's stopping quickly, possibly in an emergency situation. It could help, but only if the driver following correctly interprets the increased intensity of the brake lights.
BMW re-introduced a 5 Series wagon for 2006. The big difference, of course, lies behind rear roof pillars and seats, where the 5 Series Sports Wagons offer more load-carrying potential and versatility than the sedan. The rear gate opens electrically, with a switch on the key fob or dashboard, and swings very high for easy access to the load floor. A big reflector on the bottom of the gate adds an element of safety in darkness.
The gate also has a soft-close feature. When it's lowered, it automatically sucks itself shut, no slamming required. The glass window opens separately, which is convenient when dropping a briefcase or a couple of bags in back.
Like its exterior, the BMW 5 Series interior has been updated with some notable changes for 2008. We'd call them an improvement. Aesthetically, the cabin is warmer and a bit more inviting. From the functional perspective, a couple switch changes add convenience.
This 5 Series sedan is roomier than those built prior to 2004. Front passengers have a fraction more shoulder and head room, but the improvement is more obvious in the back, where there's more shoulder room and a lot more legroom. Increased cabin space put the 5 Series on better footing with key competitors like the Mercedes E-Class, Audi A6, and Lexus GS.
The finish and quality of materials inside have been improved as well. Soft plastics covering the dashboard and doors are more handsome and rich to the touch compared to 5 Series models built a few years ago. The seats feature a draped-leather look, with the upholstery hung loosely rather than pulled taught over the seat frames. Leather inserts in the front door panels compliment the seats.
The most obvious change for 2008 is the two-tone finish on the door panels. The tops are covered in back while the lower portion matches the interior color. The look adds depth and enhances the visual integrity of the doors and dashboard. The same goes for an increase in the amount of wood trim. Wood now flows from the instrument panel into the door panels, creating a more integrated look.
Our test car had the new Bamboo wood trim, stained very close to black. We liked it a lot. The walnut-colored dark Poplar trim is the most traditional, while the light Popular is almost blond. Any of the three are available at the customer's choice, no additional cost.
The standard 5 Series seats are very good, with above-average support and just enough give to keep from feeling hard. The seats in the optional Sport Package on our 550i have so many adjustments that those who lean toward obsessive/compulsive may start stressing out as they try to settle in. If you can get them just right, save the position in memory, because these are some of the best seats in the business. They're firm, but not church-pew hard like the previous generation sport seats.
The 5 Series dashboard applies BMW's familiar double-wave theme, with one wave or bubble over the instrument cluster, defining the driver's area, and another that begins over the dash center and sweeps toward the right side. From a functional view point, it's an effective design. The instrument cluster features two gauge pods, with the gas gauge wrapped inside the analog speedometer and a miles-per-gallon gauge inside the tach. The tachometer has a variable warning LED that circles the gauge. When the engine is cold, this LED extends to 4200 rpm, then gradually increases the rpm limit to the redline as the oil warms up.
The dash center is dominated by a large electronic screen that displays various control functions, system readouts and the navigation map or Night Vision image when the car is so equipped. There are vents below the screen and on either side off the steering column that move an impressive quantity of air with minimal fan noise.
The biggest improvement might be the relocated window switches. For 2008, they're now flat in the armrest on the door, rather the above the armrest on the door panel, and sit right at the fingertips when the driver's arm lies on the rest. And the mirror adjustor sits just beyond the window switches, rather than further up the panel as before.
Beyond these, manual control switches are few. Three big climate control knobs sit below the display screen, for fan speed, temperature and airflow direction. There's also a volume knob next to the CD slot, a station selector on the right steering wheel spoke, and phone controls on the left spoke. In short order, these knobs will become the 5 Series driver's best friends.
That's because almost everything else, including some basic stereo functi