The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

February 11, 2008

A fine car, for a price

BMW 5 Series is thrilling but expensive

By Derek Price

CULLMAN, Ala. — Congress wants to lift America out of its economic funk by sending every taxpayer a big, fat check.

Might I suggest a simpler alternative? Just send everybody a picture of this car.

I can't think of a better way to motivate people to work harder, hit their sales numbers, start new businesses and make their bonuses than sending them a photo of the BMW 5 Series along with a note that says, "Go for it."

Part of that is because BMW is a status symbol akin to a Rolex watch or Louis Vuitton handbag. Some people just want it for the name.

But beyond the snob appeal is an amazing, compelling machine that showcases what the human species is capable of achieving in 2008. When you drive this car, you get the sense that some of the world's top engineers finished their work and said, "This is the very best we can do. Enjoy."

Everything about this car seems designed for precision and instant satisfaction, from the tautness of its sporty suspension to the perfect snickety-snick feeling of buttons on the dash. It's a rewarding car to drive, but not in the traditional definition of luxury. Rather than wafting around town on a cushion of Cool Whip, it feels more like a go kart that's been outfitted with leather seats and all kinds of crazy gadgets. It's bumpy, powerful, exciting and high-tech.

But most of all, it actually has personality.

Ninety-five percent of the cars sold today feel exactly the same. This is partially because car makers don't want to try anything too daring, but it's also because they build a handful of "platforms" with which they can sell slightly altered versions of the same car all over the world. There are dozens and dozens of brands that build a scarce few fundamentally different designs.

BMW, though, is one of the rare car companies that hasn't been swallowed by an international conglomerate. You can see that in some of the 5 Series' idiosyncrasies, like a radio that keeps playing even after you've turned off the car, gotten out and walked away. And it will keep on playing until you press the lock button on the keyless remote, which -- as far as I know -- is the only car in the world that does this.

It also has some unusual high-tech features. Like most luxury cars, it comes with a computerized dual-zone climate control system. But unlike most luxury cars, you can choose whether you prefer it to give you a hard, medium or soft blast of air through the vents.

And it has a brilliant system for controlling all its complex features through an LCD screen and video-game-like selector called i-Drive. Now, I've got to warn you that some people think i-Drive is so frustrating it must have been designed by Satan, but I actually like it. It's surprisingly intuitive once you get used to it.

Before I dote any more on this car, it does have a downside. It's really freakin' expensive.

The 5 Series isn't a particularly roomy car -- my 4-year-old complained about a lack of legroom in the back seat -- but the 535i I drove cost around $60,000. That price didn't even include luxury staples like a navigation system, DVD player or satellite radio.

I think another downside -- albeit a totally subjective one -- is the styling. The body seems less bold than it was a couple of years ago, which some people might like, but I think it looks too much like a Pontiac.

So, in short, this is an overpriced car that looks like a Pontiac and drives like a go kart.

And I'm in love with it.



Derek Price writes for The Cullman (Ala.) Times.





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INFO BOX:

RATINGS

Style: 8

Performance: 10

Price: 5

Handling: 10

Ride: 7

Comfort: 9

Quality: 10

Overall: 10



What was tested? 2008 BMW 535i ($49,400). Options: Sport package ($2,800), premium package ($2,100), smart key ($1,000), park distance control ($700), Logic 7 audio ($1,200), HD radio ($500), cold weather package ($750). Price as tested (including $775 destination charge): $59,225



Why buy it? It's a high-tech, stylish, sophisticated, exciting sports sedan.



Why avoid it? It's really, really expensive.