Valentine’s Day was spent in Southern Spain testing the new BMW Five Series.
It was beautiful weather, the roads were pretty empty and you could really give the car some welly and set the pulse racing a bit. It was good to escape the mind-numbing commercialism of February 14, although, of course, I had left the obligatory chocolates and card.
Yet if you think I was road testing a car, that was not quite what the BMW people had in mind. They seemed less interested in how much I enjoyed thrashing the 520D M-Sport saloon down to Gibraltar and then among the mountains to the north of Estepona than how I liked the “connectivity” on board through the car becoming what they claimed is “the most innovative vehicle in its segment”.
Everything is now possible: just wave your hand at the large touchscreen and you can control most functions – the car will park itself, keep in lanes by itself, coast along autonomously, take dictation for emails or text messages, and warn you about all sorts of hazards that the eyes can’t see.
It is getting to the point where the car can be the office and people can go on conference calls or have animated discussions with people in the back while the car does the boring driving stuff for you.
BMW makes no secret of the fact that this is how it sees its future. At press conferences on Tuesday night and then at breakfast time the following day, the message was very clear: “We are not a car company, we are transforming into a technology company.” There is a mission to “let the car take care of you” in order to keep driver and passengers safe at all times. Semi-autonomous systems will change the way we do our driving and save lives.
The Five Series was first launched in 1972 and the company likes to think it has been very much at the forefront of technical innovation since then.
On paper, the new model is a bit bigger all round with especially more rear leg-room, but, strangely, the driver feels more cocooned and tighter, rather like the Three Series. This is a bit of a paradox when set against the idea that it is your office on the move.
For my money, the new model drives better than the old, although there isn’t a consensus on this. I kept to the 520D, which will be the big-seller and is perfectly adequate for all needs, especially with the M-Sport trim. All Five Series cars now have an eight-speed automatic gearbox. The overall car is lighter and more efficient but really needs the sports suspension set up to be in play to stop wallowing over country roads.
The car is extremely quiet and while on the whole is not quite up with the new Mercedes-Benz E-Class, it has a sportier feel.
The Five Series will largely be diesel, BMW is hedging its bets on the future with massive investments in petrol/hybrid and electric, so that it can switch heavily, if as expected, the massive diesel off-load happens.
Of course the 10.2-inch touchscreen, which includes Professional Navigation as standard, dominates the fascia of the car. When I have the car for a full week’s test, I’ll have to take a lot of time to get to grips with it all.
At the moment, I tend to believe that this connectivity is going in the wrong way for anyone who really enjoys driving. It is wrong that we are so wedded to our phones that some people cannot go through a meal or meeting with a friend without spending a lot of time gazing at them. And worse, people drive or cross roads totally concentrating on the little device squeaking into their ear rather than the job at hand.
But then maybe I’m just too much of a dinosaur or grouch. Yet I’ll keep happy thoughts and remember the sheer driving bliss of pushing the 520D across the mountains last Tuesday in the sun. That’s what driving a well-built and controlled, powerful rear-wheel drive saloon is about. Sheer bliss. For the moment, connectivity can look after itself, but no doubt one day I will want a car that parks itself and then delivers itself to me ready to drive. But maybe by that time it would be safer just to put me in the back.
Prices start at €52k but expect to pay about €60,000 for a well-equipped Five Series. Many, many people will be doing that or rather getting their companies to do it for them.