SUVs, SUVs, everywhere. With SUV/SAV/Crossovers pretty much the standard for family transport, it’s easy to forget that the Europeans like Audi, BMW and Mercedes made their name here with sedans. Some were 2-doors, some 4-doors, even wagons! But for a long time, the epitome of luxury was the 4-door premium sedan.
And at the head of that class for enthusiasts has always been the BMW 5-series. Mercedes were ultra-luxury, but a little staid. Audi technically advanced but a bit spartan. The Bimmer though, that was a driver’s car.
So now we have the 2021 540i, the 7th generation 5-er, with a bunch of exciting updates. So, we ask, is it still the “Ultimate Driving Machine”? Let’s find out.
For 2021, the 5 series gets a new look. If you are grimacing at the thought of the monster grille that’s on the new 4-series coupe, no need to worry. The new grille is a bit larger, but it’s quite proportionate and handsome, framed by a little chrome that looks elegant. The grille is surrounded by new standard adaptive LED headlamps that feature two L-shaped signature elements in them. It’s a clean look.
Did we say driving machine? Well our tester was an M-Sport Package, so you get a little bit of attitude too, with a unique front bumper and larger front air intakes with mesh inserts. It’s the perfect blend of sport and lux if you ask us.
It will probably take a keen eye to notice the 5 is now 1.2-inches longer, with a bit more of an aero profile. The best part of our tester’s profile were the tough looking 19-inch M alloy wheels, with the red calipers of the optional M Sport Brakes poking through.
The rearview is tasteful and subtle, again with an M Sport bumper, paired with new L-shaped taillights with a 3D look. New trapezoidal tailpipe finishers tie it all together.
While we normally don’t get too excited about white paint, the 540i in Alpine White is pure, classic BMW. It shows off the lines beautifully, and white on a BMW just looks awesome, reminding us of the BMW M235i Gran Coupe we tested a while ago. Loved that little car!
Welcome to First Class
Inside is breathtaking. The first thing that catches the eye is the optional Mocha Nappa Leather, a rich cocoa tone, that looks, feels – heck it even smells – elegant. A soft quilted design and cream piping sets a sumptous look. Our tester also enjoyed the Multi-contour seats; heated, ventilated, and 20-way adjustable, they are supremely comfortable. There’s plenty of room in back as well, but we’ll take the driver’s seat thanks.
One of the things we love about BMW is although you have a full digital display now, it doesn’t look like someone just slapped a couple iPads on the front and called it a day. The 12.3-inch digital display is crisp, clear, and slightly confounding as it has the new BMW direction of a tachometer that revs counter clockwise.
The central screen is big and beautiful, with a new, larger 12.3-inch touchscreen (up from 10.25 inches), and the info-tainment features standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. BMW’s interface remains simple and intuitive to use. Best in class.
Navigation is standard, too, and it’s impressive, with 3D visualizations of the surrounding area, depicting all of the cars, trucks and motorcycles registered by the cameras and sensors in the driver’s current lane as well as those in any adjacent lanes. Cool.
We loved the interior’s beautiful quality of materials and craftsmanship. Sure, they could have tried to bowl you over with loads of bling and silly gizmos, but this is an executive’s express – fast, clean, and designed for rapid transit.
The Executive Express
There’s some exciting tech under the hood, with a new 48-volt mild hybrid system, which captures braking energy and stores it in the 48V battery. That energy is then supplied to the 12 volt electrical system to power lights, steering, windows, climate control, audio and seat heaters. It can also supply extra drive power to enhance acceleration – BMW says the effect of 11 hp on tap – and can also enhance fuel efficiency.
It’s hard to tell if that makes a large difference – we’d guess the system adds weight as well as power. There is plenty of muscle with the turbo in-line 6 putting out 335 horsepower and 332 lb.-ft of torque. It’s smooth and responsive, and with 60 mph coming up in under 5 seconds, it’s very quick.
It sounds great doing so – a BMW inline 6 is one of the world’s great engines, and the 8-speed automatic is right with you, offering super-quick shifts without harshness. That’s the feeling you get – effortless speed with a creamy delivery. Perhaps some of the edge has been taken off – it feels supremely capable but doesn’t really egg you on to go play.
The suspension is up to the task, and in a similar way, extremely capable, but more willing to do your bidding than drag you to your favorite twisty road. You can certainly dial it in any way you like with our tester’s optional Dynamic Damper Control and Active Roll Stabilization.
The xDrive all-wheel drive is superb, and really you wouldn’t know it was there most of the time, with the bias towards rear drive keeping the steering quick and responsive. High speed cruising on the freeway is effortless, and it is very easy to see big numbers on the speedo if you are not being vigilant.
Make no mistake, this is an extremely fast and capable car, but it leans more towards your loyal servant than your buddy, if you get the analogy. It’s Alfred to your inner Batman.
Making sure you’re safe, you’ve got standard Frontal collision warning with pedestrian and cyclist functions, Blind Spot and Rear Cross Traffic Alert and Lane Departure Alert.
Our tester also had the new Driving Assistance Plus Package which adds Active Cruise Control with Stop & Go, Extended Traffic Jam Assist, Lane Keeping Assistant with side collision avoidance, Evasion Aid, Front Cross-Traffic Alert, and Emergency Stop Assistant – which can help guide the BMW to the shoulder and bring it to a halt in a medical emergency situation. Impressive.
Ok, you know a fully-loaded 540i is a premium purchase. So how much? You can get into a base 530i sedan with a turbo 4-cylinder starting at $54,200. Stylish, well-equipped and efficient. Stepping up to a 6-cylinder, 540i xDrive starts at $61,750.
Our tester was a showcase for lots of goodies, including Mocha Leather ($2,500), Driving Assistance Plus ($1,700), Dynamic Handling ($3,200), Luxury Seating ($1,000), M Sport Package ($3,300), Parking Assistance Package ($800), Premium Package ($1,850), Heated Steering Wheel ($190), and M Sport Brakes with Red Calipers ($650). Add in $995 for destination, and we range the bell at $77,935. Premium indeed.
Competitors would include the Audi A6 at $73,900, Mercedes E450 4Matic at $74,790, so we say the BMW is competitive maybe a tad more expensive. It really comes down to the feel. Only a BMW feels like a BMW (the same truth can be said about Audi and Mercedes), so we would drive them all and find the one that’s right for you. All great cars.
A lovely blend of refinement, technology and plenty of driving enjoyment, the 2021 BMW 540i is a polished gem.
Ben Lewis grew up in Chicago, and after spending his formative years driving sideways in the winter – often intentionally – moved to sunny Southern California. He now enjoys sunny weather year-round — whether it is autocross driving, aerobatics, and learning to surf.