2004 BMW 5 Series Reviews and Ratings

Sedan 4D 525i

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2004 BMW 5 Series
J.P. Vettraino

BMW's 5 Series delivers just about everything you could ask for in a luxury sedan. It offers the features, comfort and convenience of full-size luxury sedans, the sporting character of smaller ones, and a better compromise between interior space and physical bulk. The BMW 5 Series has long been a big seller in the most popular, most competitive class of luxury cars. It's the benchmark for critics and auto industry engineers alike.

For 2004, the 5 Series is redesigned down to its aluminum wheels for the first time in eight years. BMW's premise for the all-new 5 Series seems to be more: more room, more equipment and more sophisticated technology, including BMW's controversial iDrive computer interface. Unfortunately, the new 5 costs more, too, and it follows the contentious styling theme introduced on BMW's full-size 7 Series.

BMW's smaller 3 Series may be the bigger seller, but the 5 is the company's original sports sedan and the oldest nameplate in its line-up. Since the 5 Series nomenclature was introduced in 1975, BMW has completely overhauled its mid-line sedan five times. The redo for 2004 is as extensive as any the company has undertaken. Because this sedan generates a quarter of BMW's profits worldwide, the engineers in Munich spared no expense in the redesign.

In a sense, the most important things haven't changed. BMW's 5 Series remains a true sports sedan in any of its three variations, the 525i, 530i, and 545i. All three boast precise handling, impressive power and outstanding brakes. Its appeal to luxury car buyers may ultimately come down to that new look. Model Lineup
Luxury carmakers typically offer one or two variants in this class, but BMW has had at least three 5 Series sedans for more than a decade. That tradition continues for 2004.

The least expensive is the 525i, powered by BMW's smaller, 184-hp inline six cylinder engine, retailing at $39,995. Next up it the 530i, with a larger, 225-hp six and a sticker price of $44,995. The ultimate 5 is the V8-powered, 325-hp 545i, and its price jumps a full $10,000 to $54,995. BMW also offers the 545i 6-speed at $58,295, which features a manual transmission and sport package.

These prices are up to six percent higher than 2003, even as the auto industry as a whole (including luxury brands) has held the line on increases. BMW justifies its increases with advanced technologies introduced in the new 5. Further, the company claims that given the "value ratio,'' or equipment for the money, prices have actually held steady. We're not sure what that means, but we know customers could buy a 2003 5 Series for less than they'll pay for a 2004.

That said, even the 525i comes standard with lots of luxury features. These include fully automatic climate control with active micro-filtration and separate temperature and airflow controls for each side of the cabin; an AM/FM/CD player with 10 speakers and two sub-woofers; a power tilt-and-telescope leather steering wheel: keyless entry with a multi-function remote and Vehicle & Key memory, which sets seat and climate controls for the driver whose key opens the car; and head and fog lights with automatic control. There are three 12-volt power outlets in the cabin and one in the trunk. There's also a rechargeable flashlight in the glovebox.

However, base prices for both the 525i and 530i do not include an automatic transmission ($1,275) or leather upholstery (part of the $2,400 premium package). All variants come with the BMW Assist package, including a one-year subscription to the service. BMW Assist provides tele-matic collision notification, an SOS button, roadside assistance, locator and concierge services.

The 530i accounts for nearly half of 5 Series sales in the United States, and adds three items to the 525i's standard-feature list: the bigger six-cylinder engine (3.0 liters vs. 2.5), slightly larger brake discs and 17-inch alloy wheels (vs. 16-inchers on the 525i).

The 545i's standard equipment includes still bigger brakes, a six-speed automatic transmission, leather upholstery, a power glass sunroof, a three-function garage door opener in the overhead console and more elaborate auto-dimming interior lighting. And, of course, the V8 engine.

The 2004 5 Series is the first line of automobiles offering a full range of six-speed transmissions. All three 5 Series are available with a clutch operated manual, a conventional automatic or BMW's Sequential Manual Gearbox ($1,500). While it will shift automatically, SMG is not an old-school automatic with a torque converter and a manual shift feature. It's more like a standard manual transmission with an automatic clutch. The SMG's clutch operates electrically without input from the driver, who shifts up or down simply by moving the gear lever or clicking paddles on either side of the steering wheel. SMG can also shift automatically, yet it delivers the improved acceleration and fuel mileage of a manual transmission because it eliminates the inefficiencies of a torque converter, called friction losses.

Our primary test car had the standard 6-speed manual, but it included many of BMW's more popular options, starting with the premium package (leather, dark wood trim, auto-dimming lights and the garage opener). The test 530i also added the sport package, with Active Steering and Active Roll Stabilization and 18x8-inch cast alloy wheels with 245/WR-18 run-flat tires ($3,330). It had BMW's Park Distance Control ($700), which warns a driver of low-lying or poorly visible objects with an electronic beep and graphic displays front and rear, and new Xenon Adaptive Headlights ($800). These provide high-intensity Xenon illumination on both low and high beam, and allow the outboard lights to steer with the car, Tucker-style, as it tracks through curves. Add optional rear passenger side-impact airbags ($385) and the $695 destination charge, and the 530i evaluated here retails at $53,305. The 5 Series' brand of sporting luxury does not come cheap.

Nor does the 2004's aluminum-intensive construction, which includes aluminum suspension components. To engineers, this suspension means less unsprung weight. To drivers, it means better tire contact on bumpy road surfaces. The brakes are impressive, too, and large by industry standards. The swept area, which ultimately determines maximum stopping power, has increased, and all discs are vented to maximize cooling (for automobile brakes, heat is bad).

Yet the hottest technologies in the 5 Series' suspension are things difficult to see, even by crawling under the car. The first is Active Roll Stabilization, which BMW introduced on the 7 Series. ARS replaces conventional anti-roll or stabilizer bars with an electronically controlled, hydraulically operated system. It helps keep the body from leaning over in corners, allowing flatter cornering at higher speeds.

The second trick system in the 5 Series chassis is called Active Steering, which varies the steering ratio and eliminates the compromises of fixed-ratio steering. What's that mean? Better, more responsive handling.

Fast steering (a lower steering ratio, like 12:1) has advantages. The faster the steering, the more the front wheels turn for a given input on the steering wheel. When we're maneuvering into a parking spot, or driving down a particularly crooked road at low to medium speeds, fast steering means quicker response and less sawing back and forth on the steering wheel. But at higher speeds, slower steering is preferred (a higher steering ratio, such as 16:1). At 80 mph on the interstate, no one wants small movements on the wheel to make the car turn quickly. With truly quick steering, a driver who sneezes on the freeway might quickly be headed for a concrete abutment.

Most vehicles have a fixed steering ratio that's neither too fast nor too slow. The 5 Series Active Steering makes the steering quicker at low speed and slower at high speed. But it's not that simple. Active Steering is integrated in BMW's Digital Stability Control anti-skid electronics, and the system can actually make minor steering adjustments without the driver's intervention, or even awareness. Active Steering might intervene in a number of emergency situations, allowing safer, quicker recovery from a skid.

All the options on our 530i, indeed, nearly every option offered on the 5 Series, are available on all three variants. Other than an automatic, one of the more popular options missing from the test car was the Cold Weather Package ($750), with heated seats, heated steering wheel and headlight washers. The on-board navigation system is $1,800. Also available during 2004, the 5 will be available with a rear-seat entertainment package that includes a video monitor mounted at the back of the center console, a trunk-mounted multimedia changer and a pair of wireless headphones.

For the indefinite future, the new 5 will be offered in North America only as a sedan. An M5, the screaming high-performance four-door worshiped by enthusiast drivers, should debut by the end of 2004. BMW says it has no plan to bring a new 5 Series wagon across the Atlantic, because the 2003 wagon's sales don't justify the cost of certifying the new one for U.S. sale. Of course, the old wagon was never intended for the States, either, and eventually it found its way here. Walkaround
The 2004 5 Series has been so thoroughly redesigned that much of it is unfamiliar even to BMW enthusiasts. The most apparent change is its exterior styling, but we'll start with what isn't so obvious to the eye.

The new 5 is 2.6 inches longer, 1.8 inches wider and 1.3 inches taller than the 2003 model, and its wheelbase has increased 2.6 inches. Nonetheless, all that aluminum keeps a lid on the car's weight. Depending on equipment, some 2004 models are up to 55 pounds lighter than their predecessors. A new aluminum driveshaft saves 13 pounds compared to the previous steel part. The hood, front fenders and frame in front of the windshield pillars are also aluminum, glued and riveted to the rest of the car to avoid the corrosion typical of aluminum-steel contact points. The lighter front clip also helps in BMW's never-ending quest for perfect weight distribution, and all three 5 Series sedans come within one percent of the ideal 50/50 balance, front to rear.

What gets everyone's attention, of course, is the 5 Series' swoopy exterior design, and in this instance, attention may or may not be a good thing. The 5 adopts BMW's new brand-wide design theme, launched on the flagship 7 Series in 2002. At no time in recent memory has automobile styling generated such controversy. With the release of the 7, rogue members of the BMW Club of America launched a web site to generate momentum to fire BMW's design chief. The new 5 is definitely cast in the 7 Series mold, with a curvy front end, flat flanks with minimal embellishment and a high, flat rear deck with wraparound taillights. On the 5 Series the look seems a bit more cohesive, perhaps a less radical departure, but that may be because we've gotten used to the 7.

You'll like it or you won't. The critics claim that, with the flared-nostrils look in front and the chunked-off shape of the trunk lid, the 2004 5 Series seems almost like two halves taken from different cars. In our view, the lines make for a compact package, and that may be part of the problem. Some have suggested the new 5 has the appearance of a well-made mainstream Japanese sedan like the Honda Accord. While the Accord is an outstanding car in its own right, that isn't the precedent one expects for an expensive European job. And either way, despite the hailstorm of comment and criticism that followed the launch of the 7 Series, BMW's new look hasn't seemed to hurt its sales.

Those comma-shaped taillights use another of the 5's new technologies, something BMW calls adaptive brake lights. These illuminate more intensely, over a larger area, when the driver applies the brakes full-lock, or when the ABS operates. The idea is to inform drivers in cars following the 5 Series that it's stopping quickly. Interesting, we suppose, but it would seem to work only if the driver following the 5 knows how to interpret the varied intensity of its brake lights. Interior
Design cues from BMW's flagship 7 Series carry through inside the 2004 5 Series as well. If you've seen the interior of the 7, you have a good idea what the 5's cabin looks like.

The dash is dominated by BMW's double wave theme in two portions: one over the instrument cluster, defining the driver's area and another that begins over the dash center and sweeps toward the right side. Double-wave could more accurately be called two-step, with two levels in the dash running the width of the cabin. This interior has drawn far less criticism than the exterior styling, and from a functional view point it's quite effective. Moreover, the soft plastics covering the new 5 Series' doors and dashboard are handsome and rich to the touch. In our view interior materials have never been one of BMW's strengths compared to other luxury manufacturers, at least not in the company's lower series. In this regard, the 2004 5 Series is much nicer than both the current 3 Series and the 2003 5.

The 5's instrument cluster is dominated by two gauge pods, with the gas gauge wrapped inside the analog speedometer and a miles-per-gallon gauge inside the tach. For 2004, the tachometer in all 5 Series models includes 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 center of the 5 Series' dash is dominated by a large electronic screen that displays various control functions, system readouts and the navigation map when the car is so equipped. There are vents below the screen and on either side off the steering column, and the move an impressive quantity of air with minimal fan noise. Cupholders for the front seats are located to the right of the center console. They work better than those in most European cars.

Between the front seats, just behind the gear selector is a big aluminum knob that generated as much controversy in the 7 Series as its exterior styling. This is the master control for iDrive: the computer interface that can operate virtually everything in the new 5, from stereo to climate controls to telephone to navigation. The control knob is easy to locate from the driver's seat without a glance and with each move of iDrive, menus appear on the video screen. The problem is that it can be confusing to use iDrive to wade through various menus and finally get to the function that needs adjustment. At best, it's difficult to master.

BMW claims that it has enhanced iDrive for the 5 Series using what it has learned from the system in the 7. "Enhancement" amounts to a new button, located right behind the iDrive knob, that opens the first menu (5s with GPS navigation have two of these buttons, with the second launching the nav system). In the 5 Series, the iDrive control moves in only four directions, as opposed to eight in the 7. Once you understand it, iDrive begins to feel like second nature, but even this "simplified" version takes some effort to learn.

At least there are separate, conventional controls to operate the stereo and climate settings. These most-frequently adjusted systems can be managed without using iDrive, and information is still displayed on the electronic screen. The 5's heating and cooling system has been improved for 2004 with new features, including more sophisticated humidity control. There's a temperature-controlled storage compartment in the console for snacks or drink cans. Rain-sensing windshield wipers are now standard.

New technologies include BMW's first optional head-up display ($1,000), which is offered only on models equipped with the nav system. The HUD projects a six-by-three inch rectangle on the windshield, focused so the display appears to be at the end of the hood, rather than right on the glass. Using iDrive, the driver can adjust the HUD's intensity and the information it displays. Options include road and engine speed, various warnings prioritized according to urgency, cruise control settings and navigation instructions.

The 2004 5 Series are available with radar-managed Active Cruise Control ($2,200). When the road is clear, it works like conventional cruise control; when the car closes on traffic, the system adjusts the speed of the car to maintain a following distance set by the driver.

One hint of the previous-generation model's advancing age was a cabin that seemed increasingly cramped compared to more recently updated competitors. With the 2004 5 Series, the modest increase in exterior dimensions translates to improved packaging inside. Front passengers get a half-inch more shoulder and head room, but the improvement is more obvious in the back, where there's more than an inch more shoulder room and two inches more legroom. This increase in cabin space puts the 5 Series on much better footing with key competitors like the Mercedes E-Class, Audi A6, and Lexus GS.

The high rear deck of the new 5 Series sedans results in a 26-percent increase in trunk capacity. With 14 cubic feet of storage space, the 5 Series moves from the bottom of the mid-size luxury class to the higher end. Load height is just above the rear bumper, and the 5 will accommodate even larger items with the folding rear seatback, which, oddly, is a $475 option. It's hard to imagine a buyer not wanting the flexibility the folding seat offers, as the seat can be locked to prevent access to the trunk.

High-tech safety features are a big draw for high-end European sedans, and with one exception the 2004 5 Series delivers. Inexplicably, side impact airbags for the rear seats are a $385 option. Perhaps BMW believes customers with small children still have concerns about the operation of these bags. Yet with advances in measuring and triggering devices, those concerns should fade, and the optional rear bags may come off as nickel-and-diming the customer.

Beyond that, all the occupant-protection ingredients are here. The 5's front-impact airbags are among the most sophisticated anywhere. Multi-stage inflation, shape and interaction with surrounding surfaces have all been refined to optimize protection. The head-protection airbags run from the front pillars to the rear, and completely cover body-side and window areas where an occupant's head might strike. Driving Impressions
Unfamiliar styling, confusion with iDrive, and an abundance of gadgetry is all forgotten as quickly as you can settle into the 2004 530i driver's seat and turn the key. Whatever BMW's engineering corps experiments with, it almost never forgets one crucial point. BMWs are defined by excellent powertrains and superb chassis tuning. Measured by its balance of slick handling, ride comfort and solid acceleration, the 5 Series is as good as it's ever been.

We had the good fortune to evaluate the 530i on a crystal-clear fall day along fast, two-lane roads tracking the Hudson Valley through upstate New York. Yet we didn't have to leave the parking lot at BMW headquarters in New Jersey to learn that Active Steering is no gimmick. Maneuvering through tight confines is a breeze, and filling an empty parking space is as quick a swoop on the steering wheel. On a slalom course in another parking lot 120 miles up the Hudson, we discovered the performance advantages of this new steering system. In a tight slalom a 530i with Active Steering is more responsive than one without it (and the standard car is already quite nimble as heavy sedans go). Slashing through the cones is less work with Active Steering, requiring less sawing on the wheel and fewer corrections. The driver can focus more on the 5's trajectory through the course, less on compensating for mistakes, and it's not hard to extrapolate this behavior to advantages in emergency situations on public roads. Push the Active Steering car into a skid, and recovery is more immediate, and more likely.

There's a price for this responsiveness, of course, and it's most obvious traveling at high speeds on an Interstate. Gone is the famous BMW dead spot in the middle of the 5's steering travel, that inch or so of movement each side of center where there is no perceptible change in the 5's direction of travel when the wheel moves. This was developed for decades to account for triple-digits speeds on Germany's autobahns, but it's no longer necessary. With Active Steering, steering response slows down considerably at fast freeway speeds, but there is perceptible reaction from the front tires almost with the first fraction of movement on the wheel. The effect is basically the same, in that small bumps or grooves require no conscious correction from the driver. But the feel with Active Steering is different, and it may take a bit of getting used to, particularly for longtime BMW enthusiasts.

The two-lanes through the Hudson Valley offered ample evidence of the value of Active Roll Stabilization. The 530i stayed remarkably flat when attacking the curves, with just enough body lean to remind a prudent driver that he or she is hurtling down a public road at considerable speed. Perhaps the best thing about ARS is that the 530i never feels stiff. When the car is traveling straight, the effect of the roll stabilization is essentially negated. This sedan rides firm, without a sensation of floating, but always smoothly and comfortably.

Factor in near-perfect weight balance, and a rock-solid body that's free of creaks, rattles or unpleasant vibration, and the 530i is exactly what we'd like a luxury sedan to be: always quiet and comfortable, nimble and reassuring when it's appropriate to travel at a good clip. If you never drove the 5 Series quickly, you'd be left with a smooth, truly comfortable car with nearly all the bells and whistles and nothing to diminish the experience. Yet should you choose to pick up the pace, you'll discover handling and overall performance that's hard to match in any sedan. No matter which engine sits under the hood, there's plenty of power to get you up to speed.

BMW's inline six-cylinder engines remain one of the truly satisfying experiences in motoring. The classic straight six delivers a balance of smoothness, torque, and response that V6 engines can't seem to match. Other luxury manufacturers have switched to V6s because they've proven easier to certify for stringent emission standards, and we're glad BMW has stuck with its trademark inline engines. From a stop or a high-speed roll, the 530i serves up as much torque as some thirstier V8-powered sedans. BMW reports 0-60 mph times of 6.6 sec. for 530is with manual transmissions, and 6.8 sec with the automatic. Ten years ago, those numbers were the preserve of sports cars, and rest assured that top speed exceeds anything you're likely to get away anywhere outside desolate Nevada desert. The 525i and 530i six-cylinder engines are relatively unchanged; maximum horsepower and torque remain the same as 2003, though the intake and exhaust systems on both have been fine-tuned to improve low-end response. These engines apply front-edge technologies, including electronic throttle and cooling management, fully variable valve timing and all-aluminum construction.

Still, those who put a premium on straight-line acceleration might wait for the V8-powered 545i. The V8 will shave at least a second from the 530i's 0-60 times. Top speed will be electronically governed at the voluntary limit adopted by most German automakers: a mere 155 mph. The 4.4-liter V8 has the same displacement as its predecessor, but nearly everything else has changed. Horsepower has increased 12 percent, yet so have fuel efficiency and EPA mileage ratings. The key here is Valvetronic, an industry-first technology introduced on BMW's 7 Series. This engine management system eliminates a conventional throttle and varies engine breathing (and therefore power output) by varying how far the intake valves open.

To enthusiast drivers, we heartily recommend the six-speed manual. Indeed, we appreciate BMW's continued commitment to manual transmissions, as they are becoming rare in luxury sedans. The 530i's shifter is tight and reasonably quick, as you'd expect in a sporting sedan, and clutch take-up is just right. The manual transmission maximizes the performance potential of the 530i, as well as its driver's involvement.

We also tried the automatic, and those who choose it won't give up much. The new six-speed automatic responds to the gas pedal in exceptional style. Full-throttle upshifts are quick and smooth; downshifts are almost instantaneous. Not that long ago, BMWs automatics were mediocre compared to the best, but that's no longer the case. Ideally, the automatic would include redundant shift controls on the steering wheel or column (they're now common in luxury cars). But given BMW's investment in its Sequential Manual Gearbox, the lack of a steering-wheel shift mechanism for the conventional automatic is understandable.

Brakes may be the most impressive part of the 5 Series performance package. They slow the car from high speed in sports-car fashion, and they hold up under harder use than any driver is likely to dish out this side of a race track. Even after repeated full-on stops, stops that would smoke the brake pads on lesser cars, the 530i's brakes show very little fade. Summary
Mid-size luxury sedans are popular because they mix comfort, fine performance, manageable size, passenger-friendly accommodations and the latest features in a stylishly functional package. BMW's 5 Series has been the benchmark because it may be the best balanced car in a supremely balanced class. On top of everything else, the 5 is great fun to drive.

The 2004 530i delivers a balance of sport and luxury, comfort, performance, speed, fuel economy and carefree driving that's hard to match with any sedan on planet Earth. Anywhere within the $25,000 price spread covered by the 5 Series lineup, you'll find a sedan that's satisfying to own and drive.

We might quibble with details in the redesigned 2004 5 Series, or in the marketing scheme behind it. But at its core it's better than ever, assuming you're comfortable with its looks.

Model as tested
BMW 530i ($44,995)
Basic Warranty
4 years/50,000 miles; includes scheduled maintenance
Assembled in
Dingolfing, Germany
Destination charge
Gas guzzler tax
Base Price
Price as tested
Options as tested
Sport Package includes Active Steering, Active Roll Stabilization, 18x8-inch cast alloy wheels with 245/WR-18 run-flat tires ($3,330); Premium Package includes Dakota leather upholstery for seats and doors, dark poplar wood trim, auto-dimming interior and exterior lights and three-function garage opener ($2,400); Park Distance Control with graphic displays front and rear ($700), Xenon Adaptive Headlights ($800), rear passenger side-impact airbags ($385)

Model Line Overview
Model lineup
BMW 525i ($39,995); 530i ($44,995); 545i ($54,995); 545i 6-Speed ($58,295)
Safety equipment (standard)
antilock brakes with Dynamic Brake Control auto-proportioning, Dynamic Traction Control, Dynamic Stability Control anti-skid electronics, seatbelt pretensioners and force limiters, two-stage front airbags with dual threshold deployment, front-passenger side airbags, side curtain head-protection airbags, Intelligent Safety and Information System control with fiber-optic connections and post-impact safety measures
Safety equipment (optional)
3.0-liter dohc 24-valve variable valve timing inline-6
6-speed manual

Specifications as Tested
6-speed manual transmission, power windows with key-off and one-touch operation, automatic climate control with separate left/right temperature and distribution controls and active charcoal microfilter, AM/FM/CD with 10 speakers and two sub-woofers, BMW Assist with automatic collision notification, SOS button, roadside assist and locater and concierge services, leatherette upholstery, cruise control, power tilt-and-telescope leather steering wheel with fingertip cruise, audio and phone controls, 10-way power front seats with power head restraints and driver's seat memory, keyless entry with multi-function remote and Vehicle & Key memory, power heated side mirrors with reverse tilt-down on passenger side, halogen free-form headlights and fog lights with automatic control, 17x7.5-inch cast-alloy wheels, power outlets in front-passenger footwell, rear of center console and trunk, rechargeable flashlight in glovebox

Engine & Transmission
3.0-liter dohc 24-valve variable valve timing inline-6
Drivetrain type
rear-wheel drive
Horsepower (hp @ rpm)
225 @ 5900
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy
Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm)

Brakes, front/rear
vented disc/vented disc with ABS and electronic brake proportioning
Suspension, front
Suspension, rear

Seating capacity
Head/hip/leg room, middle
Head/hip/leg room, front
Head/hip/leg room, rear

Fuel capacity
Trunk volume
Turning circle
Towing capacity
Track, front/rear
Ground clearance
Curb weight

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