Thanks to a merry mix-up of car swapping and a travel schedule with zero wiggle room, what was intended to be a BMW 535 sedan became a 535 xi Sports Wagon. Yet, there’s no arguing when any BMW shows up at your door freshly washed and its petrol needle hovering above the full mark. After signing the requisite loan papers, a button on the keyfob raised the power liftgate and automatically retracted the cargo cover. After throwing in my already packed bags, another button on the liftgate closed it and returned the cover to its original position. While power liftgates are nothing new, the automatically retracting cargo cover is a slick idea and well-executed.
Once strapped into the sport seat that includes an independently adjustable upper backrest, I was off to Chicago. I figured out i-Drive on the fly and programmed the trip computer and navigation system at stoplights before jumping onto I-94 to heading west out of Detroit.
Traffic volume kept my speed down to a relaxed 75 mph and the active cruise control used radar to keep an eye on slower vehicles ahead. It ever so gently reduced my speed automatically when approaching a slower car or truck. The system is so seamless that you forget it’s doing its job until you realize you are no longer getting closer to the vehicle in front of you and a quick glance at the speedometer tells you your speed is reduced.
Once clear of slower traffic, power flows so smooth and linear, you forget the 535 xi is a turbo. Make that twin-turbo. You might hear a hint of turbocharged-induced whistle at full throttle but there are otherwise no obvious indications of forced induction, no rush of power as the tachometer needle sweeps into the upper revs, nor is there even a boost gauge. The 3.0-liter unit pumps out 300 horsepower and is matched to a six-speed transmission that delivers smooth upshifts and quick downshifts. Gear changes are abrupt after a cold start-up but smooth once the drivetrain warms up. The powertrain combo delivered an impressive 25 mpg in highway driving conditions and 23 mpg overall driving during its 900-miles of service, with roughly a quarter of those miles slogging through daily commuting traffic.
Some of that traffic was avoidable if I’d listened to the navigation system that detected a jam-up ahead and suggested a different route. Sometimes it pays to listen to a disembodied, kindly female voice that tells you what to do.
Another high-tech featured packed into the 5-series was night vision that easily picks out everything that gives off heat. Images are clear and easily identified but because the display is in a separate screen above the center stack, it’s not as useful as it would be if it were part of the heads-up display.
In very un-BMW-like fashion, the low oil warning light illuminated just before engine shut-off on more than one occasion. Opening the hood to check the oil is a never-ending search for a non-existent dipstick. Flipping through the owner’s manual reveals that i-Drive is the all-seeing, all knowing omniscient of engine operations and indicated the oil level was fine. But how can one accurately tell the level of such a vital fluid and why would a warning light contradict i-Drive?
Though i-Drive reduces the number of switches needed to perform certain functions, it takes more time to go through menus and figure out where you need to be in the system. The argument can be made that learning comes with regular use through ownership but there are functions you would need only occasionally that will require a refresher course on how to access.
The 535xi was an admirable road-trip ally delivering on speed, comfort, room and the always-pleasurable German driving dynamic. The addition of all-wheel drive further cemented its sense of road-holding security in the worst weather. The use of turbochargers is an excellent solution to the power-versus-fuel economy compromise. In base trim, the 535 xi Sports Wagon stickers at $54,400. Our car was loaded with an arsenal of comfort and techno options and packages that vaulted the price to $70,555.
It’s surprising that BMW incorporated the name “wagon” into the model designation considering that it feels like a sport sedan with simply more room. The sensibility of i-Drive may be a sticking point with some buyers but for overall capability of a high-end vehicle that provides plenty of space without the drawbacks of an SUV, this BMW is a great choice.