Handling is an area in which things have changed substantially.
In the past, the BMW 5-series was the luxury sedan to go for if you wanted a little bit of sporty flair on your business suit. Things have changed, and luxury has evolved into an extra arm of technology. The current model was introduced for 2017 and this year marks the debut of its mid-cycle refresh. We jumped into a 2021 BMW 540i xDrive with the new mild-hybrid powertrain to determine whether or not it’s the real buy in the mid-sized luxury segment.
The current 5-series is a very handsome car, and the new lighting and body tweaks to the 2021 model have tidied things up nicely. The taillights in particular are stunning, and with their smoked design, immediately identifiable from the pre-facelift model. Our test vehicle was equipped with optional 20-inch wheels from BMW’s extensive catalogue, and they also look superb. The 540i is a conservative design that looks fairly derivative amongst its Bavarian siblings, but the styling of this generation can’t really be considered timeless.
The 540i marks the entry point into the straight six-cylinder engine, a 3.0-liter example in this case. The 335-horsepower six also gets a 48-volt electric motor-generator. It doesn’t necessarily help with performance, but the current Audi A6 and Mercedes-AMG E 53 also both offer this tech. The 332 lb-ft. of torque at 1,500RPM is extremely linear, and the powertrain is silky smooth overall. The 540i pulls and pulls, and we maintain that BMW’s six, codenamed “B58”, is one of the best engines around today, in any segment.
Perfectly complementing this engine is ZF’s eight-speed automatic transmission. It, like the engine itself, is one of the best automatic transmissions available today. It’s the only conventional automatic that we would put on the same engagement level as a dual-clutch unit. Unless it’s being driven really hard or in a track setting, most drivers will be perfectly satisfied with just leaving it in “Drive” and letting it do its thing. All 5-series models sold in Canada are equipped with BMW’s xDrive all-wheel-drive system.
Handling is an area in which things have changed substantially. One of the vehicles in my own garage happens to be a 2000 M5, largely recognized as one of the best sports sedans of all time. It may have the recirculating ball steering system, but it’s still extremely engaging and feels special. The current 5-series, regardless of powertrain, is a soft handler. It corners well, but there is a noteworthy lack of feel, which is something BMW was once known for. On the flip side, the 5-series’ biggest rival, the E-Class, has become a very eager machine in the corners.
Even with the 20-inch wheels, the 540i has impressive ride quality. It casually attacks minute imperfections in the road and still provides a decent amount of feel to the driver’s seat and fingertips as to not be an isolated experience. It’s impeccably quiet at highway speeds too, allowing for whisper-level communication between passengers. We observed fuel consumption of 9.3L/100km over a 350-kilometer test, with a decent mix between city and highway driving.
As expected from a modern BMW, interior quality is top notch. The mid-cycle refresh includes some upgrades to the infotainment, which is a touchscreen version of iDrive that still retains a rotary controller. Wireless CarPlay is good to have, though eats up my iPhone 12 Pro’s battery faster than this application in other vehicles. This infotainment system remains a solid step above what both Mercedes-Benz and Audi currently have to offer, and Lexus lags sorely behind in this regard as well. BMW’s connectivity is second to none in the segment, with the availability of an app to provide vehicle diagnostics, location services, and more.
Front and rear seats are very comfortable for the segment, though a step below Mercedes’ thrones. Rear headroom and legroom is also more than adequate for full-sized adults, and the trunk can hold nearly 400-liters worth of stuff. As equipped, the trunk lid is powered as well. It’s a fairly roomy car, though it’s very obvious how much modern cars have grown. The 5-series from two decades ago has a tighter rear seat than today’s 3-series, and even still, many of today’s compact luxury sedans can’t accommodate adults in the rear.
Pricing for the 5-series starts at $63,500 for the four-cylinder 530i, and the step up to the 540i commands $72,950. Our tester was pretty much loaded with the Premium Enhanced Package, Advanced Driver Assistance Package, M Performance Package, M Sport brakes, and premium paint. The total pushes the $87,000 mark, which isn’t a paltry sum, but it’s about on par for a fully loaded mid-sized luxury sedan in today’s market.
Competitively speaking, the Mercedes-Benz E 450, also refreshed for this model year, is the 540i’s most significant rival. It also gets a boosted inline six-cylinder and a mild hybrid system, and starts at $74,900. The Lexus GS is now gone, and buyers have effectively declared the Audi A6 as irrelevant. The Volvo S90 is most definitely still a thing, though even in 400-horsepower guise, it still gets a four-cylinder and can’t really be considered sporty in any real way.
A welcomed update to BMW’s popular 5-series has made the sedan more relevant than ever. In a market where the majority of buyers are gravitating towards crossovers, or in BMW’s case, “Sports Activity Vehicles”, this sedan is a seriously compelling choice. With its powerful inline six-cylinder engine and wonderful highway manners, the 2021 BMW 540i xDrive is a thoroughly wonderful car to spend time in, regardless of where the road may take you.