2021 BMW 5 Series: Why would you buy a 520i?
The entry-level 520i M Sport offers a lot in the way of standard equipment, but it looks as though there's better value for money to be found elsewhere in the range.
What is it?
The BMW 5 Series is one of the Bavarian brand’s most storied models, with the current G30 model first launched in 2016 representing its seventh generation. The particular version on test here, the 520i LCI M Sport, represents the new opening point to the recently facelifted range, with LCI (Life Cycle Impulse) being BMW-speak for a facelift, and the commonly-optioned M Sport trim now being made standard.
Why are we testing it?
The G30 5er is getting on in years, as the heralding-in of a facelifted version clearly draws to attention, but with the model now having been given its most substantial update yet, it presents an opportune time to see just how it’s holding up.
With the 520i M Sport tested here being the cheapest version of it on offer in Australia, it also serves as a chance to see just what you actually get if you settle for a very entry-level luxury sedan such as this – something you don’t see very often in reviews given the highly-specified and well-optioned press cars most journos such as myself typically receive.
What’s it like inside?
While the G30’s interior might feel dated in the eyes of some compared to the more angular interiors seen in newer-generation BMWs, the 5er’s design is one that feels more classically BMW. Clear and simply-laid out controls, orange illumination, an emphasis on space and ergonomics – this feels far more like a BMW of old in the best possible way.
The biggest upgrade you’ll notice compared to a pre-LCI model when you slide into the incredibly comfortable and supportive leather seats (which are fully power-adjustable with two memory positions and even have adjustable bolsters) are the huge new screens in the gauge cluster and in the centre of the dashboard, both of which measure in at 12.3 inches diagonally and sport the latest BMW software. I know some aren’t a fan of the reversed and hexagonal tachometer, but I must admit that I rather like it and have no issues with it.
The iDrive 7 infotainment system is very slick, too, and even has full-screen wireless Apple CarPlay, and will wirelessly update to iDrive 8 when that drops thanks to over-the-air updates. I love the 360-degree camera system and its many helpful angles – such as a zoomed-in bird’s eye view over the bonnet when going forwards into a parking space, and an AR-powered external view of the whole car – as well, and it shows up very clearly on this huge screen.
In both the front and the rear, there’s an acreage of room for even someone as long in the leg as my 6’2″ self, and there’s no doubt that the fit and finish of everything from the leather on the chubby steering wheel to the satisfying feel of the turn-dial headlight switch or the indicator stalk just feels undoubtably high quality. The textured metal trim inlays do help it feel a bit newer than its age would suggest, and mirror the sort of finishes you’d find in newer rivals.
The boot is a decent 530 litres in size as well, so it’ll easily swallow your luggage on a trip to the airport, although it must be said that it is rather a narrow boot. It isn’t power operated, either, instead simply popping all the way open when you push the button but requiring you to slam it shut yourself, which is far from the end of the world as it’s honestly a much quicker solution than a fully-powered boot lid.
Complaints on the inside are few and far between, then, although I must admit there are a couple of little bones I have to pick. For one, despite the infinitely power-adjustable memory seats up front (even the headrests are power operated!) it doesn’t have heated seats as standard, which in a hundred-grand car is a bit rich. Also, the cupholders are on the small side, too, although this is just a sign of its age and not exactly the end of the world.
Overall though, this is exactly what you’d expect from a 5 Series interior, and aside from a couple of minor omissions, it’s absolutely wonderful. Well-made and well-presented, it’s ideal both for the driver up front, or to be driven in, and I’d imagine plenty of people around the world would be getting driven around in one of these. On that note though…
What’s it like to drive?
The 5 Series has always been known for its blend of sporty handling but comfortable ride, and certainly that’s as much the case as ever with the G30 generation. Its steering is incredibly well-weighted, direct, and responsive; it remains relatively flat through corners with a perfectly acceptable and minor amount of body roll; and if you start to push it hard it’ll actually kick out sideways despite lacking a limited-slip diff.
However, if there’s one thing that’s always marred entry-level 5ers, its not having enough grunt, and that’s a risk the 520i runs. Featuring a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine, it makes just 135kW at 6500rpm and 290Nm from 1350-4250rpm – not exactly big numbers when compared to an equivalently-priced Audi A6 45 TFSI or Jaguar XF P300, both of which offer performance more on the level of the tuned-up 530i, although it is relatively inline with the Mercedes-Benz E200, if slightly
Of course, the fact it still features ZF’s wonderful eight-speed automatic transmission (and BMW’s programming of it is the best there is, quite frankly) and a proper rear-wheel drive layout like a BMW should have are very good things, and certainly, the whole driveline is incredibly smooth and predictable overall like you’d expect it to be, but just how much of an issue are those low power figures in the real world?
Well, in traffic, they aren’t an issue in the slightest. As is the characteristic of most modern turbocharged engines, there’s plenty of low-down torque that’s easily accessible, so in traffic this is as much engine as you’ll ever need. Factor in its quietness and smoothness, too, along with its very impressive fuel efficiency and it’s the perfect engine for most buyers in that regard.
However, when you do start to push it, it feels totally gutless and choked-up above around 4000rpm in a way that makes you think it’s been done deliberately to make it not feel as punchy as the incredibly similar engine you’d get in the one-step-up 530i which does feel a lot more willing to rev out.
With that said, though, its performance is still acceptable – 0-100km/h in 7.8 seconds certainly isn’t atrocious – and when you drive it like a luxury car, it feels like a fitting drivetrain in that regard, and it’d be perfect option for the likes of chauffeur drivers. Factor in its impressive Level 2 semi-autonomous driving capabilities as well, especially since the system in this BMW is rather a useful one that doesn’t feel clunky or overbearing, and it’s a truly relaxing thing to drive, so it’s best viewed as highlighting the 5 Series’ luxury side more than its sporting side like the E28 528i Motorsport I recently drove did.
How do the numbers stack up?
Certainly, the price tag is a bit of a big one – $99,900 for a base model with is a lot, even with the M Sport package thrown in for free and the decent amount of kit you get with it. Still, for that much money, slightly more in the way of performance is to be expected – especially given what you’d get in a new 3 Series for a lot less. With that said, though, the wisest way to buy cars like this is on finance or to lease them, so how good a monthly payment deal you can get is perhaps more important.
In terms of the best value for money, there are really only two options worth looking at in the range. The 530i might be all you’d actually want or need, but the plug-in hybrid 530e is only a few grand more, so that’s one I’d be looking at if you’re after a more normal 5er. Also, while the 530d with its torque-rich straight-six diesel engine might look very tempting, the M550i Pure is so much faster thanks to its twin-turbo V8 that it’s probably worth every bit of the $12,000 price bump if performance is what you’re after.
At least at the petrol bowser it won’t charge you an arm and a leg, as after my 425km behind the wheel, it used an indicated 7.9L/100km against a claim of 6.8L/100km – impressive for a car of this size and weight, especially with a slightly underpowered engine. The tank is big at 68 litres, too, so you’ll get over 800km per fill-up.
Rather than typical capped price servicing, BMW offers pre-paid servicing in plans of varying lengths, with the BMW Service Inclusive Basic plan for five years/80,000km is $1950 for the 5 Series (approximately $390 per visit) although plans as short as three years and as long as 10 are available. Worth noting, though, is that BMW only offers a three-year warranty in Australia – something it has defended despite rivals such as Mercedes-Benz now moving to the industry-standard five-years.
So, what’s the verdict?
The G30 5 Series is a fantastic car to drive, make no mistake, and it has an incredibly comfortable, well-designed, and solidly built interior fitting of a luxury sedan. However, I can’t help but feel that this entry-level 520i is far from the best value on offer in the range.
While it may be incredibly smooth, refined, and economical, you’re getting far more in the way of performance from many of its key rivals. It’s a shame it does feel so choked up at the top-end of the rev range, as it’d be tempting if it felt a bit more free’d up.
I think the smart money is best spent on the 530e PHEV when it comes to this new 5 Series range, while the M550i Pure is the one to go for if bang-for-your-buck performance is what you’re after. Make no mistake, the 5er is a car very much worth buying as it's a properly lovely drive – it’s just that you’re getting much better value elsewhere in the range.
This article originally appeared on drivesection.com on May 7, 2021. The vehicle tested here was provided by BMW Australia. All noted prices are in Australian dollars (AUD).