BMW 525d SE Touring Steptronic review
by David Finlay (15 July 2004)
I had planned the trip - which would involve being in locations as far apart as Essex and Argyll in the same week - a long time before I knew what I would be driving. This led to a long period of concern. What exactly might I have to use for transport, and would it drive me mad as I pounded along motorways for hour after hour?
There are times when a Ferrari Enzo or a Daihatsu Charade would be just the thing, and other times when neither of them might possibly be quite the thing after all, and I knew that neither of those estimable machines would suit my purpose in this case. Something comfortable and economical seemed to be called for. A diesel, probably, but not too big a diesel.
Fortune smiled, birds sang, angels fluttered their eyelashes. The CARkeys road test schedule for the period came through, and there beside my name was the resounding phrase "BMW 525d SE Touring". I could hardly have chosen better myself.
From our previous road test of the 530d saloon I knew I was in for a treat, because that car remains one of my favourites of the year so far, partly because the current 5-Series is great to drive and partly because BMW is making such a good job of turbo diesel engines these days.
I collected the Touring and immediately headed on a journey which would see me cover 1260 miles in little over a week. First impressions were good without being startling. Despite the photographic evidence surrounding this article, my car was black, and that's not a colour that suits the shape particularly well (the 530d we had was metallic brown and it attracted vastly more attention).
But the shape itself is quite something. The rear end of the 5-Series saloon may not be quite so riotously offensive as that of the 7-Series, but it's still far from being elegant. The Touring's hindquarters are from more pleasing to the eye (nice ass, BMW).
Within the first five miles of the 1260, something familiar had become apparent. The Touring grips and handles very well, but it rides less well, and as with the 530d the problem is a fixation with low-profile tyres. These are fine if they are part of the whole suspension concept, but in this case I don't think they are.
It's as if BMW's suspension people have created a set-up based on more standard tyres, and then the marketing department has said, "Oh, by the way, we need low-profiles because they look really sexy," and slapped them on without giving the suspension people a chance to make any adjustments. So a compliant ride over large undulations is spoiled by jitteriness over small ones, and the effect is (again as we found with the 530d saloon) that the Touring is trying to be two different cars at once.
Oh, well. Full marks for the engine, though. If you've experienced the tremendous mid-range pull of BMW's three-litre diesel it's possible to be slightly disappointed with the less dramatic behaviour of the 2.5-litre version tested here, but in all honesty the performance you lose is performance you probably wouldn't have needed anyway. There's still a lot of acceleration available when you need it, and overtaking is a simple matter.
The big advantage of the 2.5, of course, is that it uses less fuel, though the official figures don't suggest that there's much difference between this unit and the three-litre. On the EU consumption test this may be true, but the results of that test in any case seem to err on the pessimistic side. BMW quotes an overall figure of 40.4mpg for this car with the six-speed manual gearbox and 35.3mpg with the six-speed Steptronic automatic we tested, but I had no problem staying above 40mpg. And that's not just because I spent a lot of time cruising along motorways - on country roads the economy seemed remarkably similar.
It's worth noting here that there's also a 2.5-litre petrol engine in the range. That's in the cheapest car - in fact the only 5-Series Touring costing less than £30,000 without options - but the diesel is only slightly more expensive, and you'd get that back quite quickly since the diesel's economy and CO2 emissions are greatly superior (though the performance figures are as near identical as makes no practical difference).
For a long time BMW Tourings were notorious for their inability to carry much luggage, which kind of negated the idea of buying one in the first place, but in that respect the 5-Series has improved greatly. With the rear seats in place there's now 500 litres of boot space (18% up on the old model), extending to 1650 litres with the seats folded. You can access this by opening either the whole tailgate or just the rear screen.
Apart from the occasionally jiggly ride the Touring is comfortable and relaxing to drive, especially with that excellent Steptronic automatic. The iDrive computer display system, which allows you to look after climate control, navigation, sound system and (where appropriate) phone system, is much simpler to use in the 5-Series than in the 7, and it benefits from excellent graphics - especially when you want to adjust the radio, though the navigation map is well thought-out too.
While it's been simplified from the 7-Series application, though, and despite looking better than almost any other system of its kind, iDrive is still not as user-friendly as it might be. Moving from one mode to another (say navigation to radio, for example) is a slightly laborious process requiring more brainpower than you really want to divert from the business of driving.
I dare say owners will become used to this, but even after a week I couldn't help feeling that the system had been designed from the car outwards rather than from the driver inwards. Or, from a more personal point of view, it seemed to operate in a way that BMW thought I should want rather than in a way I actually did want.
Even so, the Touring was an excellent tool for my Big Journey, and I wish it had been more of a wrench when I finally had to give it back. I'd have been more sorry to see it go if it had been a more complete driving package, which brings us back to that apparent conflict between the tyres and the suspension. If I were going to buy this or any other 5-Series I think I'd have to be very careful in my choice of which rubber I asked for it to be fitted with.
Second opinion: Yes, there's absolutely no doubt that the 5-Series Touring looks better side-on than the saloon. There's an elegance about the estate body shape that's lacking in the other version. Even with the "small" turbo diesel engine, this is a splendid motorway cruiser, just eating up the miles. On the subject of tyres, I wish that in most cases manufacturers would simply forget about low-profile jobs for cars without sporting pretensions. They're often just for show, and what - in the great scheme of things - is the sense of that? I have similar thoughts about iDrive, and would willingly trade it in for a few rows of neatly placed push-buttons. Ross Finlay.