They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. And it was with mixed emotions that we sent away our 2011 BMW 535i sedan. On the one hand, the engine was a delight to drive and returned more than reasonable economy, and the car just looked so damn good, especially on its 19-inch sport package wheels. On the other hand, the 19-inch performance tires proved to be both fragile and impossible to replace, the manual gearbox seemed like a mismatch to the 535i’s character, and we came to realize that a lightly optioned 5-series doesn’t really feel like a 5-series much at all.
For the most part, the things that we disliked most about the 535i can be summarized in one word: options. We were excited that BMW North America chose to offer the new 5 with a manual transmission. In an age where self-shifting, dual-clutch boxes are snatching up what little remained of the manual transmission market, we went with the six-speed manual as a sort of novelty, but we really hoped it would make the car more engaging. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work well. The gearbox itself is fine (though second gear had just started grinding on fast shifts), but the clutch action, as we’ve written numerous times, is exceptionally vague. The idea of a stick-shift 5er is quaint, but the eight-speed automatic is more in character with the bigger sedan, it returns better fuel economy, and it is no less engaging than the manual.
We chose our 535i out of a pool of early-production cars built for the initial press launch of the new-for-2011 5-series last spring. Having already made the manual gearbox our priority, our options from the pool of test cars was immediately reduced to just a few, and they were all pretty well stripped. We took one with the sport package, but otherwise it was a fairly bog-stock 5er. It didn’t even have seat heaters as a result of supplier availability when it was built. We feel that anyone moving into a new 5-series should at least choose navigation, automatic and a winter package. Skimping on the split-folding rear seat seems unwise as well.
The sport package dealt its own dirty hand in the form of fragile tires. While the 19-inch sport wheels look truly appropriate for the car, there isn’t a lot of protection from a 245/40 tire. To make matters worse, ours came shod with Goodyear runflats rather than the Dunlops we’ve had on other cars. The Eagle F1 performance tire was great on the road and in the wet, but apparently Goodyear didn’t see fit to build enough for replacements. After hitting a pothole last fall, the right front tire developed a blister in the sidewall.
A quick search at TireRack.com showed a backorder on the ($403 each) tire, but that wasn’t much of a problem since we simply swapped on a set of winter tires for the cold season. But once spring rolled around, there was still no replacement tire in stock. We left the winter set in place longer than we wanted to in the hopes a replacement would become available, but it never did. In late May we reluctantly bolted the original wheels and tires back on, blistered sidewall and all. By the time it left us, the blister had become a tumor, and no one was willing to drive the car, since even runflats don’t work when there’s a hole in the sidewall.
These few setbacks aside, the new 535i offered all the performance we demanded of it. The single-turbo, 3.0-liter N55 engine is smooth and powerful, and all-around fuel economy averaged about 23 mpg. As a family car, the interior is generous with space and very attractive. And we still suspect the current generation of 5 will go down as one of the best looking. Now that ours has left the parking lot, we are starting to miss it.