View Full Version : Road test: 2008 BMW 550i, A car with real presence, but little ostentation

11-26-2007, 02:42 PM


From Thursday's Globe and Mail

November 22, 2007 at 12:00 AM EST

Type: Luxury sports sedan
Base Price: $82,900; as tested, $90,200
Engine: 4.8-litre, DOHC, V-8
Horsepower/torque: 360 hp/ 360 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Drive: Rear-wheel-drive
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 13.3 city/ 9.1 highway; premium
Alternatives: Mercedes-Benz E550, Lexus GS430/LS430, Jaguar S-Type 4.2/XJ8, Infiniti M45 Sport, Cadillac STS V8, Audi A6 4.2

The styling is growing on me
The performance and handling are terrific
The interior is both luxurious and a well-thought-out "work" station for the driver

Don't like
Rather small and unusually shaped outside mirrors
The iDrive knob that controls many functions still seems overly complicated to me
I found the steering-wheel rim a little thick

Actually owning one of BMW's recently refreshed 550i luxury sport sedans would likely be a very rewarding experience.

Driving one for a week certainly was.

Stepping out of the house and seeing it parked in the driveway — looking just a little different for 2008 with the addition of minor styling revisions — makes you feel good for starters. This is a car with real presence, but little ostentation.

And time seems to have dulled the edge of the controversy its styling caused when this generation of the 5-Series appeared in 2004. Perhaps it's familiarity. Maybe stylist Chris Bangle was right all along. Either way, this mid-size Bimmer seems to wear its look more comfortably these days.

Styling changes for 2008 were limited to clear headlamp covers, minor alterations to the grille trim, a reshaped lower air intake and massaged side sills. At the rear, the tail-lights also gained clear covers along with LED bulbs and the licence plate surround was tweaked a little. If the word subtle comes to mind to describe these additions, you're dead right.

Now it's time to pull open that solid-feeling door and slide into the sturdy leather-clad driver's seat, bumping your backside over fairly pronounced but not overly aggressive bolsters. Snuggle in, grab the large, maybe a little too fat, rimmed, steering wheel and contemplate your surroundings.

There were only minor changes in here, too, but that's okay as this was already a very attractive and functional interior. Two-tone door trim and reshaped map pockets, minor changes to switches, some new usage of soft materials and that's about it for interior alterations. The exception is the new automatic transmission gear-change lever, which is a final vestige of the traditional stick, reduced in function to little more than an outsized alloy toggle switch.

The test car was done in classic German sedan black outside and in, with an interesting highly polished dark bamboo grain wood trim.

A simple twin-dial instrument cluster is framed by the wheel and at the top of the centre stack is a screen for the navigation system map, audio and climate functions (with simple manual controls for the latter below). The screen is also used for other more mysterious things accessed by the notorious (but now somewhat simplified) iDrive controller on the console.

Headroom is fine, the outside mirrors are a bit small and odd-shaped, the headlamps are excellent and cruising speed noise levels are low.

The rear seat is set up to accommodate two in superb comfort, with a fold-down armrest/console delineating their respective spaces and bolsters formed to support without being confining. A third person would not be happy straddling the large central tunnel. In the trunk you can stow 424 litres of cargo.

Before you get under way, you might want to reflect on the level of technological sophistication built into this automobile.

A partial list would include ABS and dynamic brake, stability and traction control, adaptive head and brake lights, speed- and rain-sensitive wipers, heated headlight washers and outside mirrors, a full array of airbags, automatic climate control, cruise control, onboard computer, high-level audio system and BMW Assist (an emergency communication system).

The 550i also has exclusive "M" features that include a sport suspension and exhaust system, steering wheel, 19-inch road wheels and exterior aerodynamic bits and pieces.

And as icing on the cake the test car came with a $3,300 package incorporating heated rear seats, park distance control (useful at times) and Logic 7 sound system (excellent). Plus a $4,000 technology package with lane departure warning (an unnecessary nanny feature), head-up display (also questionable value), navigation system (useful) and voice control (a good safety feature).

All that, added to a base price of $82,900, will have you contemplating a before-taxes $90,200 price tag for this example. But, assuming you can afford it, that might seem good value when you actually start to drive the 550i.

The V-8 under the hood fires up on the button with an enthusiastic "whumph" that reminds you BMW built its reputation on sporting sedans and that the 550i is one of its more serious efforts.

You've just lit the fire of a 4.8-litre, four-cam, four-valve-per-cylinder engine with variable valve timing that makes 360 hp at 6,300 rpm and a matching 360 lb-ft of torque at 3,400 rpm, and which gets all that to its rear wheels through a six-speed automatic transmission (a six-speed manual is available).

Fuel economy is rated at 13.3 litres/100 km in the city and 8.1 on the highway with premium fuel being required.

This engine/transmission combo is silky smooth and docile, but stand on the gas and, if conditions are right, you'll be doing 100 km/h in 5.7 seconds. Top speed is electronically limited to 240 km/h, but, hey, that's 90 km/h faster than the speed the car would be confiscated for in Ontario these days.

In keeping with this level of performance, the 550i sits solidly on a suspension tuned to deliver very high levels of handling competence. This is a car designed to be driven safely at 200 km/h-plus on the autobahn, remember. But, as a result, ride at Ontario speeds is decidedly firm, with some odd ride motions generated at low speeds.

Steering effort too feels rather high, although you quickly get used to it, and it pays dividends in control at higher speeds. Over all, a superb car to drive, but one that requires some commitment on the part of a daily driver.

I've always considered BMW's 5-Series sedans "just-right" sized luxury cars, with useful people and cargo capacity, in a package that wasn't particularly pretentious. And they've always, of course, been great performers. The 2008 550i reconfirms these views in spades.