Thursday, November 14, 2013

Test Drive: 2014 BMW 535d xDrive

Diesels and sport together seems counter intuitive. The oil burning motors are better known for providing superior torque for towing and superlative fuel economy in passenger cars. But when a manufacturer best known for its sport sedans throws its weight behind diesel motors, any enthusiast worth his salt has to at least sit up and pay a bit of attention. This is why I recently found myself behind the wheel of BMW's latest entry into the sport diesel market, the 535d. Combined with BMW's xDrive AWD system, the twin-turbocharged inline-six, this luxury sport diesel (that seems like quite a contradicting mash-up) seems to be the model that BMW is banking on as its volume seller in the 5-series line-up for New England.

However, given BMW's reputation for providing excellent sport sedans, can a car that plays on so many contradicting ideas continue to deliver the ownership experience that make BMW's so popular with their buyers? Or is this just the latest in a long line of odd disappointments from what was once the most storied sport sedan manufacturer on the planet?

The skies were gray with clouds and the roads already damp from a round of showers that morning. As I arrived at the dealership, the sky opened up and started pouring a steady stream of rain, coating the already slick roads with a layer of water. This was going to prove to be an interesting test drive. The car we took was the current dealership sales manager's personal demo car; an Alpine White Sport-Line model with a good number of the available options from BMW's rather extensive, possibly excessive, options list. Unfortunately, because of the rain, it was difficult to find much time to examine the exterior of the car in detail. I will say, however, that the Sport-Line bumpers add a nice sporting character and certainly make the car look athletic. Overall, the proportions are classic RWD sedan with short overhangs, long hood, and short deck. It is a tremendous improvement over the somewhat oddly surfaced last generation car, but ends up looking slightly less distinctive. Unlike Mercedes, who has been tremendously successful in its latest designs, BMW seems to continue to struggle a bit with finding the balance between distinctive and disgusting.

Sliding behind the driver's seat, it is clear that BMW has spent a great deal of time on the interior. It is well thought out, with most controls falling easily to hand and every surface both looks and feels great. As much as I complain about people buying BMW's for the badge, the extra cost does seem to translate into some high quality materials. Of course, while the ergonomics leave little to complain about, the user-friendliness is a totally different story. Take the transmission shifter, which really is nothing more than a joystick that digitally tells the transmission what the driver wants. BMW made the decision to continue to use this oddly shaped, multi-directional, button/stick combination that is, quite frankly, really ugly and difficult to use. If there is no physical connection between the action of the controller and the transmission itself, why not get really creative and do something that is interesting, unique, and user-friendly? Lincoln and Aston Martin have chosen push buttons to control their transmissions, Audi and Chrysler use boat throttle shaped controllers, and Jaguar has gone the extra mile to have their transmission control knob pop out of the center console when the car is started. Each of these is a significant improvement over the controller that BMW uses.

Once I had everything set where I needed, I pressed the start button and the diesel motor shuddered to life with a slight clatter before it settled into a gentle and smooth idle. One thing is for certain, I could not expect a typical sport sedan sound track to come from this particular vehicle. On the windshield, the ghostly floating numbers of the head-up display sprang into view. Car in gear, I eased onto the throttle and threaded my way out onto the streets, sheets of rain still soaking the roads. The car glided quietly out into traffic, thick-rimmed steering wheel feeling nicely weighted in my hands. Tactile feedback is muted, but the steering is accurate, if not quite precise. The car does as it is told, though the electronic power steering has now made it a touch more difficult to decipher if the car is complying immediately. This is one area in which BMW continues to stray away from its roots, but the latest owners the brand seems to be attracting are not complaining, to the chagrin of us enthusiasts.

At the next light, I boot it a little, testing the car's throttle response, which is satisfyingly immediate and free of slack. Unfortunately, the wave of torque I was expecting, given that this car is rated at 413 lb-ft, did not come. The last car I drove that had this much torque and such sharp throttle response promptly stuffed me into the seat and held me there until I begged for mercy and released the throttle. In the 535d, however, it just sort of patted me on the back and said, "Just a moment..." as it got up to speed, but without any fanfare whatsoever. Perhaps it was the transmission, the AWD system, or maybe even the stability control sensing that the conditions were wet, but whatever the case, I was truly disappointed with the lack of forcefulness in the acceleration. To make matters worse, the motor is so muted that even at high RPMs, I could hardly make out intake or exhaust notes over the chattering of the dealer rep in the passenger seat and the whooshing of the wipers against the windshield.

So far, my enthusiast senses were not being tickled. The more I drove, the more I was getting concerned that this car would be the final nail in the coffin for enthusiasm in the BMW brand outside of the M line-up and a few choice special edition cars. Then, we got to a place where I could start to test the handling a bit and the car started to redeem itself. Tossing it into a corner, despite the wet conditions, the car rotated easily and handled neutrally, never threatening to do anything I did not want it to do. Having driven FWD cars as daily drivers for much of my driving career, I am always prepared for the odd bit of sudden understeer, but this car was so clean in executing the corner and remaining so utterly flat, I was genuinely caught a bit off guard, since the rest of the experience had been so uninspiring. While the steering could be more responsive, it does not disappoint in pointing the car where you want it to go. Best of all, this handling prowess does not come at the expense of the ride, which is smooth, well-damped, and superbly controlled. There is no denying that BMW has the ride-handling trade-off down to an art.

A few more miles through urban traffic, dodging moronic pedestrians along Commonwealth Avenue, I finally made it back to the dealership and slotted the car back into the parking spot I had taken it from. Before shutting the car down, I took a few moments to fiddle with the newest iteration of iDrive, which has improved by leaps and bounds over past generations. It certainly is much more intuitive than the first generation of the infotainment system I tested many years ago on the last generation 5-series, and is now much more usable. It is still a step or two behind Audi's extremely intuitive MMI setup, but not by the huge margin that it used to be.

Exiting the car, I tossed the keys back to the rep, who promptly dashed inside to get out of the rain. I lingered for a moment, collecting my thoughts and walking around the car one last time. In all honestly, I really want to like this car, especially since I see the genuine benefits in fuel economy that come with switching to diesel. However, the fabled torque delivery that I expect from diesel motors is simply not there, sapped by either the AWD system or the transmission, and that is a big part of the fun equation. While it handles well, the chassis being so well-balanced and easy to control, the lack of thrust makes the large price tag and ownership stigma a bit tough to swallow. However, I see why the dealer is stocking up on these, because to someone who is looking for a luxurious sedan, good fuel economy, and lots of bells and whistles, this car is more than able to satisfy. However, it is not going to meet the needs of a discriminating enthusiast who is looking for a fun to drive car that can also provide good fuel economy and carry a car-load of people. For that, the gasoline powered 535i is still a better choice. And if fuel economy is not a concern, the 550i can be had for nearly the same money.