THE MT EXECUTIVE CAR OF THE YEAR AWARD: The Fabulous 5 Series

As MT's first-ever motoring laurels go to the latest offering from BMW, the uncrowned king of the business class market, Stephen Bayley deconstructs the success of the German car-maker's blue-and-white roundel.

by Stephen Bayley
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The most remarkable machines define the cultures that made them. The BMW 5-series, MT's Executive Car of the Year, is doubly remarkable because it defines two: the culture of BMW itself and that of its favourite customer, the successful executive.

There are many ways for businesses to fail, but fewer certain ways for them to succeed. One of them is to have a full understanding of the customer's psychology, to be able to predict and direct his aspirations, satisfy his needs and then encourage mere needs to mature into desire. So: BMW 525! An eloquent six-integer alphanumeric that expresses class, quality, achievement, prestige. The BMW 5-series is more than a car; it has become a way of life for an entire business generation. As the poet measured existence in coffee spoons, the rest of us may have to rely on BMW model designations.

The first 5-series appeared in 1972, the year of the murderous Munich Olympics, when BMW opened its extraordinary headquarters in that city: a swaggering architectural conceit whose form suggests mighty cylinders penetrating the Bavarian skyline. But the car's conceptual origins go deeper into BMW's past. In 1959, BMW - a manufacturer of bubblecars, rare sportscars, motorbikes bought only by the German police, and archaic limos known as 'Baroque Angels' - was virtually bust, so much so that Coventry's Sir William Rootes, proprietor of Humber, Hillman and Sunbeam, was mooted as a buyer. The proud Bavarians resisted, reorganised financially and started over.

Firm control by steady investors allowed BMW to plan new models with confidence. The most significant of these was the Neue Klasse 1500, which appeared at the 1961 Frankfurt Motor Show. This was the ancestor of the 5-series: a car directed at confident professionals who would appreciate a premium-priced package featuring exemplary engineering and styling that was authoritative and commanding, yet polite and unostentatious.

The Neue Klasse had exactly the same bearing as Eberhard von Kuenheim, the Prussian appointed chairman of BMW in 1970 and the man responsible for giving us the definitive executive car.

Styling has complemented engineering in the 5-series phenomenon. Yet, curiously, the artistic origins of the BMW motifs are Italian. It was Giovanni Michelotti, also responsible for the Triumph Herald, who drew the tiny BMW 700 of 1959; the crisp lines, assertive lights and airy glasshouse of which became familiar BMW characteristics, picked up and emphasised by Paul Bracq, designer of the 1972 5-series. Successive generations of the 5-series in 1982, '88 and '95 developed this design language in a careful evolution whose resistance to frivolous change demonstrated BMW's belief in the rightness of its product.

And the customer, flattered by the manufacturer's concern, responded with ever more enthusiasm. The success of the 5-series as a commercial proposition is based on the ability of BMW to extract maximum value from a range of components within the same body shell. Just as the 1500 of 1961 became the basis for a family of cars of widely differing specifications, so the 5-series has expanded to cover almost the entire range of middle-market budgets. The most expensive 5-series costs more than twice as much as the base model, yet the cars look essentially the same.

This counter-intuitive voodoo has worked magnificently, and its success is based on implied and - on the whole - justified convictions about quality expressed through consistent design. Helped by advertising that respects the customer's intelligence rather than tickling his cupidity, the 5-series has performed an extraordinary perceptual trick. It is a very popular car, but one that mysteriously and impressively retains an aura of exclusivity.

And then, just when things seemed neatly established with a steadily growing market for cars that were near pitch-perfect in terms of clarity, customer perceptions and market expectations, BMW introduced the fifth-generation 5-series. BMW's chief designer, Chris Bangle, has controversially started over again. Gone is the assumption that BMWs all look the same but simply come in different sizes. Gone too are well-mannered proportions and reticent details. In place of clarity and rationality, Bangle has given executives who do not wear ties a car to represent them. It is the uncertainty principle of car design: irrational, argumentative and animated. And it works.

BMW's German rivals suddenly look old-fashioned. Audi's visual calmness and profound understatement threatens now to degenerate into boredom.

Mercedes-Benz has abandoned the careful design hierarchies that distinguished its past, and now makes cars that one industry expert says look Korean.

And BMW continues to do what it does best: make cars that lead the consumer, but not by too much.

The new 5-series has a dizzying range of technological options to complement the extraordinary styling as an expression of personal preferences: with active steering, adaptive lights and HUD (head-up displays), the consumer can order an entire vocabulary of options, not to mention engine formats, to articulate his taste as precisely as the clothes he wears.

An initial impression of shock at the appearance of the new 5-series has soon matured into nodding approval. Its self-conscious oddness reads, in today's turbulent cultural climate, as a rare profession of confidence.

It suggests an exhilarating belief in the future, exactly as the Neue Klasse did in 1961. But there's a difference. Today's desirable 5-series is also available with a diesel engine. The world may have turned upside-down, but BMW has stayed in the same place ... supplying, as ever, the perfect executive car. And, yes, it drives superbly too.

The MT Executive Car of the Year Award is compiled in association with What Car?

FROM THE DRIVER'S SEAT

Shipping agent and long-time BMW owner Urs Schaerer, 56, was so keen to get his hands on one of BMW's new 5-series that he put his order in way back in November 2002, soon after the car was launched. He didn't take delivery of his metallic grey 530d SE until more than a year later.

So has it been worth the wait? Schaerer - whose previous cars include an old model 5-series and a 3-series coupe - thinks so, and isn't surprised that the car is our award winner. 'Everything is much better in this car than the old model,' he says. 'The handling is superb and it's much bigger inside - there's lots more legroom in the back and I can sling my golf clubs into the boot instead of having to fit them in carefully.'

It's the first diesel BMW he has owned, and in the 3,000 or so miles he has put on the clock so far, he has grown to love the new engine, too. 'I really like the torque, it's very pokey at low revs and it makes a raunchy sound when you put your foot down. And it's very economical.'

Despite his enthusiasm for the marque, he checked out the competition before making up his mind. 'I looked at the E-class Merc, but I didn't like it,' he says. 'The BMW has more individuality and it drives a lot better. On country lanes, the Merc can't touch it.' The controversial looks didn't put him off. 'The styling has had a lot of bad press, but I think it's a good thing. It makes the car stand out.'

He even likes the notoriously complicated i-Drive dashboard control system.

All in all, another satisfied customer for the makers of the MT Executive Car of the Year. 'I won't change it - not unless my situation changes drastically, anyway.'

WINNER

BMW 525i SE AUTO

COSTS

On the road price (from): £27,055

Sample leasing cost (pcm): £539

Official mpg: 20.8/40.4/30.1 (urban/extra-urban/combined)

Fuel tank capacity (gallons): 15.4

CO2 rating: 228g/km

Cost per mile: 58.3p

Insurance group/typical quote: 16/£552

Warranty: 36/Unlimited + 2 years' paint and 6 years' anti-rust

PERFORMANCE

Engine (cc/cyl): 2,494/6

Peak power (bhp/rpm): 192/6,000

Peak pulling power (lb ft/rpm): 180/3,500

0-60mph (sec): 7.9

Max speed (mph): 148

SOURCE: WHAT CAR? MAGAZINE

RUNNERS-UP

MERCEDES-BENZ E270 JAGUAR S-TYPE 2.5 V6

Cdi CLASSIC AUTO SPORT

COSTS

On the road price

(from) £28,825 £28,200

Sample leasing

cost (pcm) £582 £521

Official mpg 31.0/55.4/43.5 19.4/35.8/27.4

(urban/extra-urban/

combined)

Fuel tank capacity

(gallons) 17.6 15

CO2 rating 172g/km 249 g/km

Cost per mile 60.3p 60.6p

Insurance group/

typical quote 15/£511 14/£483

Warranty 36/Unlimited + 30 36/Unlimited + 3 years'

years' anti-corrosion paint and 6 years'

and breakdown anti-rust

PERFORMANCE

Engine (cc/cyl) 2,685/5 2,497/V6

Peak power (bhp/rpm) 174/4,200 200/6,800

Peak pulling power

(lb ft/rpm) 295/1,800 181/4,000

0-60mph (sec) 9 8.2

Max speed (mph) 143 142

SOURCE: WHAT CAR? MAGAZINE

WINNERS IN OTHER CATEGORIES

LUXURY CAR

Winner: JAGUAR XJ6

Price: £39,950

CO2 rating: 249g/km

Runners-up

MERCEDES S320 CDi

Price: £48,855

CO2 rating: 204g/km

AUDI A8 3.7 V8 QUATTRO

Price: £51,055

CO2 rating: 281g/km

COMPACT EXECUTIVE CAR

Winner BMW 320d ES

Price: £18,078

CO2 rating: 153g/km

Runners-up

AUDI A4 130 TDi SE

Price: £20,690

CO2 rating: 154g/km

MERCEDES C180K CLASSIC

Price: £21,665

CO2 rating: 202g/km

COUPE

Winner MAZDA RX-8 228bhp

Price: £22,000

CO2 rating: 284g/km

Runners-up

AUDI TT225

Price: £27,505

CO2 rating: 226g/km

NISSAN 350Z

Price: £24,000

CO2 rating: 273g/km

TOYOTA CELICA 1.8 VVTi

Price: £16,500

CO2 rating: 185g/km

4x4

Winner: VOLVO XC90 D5 S GEARTRONIC

Price: £30,120

CO2 rating: 242g/km

Runners-up

HONDA CR-V 2.0 VTEC SE

Price: £16,900

CO2 rating: 216g/km

RANGE ROVER 4.4 VA SE

Price: £50,995

CO2 rating: 389g/km

BMW X5 3.0d SE auto

Price: £35,160

CO2 rating: 259g/km

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