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BEHIND THE WHEEL

OK, So the New BMW Isn't Perfect--but It's Close

May 24, 1996|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — The BMW engineer at the podium groped for some midpoint between confidence and arrogance before settling on a modest, impartial opinion of the 1997 528i.

"Ummm, ah, well . . . it is the perfect car," stated Hans-Juergen Branz, managing engineer of the car's development team.

It is significant that this month's introduction of the 5-Series here also represented Branz's first trip to the United States. He likely was impressed by Planet Hollywood, palm trees, Bo Derek billboards, hash browns, Bud Light and everyone hoping everybody has a nice day. Which clearly casts him as an innocent abroad with no regard for the piercing cynicism of the automotive media.

So we smiled into our iced water, circled "perfect" in our notes, and blamed Branz's condition on Lufthansa and melatonin.

Yet . . . in attributing flawlessness to the new series, its parent engineer wasn't reaching that far from appropriate adjectives.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday June 7, 1996 Home Edition Life & Style Part E Page 2 View Desk 2 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
BMW 5-Series--An incorrect price comparison was made in the Behind the Wheel review of BMW's 1997 5-Series, published May 24 in Life & Style. Base price of the 528i is $37,900, or $1,400 higher than the 1996 525i. Base price of the new 540i is $37,900, or $900 above the cost of this year's vehicle.

"Outstanding" would work. "Impressive" fits. Even "superior" has an application to this mid-size sedan born to do furious battle with Mercedes-Benz's new E-Class and the larger, luxurious high performers from Lexus and Infiniti.

It is a given that Bimmers are screwed together with care and precision until ride and performance become unwavering characteristics. Always with a slight bias toward a heavier feel from steering wheel and suspension movements; always with significant reserves of power and response from proven engines assembled from meticulous designs to aeronautical standards.

Luxury is hereditary and primary, never simulated. This is quality leather, that is real wood. And much premium equipment has arrived with the base price, making BMW a pioneer of all-inclusive marketing--not a practitioner of the ploy of adding an ashtray and calling it "value packaging."

And just when you think you've caught up with current Bimmers and absorbed all their cleverness, along comes a fresher crop crammed with more ingenuity and conveniences.

The two-car 5-Series--on sale this month and formed by the six-cylinder, 190-horsepower 528i and the V-8, 282-horsepower 540i--are virtual novelty shops:

* They compensate for short-term memory loss among those prone to leaving windows and sunroof open. Just put the key into the door lock, turn to the right and hold it there until windows and sunroof close automatically on backup power.

* For owners who wedge towels or sports sections against their windows to keep the sun from microwaving mother, the 5-Series offers optional power-operated sunshades for rear windows and manual blinders for the side glass.

* BMW has joined Volvo and Mercedes in installing side-impact, door-mounted air bags to better protect precious torsos. In the fall, BMW will be the first to offer head bags in the area above the front doors. In the event of a serious shunt, drivers should find themselves safe in the middle of a marshmallow.

* There is no keyhole on the right front door. Because, BMW says, that's the first place car thieves approach with their ice picks. Besides, when was the last time a driver entered the car from the right side?

* Seat warmers being somewhat passe, BMW trumps all players with a heated steering wheel for Cleveland winters.

* The right-side air bag is monitored by a seat sensor that deactivates the bag when there is no front-seat passenger, adult or child. It's not a safety factor, just one way of lessening your premiums because insurance companies shriek bloody murder at shelling out $1,200 to replace an air bag that popped with no one to protect.

* And a pair of pencil-point spotlights spray a gentle amber glow from the roof above the dash. They are almost invisible. But extend a hand at night, reach for a CD or climate control, and fingers and the desired dashboard button become luminous.

Compared with predecessor cars, this fourth-generation of the 25-year-old 5-Series clearly is an evolutionary sedan.

It is longer by 2.2 inches, almost an inch taller and wheels have been squeezed tighter into the corners. The result is more available room for heads, shoulders and knees without upsetting the delicate ratio of containment and comforts.

The additional cabin height does bring a humpier appearance to the silhouette, which makes the car stubbier and a little closer to the compact look of the 3-Series.

There will be blizzards in Blythe before BMW dumps its kidney grille. There's similar brand equity in the marque's lace alloy wheels.

Even the subtle, familiar kink in the rear pillar window frame has been retained as BMW stays glued to a design philosophy of change and progress without diluting identity.

The 528i and the 540i, although identical by dimensions, can be told apart. The 540i has saucy chrome bars in its grille; vertical stripes on the 528i are funereal in black.

There are significant differences in price. The 528i starts at $37,900, a $2,600 hike on last year's car, but still a hefty $5,000 below the cost of a Mercedes E320.

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