Test: 2011 BMW 550i xDrive GT

Certain vehicles have evolved to a point where having to describe the meshed performance of all its engineering is best done by quoting a “feeling” of the kind you absorb rather than see. This observation was inspired by the 5 Series BMW Gran Turismo I recently drove to Louisville, Ky. and back, a round trip of 2,000 kilometres. The feelings that drive imparted can best be expressed by the words confident, fitted and luxury. Still, this is a road test, so the components of a vehicle must be broken out, even though the end result is a feeling that’s hard to quantify.

With the 5 Series, the Gran Turismo (GT) designation is affixed with two characteristics in mind. The first is to indicate a classic touring car; the second is to describe the cargo flexibility of an SUV. This second characteristic is accomplished with a two-mode tailgate that either opens as a hatchback or a trunklid — your choice — and fold-flat rear seats that form an expansive cargo floor. In addition, there are hidden in-floor compartments, a cargo screen and tie-downs. As my annual trip to the National RV Show in Louisville is also my wife’s week to do all her Christmas shopping, I was able to use all the above features to their fullest advantage.

Interestingly, while this 550i packs as much freight as a small truck, its contemporary design is anything but. In fact, it maintains the elongated hood, long wheelbase, coupe-like descending roofline and distinctive rear end of all BMW cars.

For power, this 5 Series featured a 4.4-litre V8 with twin-turbocharger technology that made 400 horsepower and 450 pound-feet of torque. This engine launches the 2,240-kilogram GT from zero to 100 kilometres an hour in just 5.7 seconds. But what is more impressive is just how quickly the massive brakes bring it to a stop. The tester also featured xDrive, BMW’s all-wheel-drive system that provides variable power to both axles as required. This system automatically adapts to the terrain on which you’re driving. Whether a twisting road or slippery surface, it’s constantly adjusting torque for maximum traction. This feature is found on many cars, but then comes that mesh I was talking about — the optional Integral Active Steering system.

Integral Active Steering varies the steering angle of the rear wheels as well as the fronts. It provides the quickest and smoothest way around any corner, while, at low speeds, the GT’s turning circle is also decreased, which makes parking a snap. Add to this Adaptive Drive, which lets the driver stiffen the chassis setup from Sport to Comfort mode, either smoothing the driving feel or increasing cornering ability. Then there’s the self-levelling pneumatic rear suspension — using track control arms — that will automatically adjust in unison with all these systems to level the Gran Turismo’s chassis, while also taking into account the weight of the gifts my wife packed in there. A real mesh!

A new feature that fascinated me was the eight-speed automatic transmission. It works so smoothly I had to strain to hear/feel the shifts. The beauty of this advanced technology is that more gears increase torque and utilize the rev range more efficiently, yet they also reduce fuel consumption and lower CO2 emissions. Green and powerful — excellent.

The interior features at this price point are what would be expected and would take too long to describe. However, the seats deserve special mention. With heating, cooling and 10-way power controls, the leather buckets are truly comfortable for the long haul. My drive to Louisville took nine hours; I tend to do it in a straight run, stopping only for fuel. Even after 1,000 km, though, I felt relaxed, without any sore spots. The thigh support function (a sliding forward seat panel) is great, reducing throttle leg fatigue. And the back seats are as nice or — considering the added legroom — even nicer.

Another option I would certainly include is the Head-Up Display, which projects speed, navigation directions and alerts onto the windshield directly in the driver’s field of vision. What I particularly liked about this one is the simplicity of the information. A few numbers and symbols are all that appear. In the case of the navigation directions, a straight arrow with a number under it indicates the next change, and it then shows the new direction with a left or right arrow and a descending number as you approach — dead simple and efficient.

Other added safety features in the tester were an Active Blind Spot Detection system and Lane Departure Warning. The first shows a triangular light in the side mirror if another vehicle is in your blind spot, while the second reads the road and shakes the wheel if you cross the painted line. Neither makes a sound, which I prefer, but both are very effective at refocusing the driver’s attention to where it’s supposed to be — in front.

At night, it’s also easier to focus on what’s ahead thanks to the adaptive headlights that turn with the wheels, shedding more light on where the car is going rather than to the sides. The throw of the lights is also speed-sensitive, changing height as needed. Also included was a backup camera system that provides a clear view of what’s behind when reversing. Integrated into this screen image are lines that show the angle of travel, which bend as the wheel input is changed, indicating where the vehicle will end up. Also available are additional cameras that cover the front and side views of the GT. These can be used in traffic or while parking.

With a week driving the Gran Turismo like Santa’s sleigh, I had plenty of mall lot experiences to test the parking features. Plus, the highway kilometres only reinforced the sense of refinement and luxury a great car can provide. However, I must confess that, despite all the engineering marvels packed into the GT, I still managed to bruise its nose. This speaks to two vital truths. First, never say never (as in “I never crack anything up”) and second, no amount of gadgetry can replace driver vigilance. So, to the very nice pickup driver who I rolled into in Windsor, sorry again. Glad your truck suffered no damage. And, to BMW, if those brakes could have stopped me just three inches sooner …

Photograph by: Howard. J. Elmer, For National Post