To throngs of devotees, BMW's legendary driving experience eclipses anything the burgeoning luxury segment musters. On August 21, 2017, the newest and most potent 5-Series sedan ever found itself within the 'path of totality' during the 'Great American Eclipse,' as the earth's moon passed directly in front of the sun on a continental run from the Pacific Northwest southeastward to the coastal shores of South Carolina.
For two minutes and 40 seconds, a 2018 BMW M550i xDrive found itself ensconced by the total solar eclipse in St. Genevieve Missouri, about an hour's drive south of downtown St. Louis. The 91-degree day draped with humidity temporarily shaved off a half-dozen degrees during the brief pass-by encounter, which darkened eastern Missouri skies, motivating street lights to beam and crickets to sing.
In the 2017 model year, the German automaker debuted a lighter, slightly longer seventh-generation 5-Series redesign featuring four-and six-cylinder under-hood choices. Our 2018 ultra-high performance M550i xDrive tester (the unofficial transport of the 2017 eclipse) included seventh-generation upgrades, but a higher-revving V-8 motivation under hood in the form of a specially-modified 4.4-liter two twin-scroll turbocharges delivering a heart-pounding 456 horsepower.
The engine requires at least 91-octane gasoline to deliver an estimated 16 miles per gallon city and 25 mpg highway, although our extended trip with two bipeds and a barky yet faithful quadruped delivered a tad above the projected 25 mpg.
This engine sends power through an eight-speed automatic transmission for lightning fast engagement across the spectrum, which may be manually commanded sans a foot clutch via transmission shifter taps or steering wheel paddles.
The cosmic alpha numeric nomenclature deserves enlightening. The 'M' signifies a power and performance boost apart from BMW's core 5-Series models. BMW currently markets about a half-dozen 'M' Performance offerings of its sedans, coupes and crossovers in the U.S. This 2018 ultimate driving machine marks the first time the M prefix and performance nuances have graced the five-passenger 5-Series sedan.
The xDrive suffix denotes BMW's all-wheel drive technology, splitting power between all four wheels as the situation demands, with rear-drive as the default setting. The numeric 550 identifies this sedan as a member of the 5-Series family.
Since 1975, BMW's sold more than one million mid-size 5-Series sedans in the U.S., cementing it as one of the most coveted premium sedans and a benchmark for the mid-size segment, although competition has shifted considerably skyward since the mid 70's.
As with many performance-type upgrades, this vehicle's brake pedal remains sensitive to the right foot's touch with outstanding stopping response. It's not a grabbing-type reaction, but an immediate 'on-call' sensation with in-command responsiveness. Brake calipers sport a blue metallic hue and M badging. M sport suspension lowers ride height by 10 millimeters.
Pricing starts at $72,100. BMW included most available M550i xDrive upmarket option packages including heated front/rear seats and steering wheel ($800) heads-up windshield display ($1,700), driving assist ($1,700), Active roll suspension/adaptive suspension ($3,600), enhanced USB/Bluetooth and wireless charging ($1,200) and parking assist with surround view in-dash camera ($700).
Stand-alone options included Apple Car Play compatibility ($300), upgraded audio ($3,400), night vision ($2,300) and gesture control ($190). With a $990 destination charge, the bottom line ended at $88,985. The lowest-priced 2018 5-Series, a four-cylinder 530i, starts at $52,400.
The detailed, heads-up windshield projection includes road-sign imaging signifying the posted speed limit, which updates each time speed limits change. An adjacent digital speedometer readout turns a red hue if exceeding the aforementioned postings, an all-too-common occurrence when piloting this BMW. It's of the best, most detailed HUDs tested in recent memory also displaying navigation, audio information.
Additional 'M' visuals include Illuminated door sills, multi-contour black Dakota leather seats or optional brown Nappa leather, M-designation steering wheel and gas/brake pedals made from aluminum. Side fender air vents/breathers include M Performance design accents.
The supportive front buckets with multitudes of power and massage features flanked an arm rest with side-by-side vertical doors blooming open to an illuminated inside with USB port and power outlet. A second port and outlet reside in from of side-by-side beverage holders, all of which hide from sight by a slide-forward cover.
The electronic gear shifter between front buckets resembles something a fighter pilot may find familiar. The right had wraps around a monitor-like flat-faced stalk, requiring a side-button push and gentle taps forward or rearward to command reverse or drive selections. The front portion includes a panel-like face plate for selecting Park. To the left, three engine comfort/performance modes await driver's tastes.
Understated elegance may best describe the 5-Series' casting shadow. Returning is the familiar twin-port kidney front grille with full-moon-shaped blue and white hood medallion also rising upon the trunk lid. Even the M550i's diminutive rear deck-lid spoiler looks part of the plan rather than an afterthought. Twin inboard dual exhausts continue a smooth theme. Strap-like side door openers illuminate when approached.
The handsome 8.8-inch instrument panel features a dual-chamber 'heart-like' layout displaying inside animation including a right-orb tachometer and left-side speedometer, both analog in design. When entering the vehicle, BMW logo and graphics welcome drivers within the heart. Flanking the dual chambers, a left-corner fuel gauge and right corner temperature gauge.
Eyes naturally draw to a 10.25-inch multi-function center monitor, not an in-dash set up, but a flat-screen design extending slightly above the center dash. It's touch sensitive and gesture sensitive (which requires some practice), but quicker choices get made through BMW's iDrive dial between the front buckets. This chrome dial twists and depresses down to select from six categories within the display window.
Five buttons ahead of the dial, and two rearward also offering quick shortcuts. Sharp, high-resolution graphics along with a relatively easy-to-follow tutorial help create a welcoming, not overwhelming multimedia experience.
A narrow series of horizontal buttons flanked by dual temperature dials make up the ventilation controls.
Three adults await row two, but the center spotter must contend with the vertical transmission floor hump. Two ride in optimal comfort, taking advantage of the fold-down arm rest. This 5-Series delivers BMW's expected whisper quiet experience inside.
The trunk lid powers opens with the touch of the key fob or a wave of the foot under the trunk as long as the key fob is on person. Closing requires a push of an inside lid 'power' button.
Radar-enhanced cruise control made the five hour St. Louis trip via the 'Double Nickel' relaxing, with little foot-braking required as the all-new Bimmer automatically slowed and accelerated depending upon distance of the vehicle ahead. The more taxing trip home encountered parking-lot-style speeds, necessitating an unplanned Springfield Illinois sleepover.
BMW's Ultimate Care, a three-year/36,000-mile scheduled maintenance program, covers such pedestrian undertakings as brake fluid, periodic oil and filter changes, air filter changes and spark plug replacement. This is in addition to a four-year unlimited mile no-cost roadside assistance program addressing towing, flat tire changes and the ultimate embarrassment, running out of gas.
This year marks a milestone for BMW's sole U.S. assembly plant. The Spartanburg, South Carolina facility celebrates 25 years since BMW's 1992 announcement concerning its pending arrival in the northwest corner of the palmetto state. Worldwide, this complex produces more vehicles annually than any other.
2018 BMW M550i
Price as tested: $88,985
Engine: Inline 4.4-liter twin turbo V-8
Overall length: 195.4 inches
Overall width: 73.5 inches
Overall height: 57.8 inches
Wheelbase: 117.1 inches
Fuel Economy: 16 mpg city, 25 mpg highway