2021 BMW 5-Series Review

2021 BMW 5-Series - BMW ups its game at a time when competitors are catching up.


The BMW 5-Series remains as the prototypical midsize luxury and tends to be the benchmark to which all others are measured. The "5" was most recently redesigned in 2017, when it received a new chassis, engines and technology and safety features. For 2021, the 5-Series gets freshened exterior styling, a larger infotainment screen, a 48-volt mild hybrid on 540i models and a more powerful plug-in hybrid powertrain on the 530e. Competitors to this 5-passenger sedan include the Acura TLX, Audi A6, Cadillac CT5, Genesis G80, Jaguar XF and Mercedes-Benz E-Class.

The 5-Series model lineup can be a bit confusing, but if you can keep the engines straight, you can keep the models straight. The 530i comes with a turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder that makes 248 horsepower. The 530e gets a plug-in hybrid version of that engine that makes 288 horsepower, which is 40 more than last year. The 540i gets a turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-6 that makes 335 horsepower and the hyper-performance M550i gets a turbocharged 4.4-liter V8 that makes 523 horsepower. All engines come standard with an 8-speed automatic. Rear-wheel drive is standard on 530i, 530e and 540i. Standard on the M550i and available on other models is all-wheel drive.

Blind-spot monitor, rear cross-traffic alert, forward-collision warning and mitigation and lane-departure warning are standard across the board. Other safety features include 360-degree camera system, front and rear parking sensors, adaptive cruise control, side avoidance, forward cross-traffic alert and a lane-keeping system. Prices start at $59,295 and climb to more than $85,000.

As you might expect, BMW offers a 5-Series for nearly every type of luxury-sedan shopper. The entry-level 530i, with its capable and affordable (?) turbo four, is surprisingly quick, racing from 0 to 60 MPH in about 5.7 seconds. 530e models feel similarly as quick but add in about 20 miles of all-electric range - provided the batteries are properly charged beforehand.

New for 2021 is the 48-volt mild-hybrid powertrain in the 540i.  The two-battery system augments the turbocharged inline-6 by adding a coasting function that can shut off the engine at speeds up to 99 MPH and also provides a smoother start/stop fuel-saving feature. The starter/generator provides a maximum boost of 11 horsepower. All told, you cannot feel the system operating it just works to provide acceleration that is smooth and linear -- and exciting. Stomp the gas and the 540i will accelerate from 0 to 60 MPH in about 4.5 seconds.

The 8-speed automatic shifts with imperceptible smoothness and seems perfectly matched to the various engines' power output -- no small feat considering the swath of offerings. It's also responds quite quickly to manual input, which is refreshing in the class. While the all-wheel-drive system adds a bit of weight that impacts performance and fuel efficiency, it works very well to apportion power to the wheels with the best traction. As is the case with most luxury sedans, the 5-Series come shod with performance-minded rubber that's not compatible with Chicago's harsh winters. Opting for the xDrive all-wheel-drive system helps improve traction, but isn't the cure. The only real solution are dedicated winter tires for the snowy months.

Fuel economy is a mixed bag. The plug-in hybrid 530e being the most efficient with a combined rating of 64 MPG when maximizing use of it's 20-mile electric range. Otherwise, it gets a middling combined rating of 26 MPG. The 530i is actually rated best at 28 MPG combined with the 540i coming in at 27 MPG combined. Premium-grade gasoline is required for all engines. Your fuel economy will directly depend on your aggression level. Driven conservatory, the 540i can eek out about 28 MPG overall, but drive with a heavy throttle foot and you'll likely see about 21 MPG overall.  

Automotive purists moaned a bit when BMW released the latest version of the 5-Series back in 2017. They claimed that BMW had added too much luxury and not enough sport to the recipe. There's no doubt that the latest 5-Series is "softened," but there's also no denying the sophistication of its suspension tuning and overall pedigree. True fact, on any given road surface the 5-Series will provide surer footing and a more planted feel than any competitor.

Dynamically, the 5-Series offers a wonderful blend of suspension suppleness and overall control. The car never feels upset or surprised by mid-turn corrections and instantly adjusts to whatever the driver might throw at it. Of course, as you ramp up the model line, the suspension gets even more sophisticated and the ride can grow a bit firm, but never harsh mind you. There is always plenty of impact absorption on bumpy roads. The steering is delightfully direct and provides great feel, both on center and when rounding fast turns. Brakes have ample stopping power and a nicely weighted pedal.

The 5-Series is remarkably quiet, perhaps on par with the flagship 7-Series in terms of overall noise suppression. There's very little wind or tire noise at highway speeds and the engines, sadly, never intrude -- even in hard acceleration.

Step inside and there's no mistaking the 5-Series is a BMW. The familiar dark tones, businesslike design and upscale materials instantly let you know this car is a machine not some sort of organic experience designed to curate your happiness (all smugness intended).

As is the case with most BMW models, the instrument cluster is entirely digital and quite customizable. Of course, it defaults to a familiar twin-dial setup with central information screen, but you can modify the layout to show a map overview or, if you wish, declutter it to simply show the important details. There's also a head up display that is quite crisp and easily read day or night. The center stack features a large 12.3-inch touchscreen that runs BMW's latest iDrive infotainment system. It's worlds better than the old system and incorporates both Android Auto and Apple Car Play. Though it can operate with touch, the screen a bit far from the driver and can thankfully be controlled by a jog dial. The reach to the dial is a bit awkward as it is placed to the right of the gear shift, unfortunately. The system still isn't as intuitive as what can be found in some competitors, but it controls everything you would ever want to adjust in the vehicle and might be able to land a SpaceX rocket.

HVAC controls are traditional and basic, a refreshing contrast in a class where climate controls are sometimes buried deep in submenus on the infotainment screen. There's even a standard volume knob and presets for the radio. Ancillary controls are exactly where you'd expect them on the driver armrest.

There are also a couple of quirks. One is BMW's signature gear shift. It takes a bit time before operation becomes second nature and sometimes doesn't seem to recognize commands, forcing a second push forward or back to engage reverse or drive. The other is how the vehicle acts when you turn it off. Things don't power down as expected. The radio will stay on, the climate control will keep going and the instrument cluster stays illuminated. Sometimes things go off when you open the door, other times they just keep on running. The safest way to make sure things are powered down is to manually press the lock key on the keyfob after you exit the vehicle.

BMW nailed the creature comforts in the 5-Series. The seats, both front and back, are very comfortable and extremely supportive. The front seats have ample back and thigh support and have lots of adjustments. They can also be heated and cooled. Another plus is ample interior room. Both front and rear passengers have space aplenty, so spread out and get comfortable. As is the case with most cars in this class, the rear seat is probably not wide enough to accommodate three adults, plus there's a fairly tall center tunnel. Outward visibility is top notch, thanks to thin roof pillars and large mirrors. Plus, getting in and out is easy thanks to a reasonable step in and wide-opening doors.

The cargo capacity of 14 cubic feet is par for the class, but the opening is rather small and the trunk isn't very deep, meaning that taller items might not fit. Interior storage is great with lots of bins and cubbies throughout. However, the wireless cell-phone charger is an awkward reach deep into the bowels of the center stack and it's a bit too small for today's overly large phones.

Bottom Line - Critics bemoaned the 5-Series' coming of age in 2017, claiming that the trendsetting sedan had gotten too soft and too large. Yet those same detractors lauded BMW for giving it a back seat that can actually fit regular-size adults. Go figure? Regardless, the 5-Series is a wonderful midsize luxury sedan that's perfectly at home cruising the boulevard and equally happy bombing down the Autobahn at extra-legal speeds. Flaws are few and still mostly related to BMW's dogged dedication to an overly complex infotainment system. Thankfully, you can mostly ignore iDrive if you wish because the driving experience is so engaging. Prices are steep, so carefully select the model that best suits your style. Though most seem to love the 540i, the 530i is perfectly respectable, especially with a few choice options.

Mark Bilek

Mark Bilek is the Senior Director of Communications and Technology for the Chicago Auto Trade Association and the General Manager for DriveChicago.com. He is also responsible for developing and maintaining the Chicago Auto Show Web site.

Mark has been reviewing vehicles for more than two decades. Previously, he was associate publisher at Consumer Guide, where he oversaw publication of Consumer Guide Car & Truck Test, Consumer Guide's Used Car Book, and ConsumerGuide.com. He was also responsible for publication of "Collectible Automobile" and various hardcover automotive titles. In 2001 and 2002 he served as president of a Midwest Automotive Media Association. Mark has appeared on NBC TV, ABC TV, Fox News, WGN and MotorTrend TV as an automotive consultant. He hosts the Drive Chicago radio show on WLS 890 AM and was a regular guest on WGN Radio's Steve & Johnnie show. Mark lives in the northwest suburbs with his wife and three sons.