Over the past few years, we’ve complained plenty that today’s BMW four-doors shy away from the sports-sedan greatness of the previous-generation models. As the brand’s SUVs continue to ratchet up the sporting attitude, its sedans—particularly ones without an M in their alphanumeric names—are left to play a different role, catering to buyers who are specifically looking for a comfortable, long-distance cruiser.
While the 3-series still offers a decent level of driving satisfaction, the larger 5- and 7-series cars have evolved (or devolved, depending on your perspective) into ultimate comfort machines. Although that’s disappointing news for driving enthusiasts, we acknowledge that there’s room in this world for quietly competent, sedately mannered luxury sedans, and the 2021 5-series receives a number of enhancements to further that mission.
A larger front grille, more aggressively styled headlamps, and new wheel designs give the 2021 model a fresh, expensive-looking appearance. Inside, BMW added a larger 12.3-inch infotainment display with in-dash navigation, Android Auto, and Apple CarPlay all offered at no extra charge. New perforated faux-leather upholstery with contrast stitching dresses up the modestly equipped models. Our test vehicle, a well-equipped all-wheel-drive 540i xDrive ringing in at $78,235, came with the optional nappa leather—in a lovely mocha-brown hue—as well as the Luxury Seating package ($1000), which includes 20-way adjustable front seats with heat and ventilation.
More important than the styling updates, the turbocharged 335-hp inline-six receives an upgrade under the hood in the form of a new 48-volt motor-generator. It serves to enhance the six’s silkiness and sharpens throttle response, but at our test track it did nothing to speed the 540i’s acceleration. In fact, the 2021 model was 0.3-second slower to 60 mph than the 2017 model we last tested. Its 4.7-second result is still plenty quick, however, and the 540i breezed through the quarter-mile in 13.3 seconds at 106 mph. Those results are similar to the last Audi A6 we tested, which featured a turbocharged 3.0-liter V-6 and a similar 48-volt system. That car managed a 4.7-second zero-to-60-mph time and a 13.3-second quarter-mile at 104 mph.
Our test vehicle was equipped with the M Sport package ($3300) and the Dynamic Handling package ($3200), the former of which adds the variable sport steering system, while the latter brings active roll bars and adaptive dampers. Setting the drive mode to Sport firms up the steering feel and re-tunes the dampers for a more agile feel through corners. Even so, the 540i is more at home in its Comfort setting, drifting along and virtually erasing minor road imperfections.
The 540i’s wide body translates to a spacious cabin with room for four adults to travel in comfort. Although we wish the interior design offered more flair than the less expensive 3- and 2-series models, its material quality and precise construction are appreciated. The 20-way adjustable seats provide plenty of options to dial in just the right driving position, but our tester’s thrones lacked the $1000 massage function to pamper our backsides.
Still, the 540i’s subdued driving nature, luxe curb appeal, and first-class cabin make for a great executive car, especially for those days when a restful commute home is really all that matters. To that end, BMW’s myriad driver-assistance features can work to mitigate your gridlock-induced stress. The $1700 Driving Assistant Plus package is worth getting, as it includes adaptive cruise control with a traffic-jam assistant feature, allowing the 540i to follow the cars ahead through bumper-to-bumper logjams. It’s telling that we’d recommend an option that makes you even less involved with driving the car.
There was a time when any 5-series, regardless of powerplant or suspension package, was a sports sedan by default. But that era ended about a decade ago, with the departure of the Bangle-designed fifth-gen 5-series. So, perhaps it’s time for us to accept that BMW’s mid-size four-door is no longer inherently aggressive and instead appreciate the 5-series as it is now—a imperious cruiser with understated power. And if you long for a 5-series that delivers on the promise of a BMW sports sedan, the M5 still exists.
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