2017 BMW 540i earns its reputation as an 'ultimate driving machine'

By Paul Borden

(March 31, 2017) It was over four decades ago that BMW came up with the slogan “The Ultimate Driving Machine” to promote its vehicles. Ten minutes behind the wheel of a 2017 BMW 540i recently convinced me the company has a strong case for the claim that came from the fertile mind of automobile legend Bob Lutz.

Oh, it’s not like BMW is the only manufacturer producing vehicles that combine performance, luxury, and comfort in an attractive package with all kinds of gee-whiz, technological functions. Its Teutonic brethren Mercedes-Benz and Audi do that quite well, too. But though competitors may do it as well, you’re not likely to find any that doe
s it any better.

Although the 3-Series remains BMW’s best-seller, the 5-Series offers many of the same advantages for those shopping for a slightly larger vehicle in the luxury class. In fact, the 2017 5-Series grew slightly longer and taller than its predecessor as it moved into its seventh generation this year, resulting in slightly more legroom for backseat riders and increased trunk capacity to a generous 18.5 cubic feet. But it still managed to lose a little weight (137 pounds) through extensive use of aluminum, magnesium, and high-strength steel.

With a new 3.0-liter turbo inline 6-cylinder sending 335 horsepower and 332 pound-feet of torque to the rear wheels via an 8-speed automatic transmission, the 540i is a surprisingly nimble performer, scooting from zero-to-60 mpg in a tick under five seconds, according to company clockers.

I say “surprisingly” because from a driver’s perspective looking over the relatively flat hood design the impression is that this is a bigger car than it really is. At 194.6 inches long, however, it’s a foot shorter than the 7-Series, which also is a little over an inch wider than the 5-Series.

Fuel economy for the 540i is rated at 20 miles-per-gallon city, 30 mpg highway, and 24 mpg combined, which understandably is short of the num
bers the 4-cylinder 530i delivers but still competitive for the class. BMW recommends premium fuel for both, and if you’re skimping on that, you’re probably not getting all the performance out of your car that you should. There could be even long-term effects that aren’t good.

Frankly, if you’re spending well over $50,000 for a car, why in the world would you risk that just to save a few cents on a gallon of gas? (At the same time, if regular fuel is all that is required for your vehicle, don’t waste your money buying an occasional tank of the “good stuff.”)

If you want to save a tiny bit of fuel, you can set the 540i in “Eco” mode instead of “Comfort.” Or if you want to bump up the driving fun, you may set it in Sport mode and or choose your own individual settings for throttle response and suspension, though leaving it in “Comfort” is not a bad choice.

In addition to the power, the 540i provides a steady, quiet ride, coddling the passengers with high quality materials and absorbing road bumps nicely even when the suspension is firmed up.

Standard features for the base MSRP of $56,480 for the 540i include dual zone climate control with individual blower settings, 16-way power adjustable front seats with 4-way lumbar support for the driver, moonroof, Bluetooth phone and audio, and navigation. Exterior standard features include adaptive LED headlights, LED fog lights, and chrome line exterior trim.

Of course, the 540i is packed with a ton of technology, some of which has trickled down from the flagship leading 7-Series. This includes an optional gesture control system that lets you operate some functions by waving your finger around.

For instance, the radio too loud or too soft? You can adjust it by placing your elbow on the center console, holding your arm at about a 45-degree angle, and pointing your index finger toward the rearview mirror. Turn your finger clockwise and the volume gets louder. Turn it counter-clockwise and it gets softer.

The benefit of this?

Good question. Consider that a knob on the dash for adjusting the volume is just inches away from the steering wheel and also that there are buttons on the steering wheel to turn it up or down as well, the ability to accomplish the task by waving your finger around falls into the category of “just showing off.” It’s like the engineer wanted to show that he could do it.

The voice commands, however, are another matter. I was impressed, very impressed, when the system was able to input the address for my destination very quickly and respond to my request without hesitation even while I was driving at highway speed. That the recommended route took me a rather strange way, including a jaunt through a strip mall parking lot to a closed gate, was another matter. (I had been to where I was going before but I always like to see what the various navigation systems recommend.)

Unfortunately, so many of the good things that really make a luxury car a luxury car these days come in option packages that can really run up the base MSRP. Packages like M Sport (distinctive steering wheel and design touches), Cold Weather (heated seats and steering wheel), Driving Assistance (rearview camera displays to aid in backing/parking), Driving Assistance Plus (blind spot detection, etc.) Dynamic Handling (better handling on rough roads), and Premium (wi-fi, satellite radio, keyless entry) plus stand-alone options like M Sport brakes, self-close automatic doors, remote control parking, ceramic controls, power rear window shades, Apple CarPlay capability, a Bowers & Wilkins premium sound system and the gesture control capability ran the total to over $80,000.

Add in the $995 destination and delivery charge and the final tab for my test 540i came to $81,910. That’s a jump over the base of just over 45 percent (assuming I did the math right), which is quite a big jump. It might behoove BMW to include a few more things as standard and raise the base MSRP accordingly, but that is something that is above my pay grade. It all works out pretty much the same anyway.

What I liked about the 2017 BMW 540i: The power trunk opens with the wave of your foot under the rear bumper if you have the key fob (which is the size of an old flip phone) on you. I have seen this on several SUVs and crossovers, but this was a first for me on a sedan. The trunk is a spacious 18.5 cubic feet.

What I didn’t like about the 2017 BMW 540i: The iDrive system is getting easier to operate (maybe I’m just getting familiar with it) but it still seems to me to require some extra steps to perform simple functions.

Would I buy the 2017 BMW 540i: Yes, emphatically so. It at least should be on your list  to check out if you’re looking in the luxury midsize segment.