BMW 550i GT — Something different

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Over the last year we’ve driven several of the new-breed hatchback crossover sedans, most of which we wondered, “…why did they build this?” There doesn’t seem to be a clear answer.
We recently did a stint in the 2010 BMW 550i Gran Turismo, a very large luxury sloping-roof hatchback that delivers the ultimate in comfort, handling and performance; but we still asked what exactly is the point of a high-riding vehicle that costs more than a sedan, but has less utility than a car-based crossover SUV?

After all in BMW’s case we you could purchase the X5 for crossover utility or a 5-Series or 7-Series sedan for BMW’s vaunted driving dynamics and passenger room and comfort.

There still doesn’t appear to be a reasonable answer to the question that nobody asked, except – “…let’s start a new segment just for the heck of it!”

So hatchback crossovers are here. We must admit BMW designers did a much better job in styling than those at other manufacturers and with BMW’s own sister ugly X6.

If you are going to market a designer breed, you should do it right. And we think BMW has done this one right. The 550i GT is a head turner. The proportions of the vehicle — riding on stylish 20-inch wheels — are balanced; although it’s so big the Feds should find out who is supplying it with steroids.

The ungainly rear and massive front end found on other crossover hatchbacks are not in evidence with the GT, which flows nicely. But it’s hard to build good rearward sight lines into a giant vehicle with a sloping roof, thick rear roof pillars and a high trunk lid. It’s a good thing the 550i GT has a rearview camera. Also, the large A-pillar tends to obstruct the driver’s view to the side.

The 550i GT offers excellent utility, especially for four passengers. The front seats are top quality, and the rear-seat occupants can stretch out and recline. Cargo utility, while not in the same ballpark as a large crossover, is considerable amounting to 15.5 cubic feet of luggage space and 60 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seats folded.

To reach the cargo area, a unique two-tier hatch that can be opened either as a conventional trunk or as a typical hatchback is a very neat first. The design makes it easy for throwing a package or a briefcase in the back without the need for lifting the entire hatchback.

The new GT comes in two variants, a 535i with BMW’s 3.0-liter inline six generating 300 horsepower, and the 550i with the company’s twin-turbo V-8 making 400 horsepower and a prodigious 450 foot-pounds of torque.

Despite the vehicle’s hefty 5,000-pound curb weight, the lusty V-8 mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission turns the big Bimmer into a heavyweight rocketship measured at just over 5 seconds from 0 to 60. A quarter mile will whisk away in 13.4 seconds at a speed of 105.5 mph.

Braking is also exemplary for a vehicle weighing in at two-and-a-half tons coming down from 60 in just 112 feet.

The downside to this performance is rather anemic gas mileage measured at 15 mpg city and 21 mpg highway on premium gas. And for this you get to pay an extra $1,000 gas guzzler tax.

Although the 550i GT sits two inches higher than the 5-Series sedan, it loses very little in vaunted BMW cornering prowess. And BMW’s communicative steering is in evidence offering a great feel of the road. An adaptive suspension system that comes as part of the $4,200 sport package adds to the car’s handling attributes.

We discovered that the extra two inches of ride height made getting in and sliding out, an effortless task. No need to drop down or climb up to get into the cabin. That’s an attribute that does not go unnoticed to us of the advancing age set.

The cabin offers typical 5-Series or 7-Series ambiance. The 550i GT has a quiet, isolated feel as typified by high-dollar luxury transportation. Wind and road noise are hushed to the extreme. The power front seats provide virtually every possible seating configuration, and we found gaining an optimum driving position easy. Switchgear is typical BMW and the new more intuitive iDrive system offers up its knowledge at a touch.

The massive seats are comfortable and supportive, covered in enough hide to make PETA throw up a picket line.

 As noted earlier, backseat passengers are pampered with seats that not only recline but will slide fore and aft as well. And unlike other sloping roof vehicles, head room even for a six-footer is ample. Note that like most cars, the center position in the rear is best used only when absolutely necessary.

Options are numerous and we could live quite well with the standard BMW, but based on our considerable experience in the 2009 and 2010 7-Series, we would opt for active cruise control ($2,400) and the head-up display ($1,300), both exceedingly helpful for long-distance driving.

Standard stuff includes adaptive xenon headlights, panoramic sunroof, front and rear parking sensors, rain-sensing wipers, dual-zone climate control, a 12-speaker sound system with digital music storage and HD radio, and a hard-drive navigation system.

Here’s a strange twist for a 65 grand vehicle — satellite radio, which is standard on many 20 grand vehicles these days, needs to be checked off as a $350 option and was not included on our test car.

The 550i GT is priced somewhere between the 5-Series and the 7-Series starting at $65,775 including destination and that $1,000 gas guzzler tax. It’s extremely easy to tack on options and we see very few buyers getting away for less than 70 grand. Our test vehicle had a sticker price of $77,875.

If you settle for the 535 the base price is $56,875. BMW also offers an all-wheel drive version of the 550 starting at around $70,000.

The new hard-to-classify Bimmer is definitely a niche vehicle, but it does give luxury buyers the opportunity to purchase something different.

Base price: $65,775; as driven, $77,875
Engine: 4.4-liter turbocharged V-8
Horsepower: 400 @ 5,500 rpm
Torque: 450 foot-pounds @ 1,750 rpm
Drive: rear wheel
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 120.7 inches
Length: 196.8 inches
Curb weight: 4,938 pounds
Turning circle: 40 feet
Luggage capacity: 15.5 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 60 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 18.5 gallons (premium)
EPA rating: 21 mpg highway, 15 mpg city
0-60: 5.1 seconds (Road & Track)
Also consider: Audi A6 Avant, Acura ZDX, Cadillac CTS Sport Wagon

The Good
• High-quality interior
• Excellent cargo capability
• BMW performance

The Bad
• Poor rear visibility

The Ugly
• Gas guzzler gets gas guzzler tax

Editors’ note: As we were writing this story we learned of the tragic death of Jack Pitney, BMW’s vice-president of marketing for the BMW brand and our dear friend. Jack, who was only 47 years-old was killed August 26th in an accident on his New York State farm. His loss is nothing short of heart breaking for his family, colleagues and friends. Jack’s knowledge, wit, broad smile and infectious laugh will be remember and missed by all who cared for him. We first met Jack during his early days at Hill & Knowlton working on the Mazda account and for more than two decades we have followed his career path of ever more challenging positions that he bested with grace, passion, energy and just good old fashion hard work. He was a wonderful young man, a loving father and husband and a friend that was always a friend. To all those that admired, respected and loved him as we did, our sincerest condolences.