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First drive review: BMW 518d SE saloon (2013)

Mack the Knife just got sharper

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In the vicious, back-alley knife-fight that is the executive saloon market, the 5-series is BMW’s Mack the Knife. And when those other German spivs, Audi and Mercedes, see it coming, you can bet there will be blood.

So to keep its blade nice and sharp, the 5-series has received a mid-life hone. Visually, it’s a pretty subtle tweak with some mildly sculpted contour lines around the kidney grille and a wider air intake down below. At the rear, the tail-lights and rear bumper have been gently re-styled, which gives the impression of a lower, wider car. All models gain Xenon headlights as standard while full LED lights are optional. And all models in the range now sport indicator repeaters in the door mirrors (woohoo).


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So as you’ve probably gathered, there’s not much to distinguish the new model from the old on the outside, with much the same story for the interior. Here, the dashboard receives an extra splash of chrome around either side of the central display; otherwise, what is one of the classiest and ergonomically accomplished cabins on the market remains a nice place to spend time. It’s spacious, comfortable and solidly built, with quality materials.

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More significantly for those business types on a tight budget, BMW has introduced a new engine that slots into an entry-level model to bring the starting price to just below £30,000. The £29,830 518d sports has a detuned version of the top-selling 520d’s 2-litre diesel. In the 518d it develops 141bhp and 265lb ft of torque but the more interesting numbers for those tight of wallet are its 62.8mpg and tax-friendly 119g/km of CO2.

But how on earth, you are wondering, will 141bhp cope with hustling a 1,690kg saloon that belongs to a family that calls itself “the ultimate driving machine”? The short answer is, it depends on what gear you’re in. That generous wedge of torque means that performance through the first three gears is actually quite punchy, as evidenced by 0-62mph taking a claimed 9.7sec. There’s good throttle response, too, and even in fifth gear you don’t need to drop a cog very often (on the flat). In sixth gear, though, the gearing is quite tall and you’ll find yourself frequently whacking the box back to fifth, particularly on motorways. If you can live with that, the payback is a remarkably refined engine; a smooth and quiet runner that only gets a little loud when absolutely caned. Which is fair enough.

However, if you’re the type that believes a BMW must deliver hammer-blow performance, then there’s another new engine variant that might just tick your box. In the 550i saloon, the 4.4-litre, twin-turbo V8 generates a frankly absurd 443bhp and a huge 479 lb ft of torque. This is enough to get the big saloon from 0-62mph in 4.6sec. Which is quicker than a Porsche 911, a Maserati GranTurismo, a Jaguar XK… I could go on but I think you get the picture.

Dynamically, the 5 remains an absolute hoot to drive, although the previous version was so good it’s difficult to divine any improvement. With the optional Variable Damper Control you can select a Sport mode that gives the car a sharper edge on the road, while Comfort mode delivers a more cosseting ride. BMW claims the cabin is quieter – it is, indeed, a funereal environment which allows for hushed conversation at any speed, up to and including “you’re going to jail now.”

Clearly, this latest tweak to the range isn’t about a wholesale revamp of the car, just a number of improvements meant to keep the 5-series at the top of its game. It’s a pretty convincing effort, which has taken a car that is already a contender for best in class and polished it just that bit extra. So if you’re Audi or Mercedes, Mack the Knife is just as dangerous as ever.

Verdict ★★★★☆

Incremental improvements have kept the latest 5-series at the front of the pack

Factfile

Engine:
1995cc, 4 cylinders, diesel
Power:
41bhp @ 4000rpm
Torque:
265lb ft @ 1750-2500rpm
Transmission:
6-speed manual
Acceleration:
0-62mph in 9.7sec
Top speed:
132mph
Fuel:
62.8mpg
CO2:
119g/km 
Road tax band:
C
 

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