Garageboy's Dream Garage



Have you seen that show, "Test Drive" on the Speedvision Channel? They often feature automobiles when they are introduced to the market, giving viewers a chance to see the cars put through their paces before they start dropping Franklins on them. Not long ago, I was flipping through the channels when I saw them test driving The BMW E60 5-series! They didn't just test drive it - they were test driving it in Germany! And they didn't just test drive it in Germany - they were test driving it on the world-famous Nürburgring!

That episode was great except for the fact that they STOLE my idea! I had already traveled to Germany in September 2003 and drove an "E60" 5-series for my entire trip. Two weeks in Germany is a much more fulfilling test drive than a 15-minute jaunt around a dealership in Brooklyn or Queens. Of course I spent a long weekend at the Nürburgring, where I've spent too many hours over the years in pursuit of better driving skills. Another highlight of my trip was attending the IAA - the Internationale Automobil Ausstellung - the greatest auto show in the world, held in Frankfurt, Germany, every other year in September. This trip was particularly special to me because I never was able to leave New York for the last IAA in September 2001, instead having to run around Manhattan to help relocate thousands of displaced work colleagues.

[Garageboy Parks his E60 Between Laps at the Ring]
[Letting the E60 Cool Down Parked Next to a 911]

I am an uncompromising enthusiast of the BMW 5er, having driven every 5-series that BMW ever created (E12, E28, E34, E39, and E60). Each year I make a point of driving the latest version. I've only owned 5ers since 1988 and haven't looked back. I've put hundreds of thousands of miles on them and lived with them in some of the most grueling environments for a car, including the frozen lakes of New Hampshire, the moonlike, cab-infested streets of Manhattan, as well as numerous driving schools in the Northeastern USA. In other 5ers, I've experienced a couple hundred laps at the Nürburgring, many days and nights on the switchbacks of Switzerland, as well as hundreds of hours on the glorious autobahns of Western Europe. These 5ers have taught me an incredible amount about automotive engineering. My appreciation for them is not merely from driving them, but also from personally repairing, replacing, and maintaining every major component in them. I am profoundly aware and appreciative of the way the BMW engineers designed them - with regular maintenance, they will last forever. Anything in these cars can be taken apart and put back together, always as good as or better than it started.

Dr. Strangelove Comes of Age

Fast forward to the 21st Century! Things have changed! Remember when BMW introduced fuel injection and many feared it signified the end of the Do-It-Yourself mechanic? But those of us that choose to enjoy BMWs by also maintaining them learned about the technology. Over time, we all learned how to replace batteries in the instrument cluster, to clean and re-use electric window switches and antenna motors and other gizmos that seemed destined to fail over time. Sometimes we got burned with an expensive repair, but generally, we seemed to conquer the technology. Now you can find a spare Motronic control unit for your BMW for $50 on eBay. While these systems were considered complex for their time, the number of changing variables was relatively small, and most components could still be diagnosed. Items were sensibly laid out, and replacing parts did not require Herculean efforts. In the year 2014, will a Do-It-Yourself mechanic be willing to repair their BMW's failed emergency brake if they have to disconnect and drop the entire rear subframe to access the emergency brake's electronic controller?

[The Clogged Traffic Circle Outside the Entrance to the Nürburgring... 
Drivers Waiting for Another Track Incident to be Cleaned Up]

I have concerns for BMW's future. While the E60 was a pleasure to drive, I could not imagine owning one outside of its warranty period. When one stops to consider the number of separate mechanisms that are engaged when starting an E60, it boggles the mind. The "Electronics War" between BMW and Mercedes has caused them both to install automotive sub-systems that are highly complex - perhaps too complex - to be repaired without requiring expensive diagnosis and parts replacement. This has caused serious reliability problems for both manufacturers since the late 1990s. They're not designing cars any longer - they're designing rocket ships. Forget OBDII! These new automotive systems may have finally gotten too complex for the Do-It-Yourselfer to diagnose and repair. Also, because of the physical characteristics of the car, it is designed as a throw-a-way vehicle. Longevity, like quality, is a difficult concept to define - but you know it when you see it. BMWs have long been regarded highly for their longevity, but a throw-away car, by definition, is not designed with longevity in mind.

Fahren fahren fahren auf der Autobahn *

I want to share my impressions of the E60 5er, but this isn't another "me-too" article about how the technology is superb and the styling is an abomination. What follows are my personal impressions from my trip to Germany during the introduction of the E60 model. The true test of a new car model is when you have the chance to live with one for awhile. I got hold of a lovely 2004 E60 520i, with a six-speed manual transmission and a new-and-improved navigation system with I-drive. In Europe, there are more engine options for the 5er than in the US since the excise taxes are based on engine displacement: the 520i, 525i, 530i, 530d, and 545i.

The 520i is not a fast powerful car. This car is all about careful planning. Once it gets up to speed, though, it will maintain 200kph all day long without breaking a sweat. It will max out at 240kph on the autobahn, but you have to be in 6th gear. While this car is not a power demon, it was sweet from the moment I got inside. While the design of the exterior of the car did not grab my interest, the car is a undoubtedly a BMW on the inside. The cabin design has also changed dramatically to look more like the 7er interior, but it isn't nearly as revolutionary as the exterior features. In many respects, it was unmistakable that I was driving a BMW.

[Warning Sticker on New BMWs (courtesy BMW NA) ]

The 5er has undergone a stunning evolution over the past two decades. More than any previous model changeover, the E60 is revolutionary in its advances. The handling is noticeably improved over the previous E39 5er, which was a marked improvement over the E34, because BMW started using lightweight aluminum suspension components. The E60 now has a revolutionary aluminum engine carrier, requiring revolutionary repair techniques. Your average body shop will have no idea how to disassemble or repair these cars. The entire front end of the car is assembled with special rivets and a high temperature glue. The benefit of this technology is that the new model weighs at least 50kg less that the previous model. The E60's resulting improved agility was tangibly the most remarkable and noticeable improvement in this car over all previous models. But at what price?

Please Don't Fix What Ain't Broke

The six-speed manual is a nice feature; having driven and enjoyed an MB E270 TDI with a 6-speed one year ago, I looked forward to a 6-speed manual transmission mated to a BMW engine. A 6-speed transmission is being made available on all BMW models in the future when a manual transmission is ordered. However, this transmission was notchy as compared to other BMW manuals I have driven, and the downshift from 5th to 4th was easily missed. At the Nürburgring, not surprisingly, the car required constant shifting, probably more so due to the small engine, so there were many opportunities to test this transmission.

Another thing changed is the directional switch. One thing that makes BMWs special is the ease by which you can use the directional switch. I've always felt that if the same switch existed on American cars, drivers in the United States would be more inclined to use it. Nonetheless, the new mechanism on the BMW E60 is terrible. Unlike the switch we've all used successfully for almost 40 years, this new switch immediately returns to its neutral position. It has two settings in either the left or right direction. One "flick" is used when you wish to make the directional blink for 3 cycles, as in a lane change. There is a more forceful "click" for when you are turning left or right and wish for the directional to stay on. To turn it off, you can either flick in the same direction or the opposite direction. But don't "click" it! "Flick" it or you'll turn on the other side and have to "flick" it again. Flicking ridiculous, eh? It takes some time to get used to. A BMW sales representative at the IAA said that the "flick" functionality will not be available in the same way on US models. You will have to hold it in the "flick" position while changing lanes... just like you do now.

[The E60's All-Aluminum Engine Carrier Saving 50kg]

In your new 5er or 6er, there is no temperature gauge. This was rather disconcerting. Another BMW representative explained to me that on the tachometer, there is an LCD indicator that indicates the max RPM you can take the car while it is still cold. When the car is warmed up sufficiently, this indicator disappears. I didn't think to ask how one knows if the car is running hot. Perhaps we're not supposed to care until the big red light comes on. Once I knew about this feature, I was aware of it and drove accordingly when the car was cold, but a simple temperature gauge worked adequately for 40 years. Why was there a need to change something that was intuitive to something that now requires an explanation?

The iDrive system has improved greatly over the original system released in the new 7-series. Having experienced that system firsthand, I was able to make a thorough comparison. It is not only less distracting, but it is much more intuitive, which translates into being able to use the system without needing to take your eyes off of the road. Later this year, a new heads-up display will be released, helping the driver to concentrate on the road. There are still some counter-intuitive issues with iDrive. For example, there was no way to effectively zoom in or out with the navigation system, and that makes it difficult to have a high level map view of where you are and where you are going. Nonetheless, I could get very used to iDrive, and would enjoy having it on my car. Once again, since the iDrive controls the radio, the heating system, the navigation system, and the phone, is it possible my car will be totally disabled if the iDrive screen fails?
[Interior of the new BMW E60 5-series (courtesy BMW AG)]

Sometimes BMWs have interesting features that aren't part of any manual or sales brochure but still offer some subtle convenience for the owner. For me, one of these features is the shape of the tray surrounding the shifter mechanism. From the E28 to the E34 to the E39, this tray became more useful and more substantial. As such, it can hold change, a mobile phone, and even larger items. This functionality has been eliminated on the E60, as the lips surrounding this tray have been removed. Ironically, this otherwise useful space has now become a launch pad for items that roll off the console and onto the floor. This new "feature" presented itself on my first lap at the Nürburgring with this car. This change was performed as part of to the Bangle-ization of the interior of this car. This is a prime example of designers of the new BMW choosing "style" over "function" - which for enthusiasts goes against everything BMW has stood for the past 40 years.

The car now features oddly flaccid windshield wiper blades. They rest in a large blade holder that causes them to lie flat while making contact with the windshield. I have always found that using clean windshield wiper blades combined with a competent fluid (P21S Boost or equivalent) in the windshield fluid reservoir is the best means of keeping my BMW's windshield clean. Driving on the autobahn in Germany in September is an excellent way to test windshield wipers for a variety of reasons: if they work at 200kph, they'll work at any speed; if you can clean the bugs off while in motion, they'll clean anything; and it rains so randomly that you can see if the rain-sensing mechanism is working. Unfortunately, on the E60, these wipers worked marginally well. This functionality should remain the same or improve - but in the E60, previous models seemed to work better.

On the E60, integrated with the iDrive is a new parking sensor. This technology is available on the E39, and in fact, can be retrofitted to earlier models by replacing the sensor strips in the bumpers if a Navigation System is already installed. In the E60, an image of the front and rear bumpers is displayed on the iDrive screen, and a distance-dependent beep is heard while you are parking. While I have been a fan of the parking-by-Braille method for many years, particularly on the streets of Manhattan, this technology could be very attractive, particularly for cars with painted bumpers. However, when I used the windshield washers, the water interfered with its functionality, causing false readings. How well does it work in heavy rain when you need it most? Also, how can it differentiate between a concrete wall... versus a concrete curb with bushes growing above it? I learned firsthand that it cannot tell the difference. I'm glad the bushes cooperated.

Dr. Strangelove Learns to Love The New 5

[The Ground Straps Between The Aluminum and Steel Sections
of the E60 Must Be Disconnected Before Welding]

After two weeks driving an E60, spending an evening with BMW designers and knowledgeable salespeople, meeting friendly fellow owners talking about them, exploring an awe-inspiring Car Show, and reading some interesting technical literature discussing the car's technological advances, I have developed a love-hate relationship with the E60 5er, just like Dr. Strangelove did with the Atomic Bomb. When I am inside the car, I enjoy myself tremendously and I have a huge smile on my face. But when I get out of the car, that familiar glance back at the car that defines the relationship so many BMW owners in the CCA have with their car... is missing. I was genuinely embarrassed by this car. I also learned a new German word on this trip - hässlich - it means "ugly". I couldn't help but try to read the lips of the spectators every time I pulled up to the gate at the Nürburgring for my lap. On that particular sunny weekend in September, it was jam-packed with people waiting for the next cool car to pass. I couldn't decide whether everyone was looking at my car and commenting on what an ugly vehicle BMW has managed to create or whether they were just curious at BMW's new offerings.

I may own one of these cars some day, because the technology inside is amazing [June 2010 - correction: it is unlikely I will ever own one of these cars. I have 2 E28s and an E39, and now that I have looked at the 2011 F10 5 series, I will likely skip a generation, just like I did with the E34]. Like the current 7-series, only time will tell how history judges these cars. It's difficult to look out 20 years and see whether a 2004 545i will be considered a desirable classic car, or whether it will be relegated to history as an overly complicated, overly expensive car with a poor resale value, that may have been considered nice to drive when it was new. Anyone observing how many E65/66 7ers there are on dealer lots right now may wonder in what direction BMW is taking us. For now, we'll have to wait and see. But any opportunity to drive one of these cars, I'll be happy to oblige.

Postscript - 16 June 2010

I originally wrote this article when this vehicle was first introduced. Six long years have passed, and many of the points I made in this article are still valid. True, one can program out some of the annoying features I discovered through the iDrive system to be less onerous. Nevertheless, now that the era of the E60 has come and gone, we can look back on the past six years and question how much of what I wrote was accurate and how much was off the mark, particularly regarding style and function.

The E60's style is now being imitated by all of BMW's competition. People have "gotten used to" it, but that is hardly a ringing endorsement. Many folks, particularly BMW enthusiasts, never warmed up to the design. But I must admit that the general public goes along with it, if that actually means anything. I think it is very telling that the new F10 5 series is a more understated design, visually, and immediately appealing when seen in person.

As far as the car's function is concerned, I have seen many of these cars in bodyshops over the years. As one clever mechanic once said, "For airplane design, this is very nice. But for production automobiles, it's nuts!" I fully appreciate what he was saying. There is a big difference between complex and complicated. Based on the types of failures this model has endured over the years, it still seems that this model was overly complicated and once again, as compared to previous models, was both better and worse than the previous model. That, to me, is a failure. I expect a new model to be incrementally better than the previous one, without ever saying one preferred the features in the older model more. From a design perspective, that is the ultimate mistake. It looks like the new F10 5 series for 2011 may be a return to the evolutionary progress that BMW is known for. Stay tuned.

[The View Most Other Cars Will Have of the BMW E60 530i]

* "Autobahn" is a song by the German group Kraftwerk (translated means "Drive, Drive, Drive on the Motorway")

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Steven Jay Bernstein
updated Wednesday, 16 June 2010 19:53:00