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2011 BMW 535i Review

Dingolfing. Dingolfing? Yeah, that’s the name of the German town where our test car, a BMW 535i, was assembled. We know this because we tend to study the sticker incessantly. About an hour up the road, through quaint German villas and rolling tundra’s, and situated in downtown Munich, German engineers at BMW world headquarters dreamt up a new design for this standard-sized sedan last year.

As a replacement for the E60, the 535i brought back the original meaning of the sedan: sleek styling, elegant appointments, and quick handling. Now, the 2011 model we tested includes a few choice extras, a refined engine, and a lower price tag. But does it drive better than the Infiniti M37x? And, will demanding BMW enthusiasts be content with less-than-stellar technology options?

Let’s skip the perfunctory details and get right to the dirt: the BMW 535i does drive better than the Infiniti M37x. Part of the reason has to do with a smaller profile: the 535i is about an inch shorter than the M37x and weighs about 271 pounds less, at 3792 pounds. That’s also about 309 pounds lighter than the 2011 BMW 740li we drove last summer. The weight and size are important, because the 535i felt smaller and lighter than the Infiniti and 7-Series in our tests, and that’s a good thing. The main finding: as a sportier sedan, the handling felt nimble and responsive, almost like a smaller Volvo C30 in terms of how it hugged the road and provided a well-engineered, tight driving experience.

We drove the 535i from Los Angeles to Las Vegas and back again. We tested the car on open highways, gravel roads, tight curves on side-streets, and in city driving. We opened the throttle and red-lined the car several times. For the most part, the vehicle behaves a bit like a Chevrolet Corvette when you get into third and fourth gear. The optimized TwinPower Turbo engine, which is a 3.0-liter dual-overhead cam speed demon with 6 cylinders and direct fuel injection, gives you that “sedan pushback” where you are not expecting quite as much power from a car that is primarily for taking clients to lunch.

Around corners, the 535i behaved beautifully, although there is some sense of roll compared to the 2011 Audi A8 (not a fair comparison, since that is the top-of-the-line model similar to the BMW 7). On a long stretch of Las Vegas highway, the vehicle was smooth and comfortable.

Design and styling

Okay, so if you’re looking for a standard sedan that hugs the road and propels you out of the school parking lot faster than the next guy, the 535i is for you. Amazingly, some of the other features on the 535i actually fall short in comparison to the competition, starting with the design.

This is a purely subjective determination, but the Infiniti M37x clearly has a more striking design compared to the BMW 535i. The 535i is sleek and European, but not bulbous and shapely like the M37x. In driving both cars, we found the Infiniti to have a more memorable look and noticed more drivers around us looking at the vehicle and trying to figure out what it was. With the 535i, you might fit in with the crowd, especially if the crowd drives Mercedes E350 sedans and cars made by Audi.

Inside, the 535i is also not quite as impressive as the Infiniti M37x either. There’s no cocoon-of-luxury feel but more of a familiar BMW utilitarian interior with the iDrive controls for the stereo and phone. (We would say navigation, but for some reason our 535i emphasized driving extras such as the Sports Package with alloy wheels, leather steering wheel, and contoured seats with no nav.) The 535i does provide a 10-way adjustable seat that we found overly adjustable, especially the 4-way lumbar back settings.

Since we’re covering the interior, a note about the stereo system. While iDrive is certainly a good control mechanism for quickly flipping through artist names and choosing songs, the stereo system was nowhere near as clear and loud as the one in the BMW 7 and was a bit less powerful than the stereo in the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee. That’s a shame, because the BMW 7 is our current leading stereo in terms of overall sound quality, so we were surprised the 535i was not nearly as good.

Seating in the back of the car was also a bit cramped. The 535i we drove lacked some luxury amenities, including auto-latch doors (one of the coolest features on recent BMW models, and optional on the 5). Our test car did come with an iPhone connector (an option that costs $400 extra). Even outfitted with the sports package, the 2011 model is actually a hair less than the similar 2010 535i model.

Driving excitement?

In truth, the BMW 535i we tested, at $60,225, was also missing a few technology extras – our test car did not have adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, or blind spot detection. However, even if we had driven a model with the technology package, the Infiniti M37x still gets the nod as being more advanced, since it does more than just warn you about lanes and blind spot and actually nudges you automatically. There is a version of the BMW 535i that can read speed limit signs and slow the car automatically but we have not been able to test that. Our test car did have some extras, though.

One is that the car has adaptive brake lights. This means, when you press on the brake, the headlight glows stronger as you press harder. The 535i we drove also had adaptive Xenon headlights that scan around the curve in a road. When you reverse, the 535i shows you an overhead view of the car, which is quite mesmerizing. There are cameras mounted around the car and the iDrive interface stitches them together to give you a bird’s eye view in real time. In practice, it meant it was easier to park the car, e.g., easier to judge the distance between our vehicle and the one in another parking spot. The camera view was clearer and more colorful than the one we tested in an Infiniti EX35 last year. There is also a version of the 535i that comes with night-vision pedestrian detection to stop the car for crossing traffic.

The BMW 535i we drove also has rain-sensing automatic wipers and many of the standard luxury sedan features you’d expect, such as stability traction control, automatic on/off headlights, and cruise control, but we’d expect those in just about any standard sedan. Overall, the technology features, even in the version that comes with the tech package, falls in line with the Cadillac CTS and other GM cars. The M37x had more advanced features, and the Audi A8 provided more advanced driving mechanics.


So where does that leave the BMW 535i? As we mentioned at the outset, the 535i is a solid performer on the road. It may match the Cadillac CTS for tech features, but the 535i is leagues ahead in terms of performance handling. Overall, we preferred driving the 535i to just about any recent model we’ve tested except for the Audi A8. That’s quite an accomplishment for the folks in Munich.

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