As automakers respond to people downsizing from their SUVs, some odd new vehicle designs are emerging. The 2010 BMW 550i Gran Turismo marks the second effort from BMW in this direction, following the oddly shaped X6.
After driving the car for a week, we reached a few conclusions about this new 5-series. Even though it sports a unique design, it remains somehow subtle, blending in with the everyday stream of traffic. The double-jointed back hatch, though an interesting tech achievement, seems a little over-designed, like using an aircraft carrier to launch homing pigeons.
As a new model in BMW's lineup, the 550i Gran Turismo sports all the latest technology, even surpassing the 550i sedan. The most notable change comes under the hood, with the new turbocharged 4.4-liter V-8. BMW refers to its turbo technology as TwinPower, which used to mean twin turbochargers but is evolving across the board to a single twin scroll turbocharger.
BMW mounts the turbo in the V, between the two banks of cylinders, making for a compact design. Injectors are incorporated into the cylinder heads, right between the valves, for direct injection. BMW's new engine tech results in 407 horsepower and 442 pound-feet of torque, getting the car to 62 mph in 5.5 seconds.
As an unlikely addition to the tubby 550i Gran Turismo is BMW's sport setting technology, which lets you switch the engine response and suspension between Comfort, Normal, Sport, and Sport Plus settings. We've seen this feature in other BMWs and like it, but can't imagine anyone who would buy what is essentially a taller 5-series with a hatchback wanting to drop it into Sport Plus, which stiffens the ride and turns off traction control.
After enjoying the 550i Gran Turismo's very refined ride on the freeway, we took it onto a series of winding mountain roads to see if it could justify its sport gear. On the freeway, it was very nice, and we could see driving for many hours on a road trip in perfect comfort, except the poor gas mileage would rapidly drain our wallets. EPA fuel economy figures are 15 mpg city and 21 mpg highway, but we came in at 17.6 mpg after driving a mix of roads.
But getting up into the fun roads, the 3D map on the navigation system detailed every mountain and contour with shaded textures. We had previously seen the cluster of buildings in downtown San Francisco rendered with video game quality. In each environment, the 3D features helped navigation, with landmark buildings easily recognizable in the city and the image of falling or rising terrain proving useful in the mountains.
With the car and transmission both set into their respective sport modes, we began tackling the turns. BMW performance is clearly present in the 550i Gran Turismo, with plenty of power coming on quickly as we stabbed the gas pedal. The suspension and car felt taut as we crammed it around the first turn, but the transmission wasn't giving us a whole lot of power for the exit.
Looking at the tach, the engine speed was barely over 3,000rpm. Turn after turn, the transmission's Sport mode refused to get aggressive, keeping the gears in midrange. It was quite a disappointment.
We should mention that this is a new transmission for BMW, an eight-speed automatic. Yes, eight gears. The only other car we've seen with that many is the Lexus LS 460, although that car launched four years ago.
Switching the transmission over to manual mode, the car gave more satisfying performance. Letting the engine speed run up to 6,000rpms, we got to use all of the turbocharged engine's available power. Strangely, BMW doesn't include paddle shifters, so we were left pushing the stick back and forth for gear changes.