Our car's sport package included 18-inch wheels, hardened suspension settings, and shadowline exterior trim to give it presence and a stance to match its grunt. In Monaco Blue Metallic paint, the 2006 BMW 550i looks confidently understated, an effect also rendered inside, with light-gray leather and darker-gray wood trim.
The 2006 BMW 550i's technology features successfully enhance the aura of total vehicle control both over the road and in the cabin, even if the main iDrive controller still requires more study than seems necessary. The options filling out our test car's features list brought the total price to a hefty $66,790. It's quite a sum, but cars this advanced and refined don't come cheap.Surrounded with high-quality materials, no-nonsense gauges, crisp digital displays, and a generally clean design, the driver of the 2006 BMW 550i feels welcomed immediately. The dashboard's pleasantly rolling shape forms a hood for the main control screen. When optioned with the navigation system ($1,800), as our car was, this display actually consists of two screens with the ability to show a smaller route map alongside main vehicle controls once a destination is selected. This dual display lets the driver keep track of location and the current music selection.
Also aiding route following in the 2006 BMW 550i is the optional heads-up display ($1,000), which uses a projector at the interior base of the windshield to produce a bright-orange image hovering above the dashboard. Information shown includes current speed; the next route instruction when using navigation; settings for the active cruise control, which is one of the few options our car lacked; and any vehicle warnings. We found it worked well, remaining unobtrusive and allowing for greater attention to the road. Drivers who find it distracting can turn it off easily with a dedicated switch to the left of the wheel. Drivers wearing polarized sunglasses or using the extremes of seat travel might not be able to see it at all.
The 2006 BMW 550i's premium sound package ($1,800) impressed us with its rich sound from all sources, including Sirius Satellite Radio, which is a $595 option. Logic7 surround-sound processing makes the most of the 13-speaker, two-subwoofer system. A slot in the dash accepts a single CD, with the premium package adding a six-CD changer in the glove compartment. For all its prowess, the stereo does not offer any way to play from an iPod, nor do its physical properties make customizing easy; the CD slot and the navigation DVD slot are in close proximity on the dashboard. Aftermarket MP3 systems with separate controls and displays are available, but spoiling the otherwise excellent interior for such a simple requirement shouldn't be necessary in a car this expensive.
BMW's navigation system is among the industry's smoothest in terms of acquisition, route plotting, and changes to zoom or view settings. Route selection using street names can be a tad cumbersome via the iDrive knob, but using the point-to-point method from the map is an effective alternative. Voice control and feedback are part of the navigation package and worked effectively enough, although commands were frequently misinterpreted while driving with the windows down in the city.
The only major feature of our 2006 BMW 550i that we were unable to explore was its Bluetooth phone integration. Failing to pair with the system were three phones we tested: the Motorola V551 and the Razr, both of which are on BMW's list of compatible candidates, and the Sony Ericsson K750i, not on the list but willing to team up with many other cars we've tested. For certain phones, a cradle hidden in the armrest is available to ensure seamless operation, and the system is capable of keeping up to four phones paired in memory.
The stubbornly ubiquitous iDrive control system remains the only way to access many of the tech features and settings of the 2006 BMW 550i. While we continue to long for a few contextual buttons, such as those used with Audi's MMI interface, our reservations with iDrive have diminished following a week's fiddling in the 550i. The menus require too much drilling for things such as changing CDs and radio stations, while those for less-frequent settings are found more quickly. The steering-wheel controls are better, especially the two symbol buttons on the right side, which can be customized for one-touch operation of the driver's most-used features.