The 2008 BMW 535i was love at first drive. And while we do have to admit to a BMW bias, we always thought of the 5-series as a family car. But no more. Once behind the wheel of the new 535i, we felt its silky, smooth power and the strong kick from the twin-turbocharged, 3-liter, straight 6-cylinder engine. Although designed with a little understeer, the 535i handled hard corners well, with the rear end giving a satisfying kick out.
And unlike many other cars, the 535i didn't let us down in the electronics department--its beauty extends beyond the road. BMW is incorporating a new live traffic reporting system into its navigation, which, though not perfect, is the best we've ever seen in a car. Add to that excellent stereo sound and one of the best Bluetooth hands-free cell phone systems available, and the 535i starts to sound like a tech dream come true.
Although our love didn't fade during our time with the car, some of the 535i's idiosyncrasies became less than endearing. For example, we've learned how to use iDrive, and can make it do whatever we want, but it's not our favorite car interface. The navigation system's quirks made it less usable than it could be, and try as we did, we couldn't get our average fuel economy above 20mpg.
Test the tech: Rush hour
Generally, we stay as far away from traffic as we can. We don't commute to work by car, and we mostly do our test driving on weekdays between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. But with the 535i's live traffic feature, we plunged right into the evening rush-hour traffic. There are currently only two live traffic systems available in cars: one delivered by XM satellite radio, and the other through Clear Channel's FM radio network, using RDS. We tested the former in the Acura TL.
The 535i uses live traffic delivered by Clear Channel, a standard feature with the navigation system. Clear Channel gathers traffic data from local traffic authorities, incidents reported by first responders, and a number of other sources. Traffic flow data is provided by a company called Inrix, which uses historic patterns, real-time data gathered from fleet vehicles, and local events, such as baseball games. The upshot is that this live traffic feature has traffic data for roads that aren't monitored by traffic authorities.
We set out from CNET headquarters at 4:30 p.m., driving south on Highway 280. We turned west on Highway 92, even though the navigation system showed slow traffic on the road. Sure enough, we slogged up the road behind a line of cars going about 25mph. Highway 92 is not monitored by CalTrans, the regional traffic authority, but it's frequently slow, so the navigation system was probably relying on historic data.
At Skyline, we turned south and got to speed along mountain roads for bit, until we hit Highway 84 and turned east. The navigation system showed no problems, so we drove down to El Camino Real. At this point, we set a destination in San Francisco. The navigation system calculated the route, then immediately told us there were traffic problems ahead, and dynamically changed our route from Highway 101 north to Highway 280 north.
On the approach to San Francisco on Highway 280, we hit traffic that wasn't reported by the navigation system. After a quarter mile we passed its cause--a minor accident--and saw the navigation system start to fill in slow traffic icons behind us. This particular traffic problem was too recent for our traffic service to register and report it. Once in San Francisco, we noticed one other flaw in the system. The map showed slow traffic on Van Ness Avenue running north through the city, but the route guidance still tried to put us on this road. With our local knowledge, we took Franklin Street, which runs north and parallel to Van Ness, and usually has less traffic.
In the cabin
Although the interior of the 535i is pleasant, it doesn't feel luxurious. Rather, it leans toward functionality. The steering wheel is nice and thick, making it easy to grip when pushing the car around turns. Wood accents in the dashboard clash with the futuristic-looking electronic shifter for the 6-speed automatic. And the incredible array of power adjustments on the seats seems more about getting into the right driving position than about comfort. We were impressed that we could even raise and tilt the headrests with a switch.
We were also impressed with the wide-screen LCD in the dashboard, which shows a main screen for whatever function you are using, and an auxiliary screen, which can be set to always show a map or trip computer. Of course, the whole system is operated through iDrive, which may cause some people to despair. But we've gotten pretty comfortable with the system, and were able to use it handily, making no mistakes and generally finding what we were looking for. We had some issues with the system, but these centered around how individual functions were programmed.
The two things that bothered us most were the map display and the audio settings. When you select navigation, you have to push down then turn the iDrive knob through three selections, and then push it down again to see the map. We think the map should come up as a default display under navigation. Likewise, you can't reach the audio settings from the entertainment menu. To change audio settings while selecting music, you have to push the menu button, then push the iDrive knob down, then down again to get to the audio settings. There should be a shortcut from the audio selection screens.
We tried the voice command system as an alternative to iDrive, but were initially frustrated when the system wouldn't recognize any of our commands. We eventually got it to work, however. It worked for changing CD tracks, but we could never enter a complete destination into the navigation system. Instead, it worked better if we gave it top-level commands to get to the function we wanted to use, and then used the iDrive knob to fine tune.