Review: 2009 BMW 535xi



By Kevin Harrison

A little while back I reviewed the Cadillac CTS. It was by no means a horrible car, but I gave it a less than stellar rating.

Designed to compete against a BMW 5-series (even more so when it likely will move more upscale once the smaller ATS arrives), it is priced like a 3-series and thus, retains the price advantage.

As I followed sales manager Campbell Harbord out to the back to the dealership to pick up my tester, I had mentioned my review of the CTS and how I was eager to see how it compared.

He stopped and laughed.

“Oh, you consider it to be more of a 3-series competitor then?” I asked.

“We don’t consider Cadillac to be competition for us at all,” Campbell replied.

Bold statement.

DSC03285Cockiness aside, he did have an amusing story about how he once drove an STS which reached a rather unfortunate demise when he tried to pass a Kia Rio on the highway. Let’s just say the STS needed a new transmission when it got back to the dealership  (Peter knows all about breaking transmissions, so we won’t hold that against Caddy for the moment ;) ).

But being an automotive journalist, I couldn’t let Campbell’s story or obvious bias sway me in any way. So, it was time to see how the 535xi honestly stacked up against the CTS and the rest of its competition.

First things first, to be fair, the 535 is BMW’s mid level trim line and the CTS I drove was the base trim level. Also, the CTS was RWD only, and the ‘x’ in the 535xi’s name designated AWD. Not to mention BMW had a 300 hp engine under the hood, while the CTS’s unit was only able to produce 258 hp and the CTS was a 6 speed manual, while the BMW has an automatic. So please take any comparison with a grain of salt, or in this case, a spoonful.

Everyone complained about BMW designs when Chris Bangle took the reigns. ‘Ugly’ and ‘blasphemy’ were the two words I commonly heard when people referred to them, but to be honest, I didn’t and still don’t see what all the fuss was about. The exterior designs under Bangle was a departure, yes, but they were no more offensive than designs coming out of Mercedes-Benz, Lexus and Infiniti. In fact, I’d venture to say the Bangled 5-series was one of the more attractive designs in his portfolio. The Z4 was tastefully eye-catching and the 6 series is unique. Only the 7 series deserved legitimate debate. The 5 is quite attractive to my eye with a bulging samurai styled front end, a graceful side profile and a sporty yet elegant rear. It’s a lot more unique than the CTS. My only complaint would be the desperate need for a refresh (the design is 5 years old now). LED tail and signal lights help differentiate it from previous generation models as well as that 300 horsepower and 300 foot torque under the hood.

DSC03273Within the 5 Series portfolio, though, there are some troubles. Mainly, I can’t for the life of me understand why anyone would take a 550i over the  535xi.  Sure the 550i features a growling V8 but the difference in performance is infinitesimally  minimal. The 550i can only sprint from 0-100 0.3 seconds faster than the 535xi. In the real world, like the Liberals and the Conservatives, that means they are virtually in a dead heat. Not to menti0n the 55oi costs almost twelve grand more! Save your money and get the 535xi. The engine growl is, to me, just as good and responsive, and you’ll be returning better fuel economy, despite the added weight of the AWD system.

Despite its size, the 535xi takes corners like any other BMW: stable, precise and with ease. The 535xi almost taunts you to push it further, but be forewarned, when you do, oversteer is the result (the AWD system naturally has a RWD bias, being a BMW). The stability control will take over to avoid any further results, but otherwise, it remains on the sidelines for good old fashioned fun. The steering is great, lots of feedback, and the size of the wheel was perfect for me (my tester also featured speed sensitive steering). It is decades ahead of the CTS’s steering.

DSC03281The interior is also way ahead of the CTS. It’s logically laid out, and relatively easy to use. My tester had the “new and improved” iDrive system and I will concede it is noticeably better than the old system, but it still could be better. Once you get it working, audio quality matches the car’s price tag, and so does seat comfort. The executive package enables you to change the seats exactly to your liking, with the seat being able to move almost any way you like. For instance the driver’s seat can incline or decline only the top half of the seat. Comparatively, I took quite a while to get the seating position right in the CTS.

Would I buy one? Over a CTS yes, in a heartbeat, but then I’d be spending almost twice as much, but for more than twice as much fun. BMW seems to be getting into the habit of offering automatics only lately (535xi, 550i, both diesels) which in my point of view hinders the fun. But there’s something about that infamous BMW handling combined with world class engines that really makes it hard to pass up, despite the ridiculous premium. Campbell was right, the CTS really just does not compare.

Your move, Caddy.

Summary: Performance and luxury in a tidy expensive package.

As tested price: $72,400

Exterior Styling: 8/10. Still an eye catcher despite its age

Interior Styling: 6/10. new iDrive will still piss you off, needs more luxury feel

Engine: 9/10. Making your 6-cylinder as good as your V8 is stupidly genius

Transmission: 6/10 Adequate, but would expext crisper shifts for an ‘ultimate performance’ car

Audio/Visual: 8/10. excellent sound quality, but iDrive still needs to go

Value: 7/10. Excellent value against the 550i, dismal value against the Caddy

Overall: 7.5/10

Special thanks to Campbell Harbord and Ed Backman of Halifax BMW.