The new 5 Series is too anodyne for its own good

Here is the new BMW 5 Series, a breed of car to which all thrusting executives used to aspire. Nowadays they might tilt towards an Audi instead, but the ideal of a sportingly-flavoured, large saloon with a German nameplate is a concept owned by BMW for longer than anyone else.

So appetising and so marketable has such a concept been that even Mercedes-Benz found itself trying to make a somewhat BMW-like car with its previous-model E-Class. Reason has returned, and the current E-Class is a Mercedes which is most definitely a Mercedes. The curious thing is that, in its simplest form, the new BMW is a bit like a Mercedes too.

This is not a bad thing in itself, but you somehow expect a strong streak of that "ultimate driving machine" promise to which BMW so often alludes. So here I am in a new 530d, the model with the most remarkable blend of driving thrust and carbon minimalism. It is longer than its immediate predecessor, and it comes across as a bulkier car than any 5 Series before it (of which there have been five since 1972). The new one certainly has a more homogeneous shape than the outgoing model, but it's a shame the lower flanks have ended up so slabby when the concept sketches showed such curvaceous intrigue.

There's one throwback to the old car's challenging blend of convex and concave surfaces. Look at the bonnet: like all new cars, this 5 Series is designed to minimise damage to pedestrians, so it has a high, bluff front. That bonnet, though, looks as if someone has landed on it already.

Inside, the high dashboard adds to the feeling of bulk and stolidity. Partly to counteract thoughts of driving dullness, the main instrument and switch panels are angled a little towards the driver in the way they used to be in BMWs, the better to promote an intimacy with the machine. But this modern version is one complicated edifice. Central in this new dashboard is a hefty information screen on which the iDrive control systems – sat-nav, stereo, phone, computer, suspension settings and more – are laid bare. It is designed for people with no intelligence: why else would it tell you exactly how to select a "gear set" every time you start the engine, and continue to tell you this some time after the car is moving?

Time to discover how it moves. This 5 Series, ranging from £28,165 to £50,520, has a full steel structure, although the bonnet, front wings and doors are aluminium to help keep the near-even weight distribution over the axles that BMW holds dear. Most suspension components are also of aluminium, and at the front there are now double wishbones instead of struts to stop side forces from inhibiting the movement of the dampers. So the new 5 should feel smoother over bumps.

It does, too. This particular 530d has the optional adaptive dampers with four settings. The steering is now electrically powered instead of hydraulically, which saves energy, and bar an odd springiness when straightening up it feels pleasant enough. Add to this the usual, steam-engine-like flow of torque from one of the world's great turbodiesels, delivered with a deep, distant growl, and so many automatic gears that you lose track of where you are in the gearscape, and you have a restful, undemanding but ultimately rather unexciting car.

This can't be right. A BMW should excite you, draw you into the action when your mood desires it. Salvation presents itself in the 535i I try next, with 306bhp on offer from its 3.0-litre, turbocharged petrol engine. This engine sets the tone for a proper BMW drive.

Crucially, as well as the adaptive dampers, this particular car also has "active steering", which speeds the response at low speeds and also steers the rear wheels a little to make the BMW more agile, and "dynamic drive" which reduces lean in corners by actively twisting the anti-roll bars. Thus equipped, the 535i becomes a driver's delight while retaining all the admirable comfort. It scythes round bends as a BMW should. It makes you feel great.

Trouble is, the trick suspension and steering add £3,520 to the price. And you shouldn't have to pay that to make a BMW into a BMW.

The Rivals

Audi A6 3.0 TDI SE quattro: £35,215.

Sleek, desirable but style has become Audi generic. Beautifully made, pleasing to drive, four-wheel drive as standard. CO2 can't match BMW's.

Jaguar XF 3.0 D Luxury: £34,775.

Terrific new twin-turbo diesel suits lithe, soothing but sporting XF perfectly. Auto gearbox only, plus the best interior in the class.

Mercedes E350 CDI Sport: £37,335.

Like others, has a 3.0-litre engine despite the name. CO2 isn't as good, at 186g/km, as BlueEfficiency tag suggests, but a delightful car to drive.

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