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Overseas model shown

BMW 520d: Sounds Like A Tractor, Goes Like A Subdued Rocket


OK not a rocket, but the 520d gets a long at a decent rate. The slightly industrial sound outside doesn’t interfere with a decidedly business-like feel of the white sedan. You know my feelings about the prices we pay in Australia so an entry level 5 series in the mid 80’s sounds OK. Like all BMW’s you raise the list price dramatically by adding only a few tasty extras. The test car had an M pack which gives the exterior a body kit and big wheels, and the cabin a different steering wheel which is a bit of a letdown. 10k worth of additions makes the 520d almost $100,000. That’s the same price as the SAAB 9-5 we had last year which we loved so much but the demise of SAAB makes that a moot point. So, you can get into a XF Jag, Merc E Class or an Audi A6. Smart money might even go for a matching pair diesel Passat BlueMotion with the 2.0L engine for under $45k each. You and hubby could then start dressing alike as well, wouldn’t that be fun.

BMW rid themselves of Bangle and his “designed with a hatchet” mentality so we can expect the next models to look a bit less like marauding sharks. Meanwhile the design language has matured and softened, after all we all remember the truly diabolical 7 series. That monstrosity will go down in history as one of the most hideous limos to ever have had four wheels. The model that followed it isn’t much better. Chris Bangle was BMW’s head designer for a very long time and all models currently still bear his trademark scoops, creases and angles in the metalwork. The 6 series is more successful in my view but perhaps that is because it is a coupe/convertible and I like almost any coupe or drop-top.

But back to the 4 door 5 series saloon and the exterior. The body kit and wheels look good but most of us have trouble telling the 3, 5 or 7 series apart especially from a distance. I’d call the outside neat, but unremarkable. The previous 5 series was Bangle’s most successful design in my opinion. A It was certainly one which most would say was the most attractive. In fact it is nicer now than when it first came out but that 7 series looks far worse if that’s possible.

The interior is the best place to be because you don’t have to look at the outside and wonder what model you’re driving. The cabin is quality, quality, quality and screams understated luxury. The leather and metal finishes all feel quality but there were letdowns too. There was some of the metalised plastic which I loathe so much. The door handles, gear knob and other frequently handled items will become badly damaged and look hideously shabby in record time. We’ve all seen bad design or short cuts result in a shambolic appearance in a car’s cabin. I remember getting into an 8 year old Boxster once. It had 2 careful lady owners but the interior looked as if it had been used as the playroom of a daycare centre. The plakky fittings were pitted and scratched and already things had broken and not been fixed. We’ve all seen what older luxury saloons turn into. After a short period is isn’t economical to maintain it and so it is allowed to gradually disintegrate. My point is that what seems cheap on day one will get worse starting from day two. Every fibre of my being wants to bitch-slap the accountant who decided that bit of cost-cutting was a good idea.

The rest is all good. The infotainment system is fairly straight forward but in typical Idrive fashion has a bewildering number of options and adjustments and each must be confirmed at least a hundred times. We all know most of us will not use most of the options but you’d have a bad case of RSI if you did. We will probably set it up, if we can be bothered, and leave it at that. After a few months we won’t remember how we did it or what the other options were. We certainly won’t be referring to the user guide. Those of you lucky enough to have a 10 year old nephew might try throwing the user guide at him. The Satnav is Clunky but reliable and that goes for all BMW’s, mini’s and Rolls Royce. We don’t want more choice; we just want the better things. Car gadgets should make our lives better not more stressful right? Because the satnav isn’t a touch screen you have to input via a wheel and mouse. The technical business behind the button feels high end. Each click has that solid feel, just like a Golf! Furthermore, it doesn’t give you street name directions, can you believe it? Your $70 iPhone app gives street names. The rest of the system works brilliantly, as well it should.

The seating is comfy and 5 can fit but it’s really only fit for you and 3 chums. Any more than that and you’ll need to be very close friends. The auto has the “sports” mode which is my preferred option. It makes the shifts much sharper and holds each gear longer. The 2.0L diesel packs a modest 135KW but 380Nm of torque propels the car off the mark quickly, then on to 100KPH in a leisurely 8.3 seconds. How diesels have changed. I remember a Peugeot 505 Diesel with a huge 81kw and 230 Nm taking 14 or 15 seconds to do the same thing. So that 8 seconds looks mighty good doesn’t it?

The best thing is the frugal habits make the 520d a real choice for someone wanting a executive saloon with class and panache but dislike giving large multinationals a cent more at the pump than is absolutely necessary, and who can blame them.

We spent the day touring Melbourne’s multi-million dollar mansions in the BMW. We passed Eddie’s place and Pratt’s old joint. We also took in Como and Rippon Lea and never did we feel out of place. Melbourne’s leafy inner suburbs are, after all, the natural stomping grounds of the BMW, Range Rover and Rolls Royce. I speak often about how a car makes you feel because that is frequently how people decide on one of the most expensive purchases of their lives. It isn’t something that you can learn about from the glossy brochure and that’s also true of the 520d, there is a certain intangible something that no amount of money can buy. A car either has it or not. Buying the pov model Beemer isn’t like getting into an entry level Korean cart. You get inbuilt kudos for no extra cash because you’re always glad to open the door and get in. Despite the gratuitous bends in the metal outside the 520d has grown on me and I found myself smiling just a little each time I got in. But the BMW gods giveth with one hand taketh. It comes with keyless start so you don’t need to get you key out of your bag, unless you actually want to open the door first! Unlike most other keyless start systems there is no sensor or button on the external door handle. So you do need your key to press the lock and unlock button, how annoying. What’s the point of fumbling about for your key to get in, then not needing it to actually start your car?

The one thing that is so annoying, and that I will never like is the SatNav volume which can’t be altered unless the little lady is actually speaking. It is almost impossible to make her speak on queue so you have to wait for directions, then remember to turn the volume knob. If it’s not right then you have to wait for the next time she speaks. Most systems enable the driver to ask the little lady to repeat herself, but not BMW. The mind-bending menu system may have an adjustment secreted in a submenu but we couldn’t find it, even with the aid of the help system and the user guide.

It sounds like I’m a whinging old crank, but the truth is that I’d be very happy to own this car. BMW has always been about the drive, and the drive is superb. The brakes, the steering, the throttle are all fabulous with a pin-point sharpness coveted but rarely copied successfully. The drinking habits are those of a Cistercian Monk and the cabin positively reeks of class. The build quality is German, enough said, so in short the 520d is a psychotic blend of good and not so good. However on balance the junior 5 series comes out well and truly on the favourable side. It’s fabulous, it just isn’t special, but that’s ok because it was always going to be a compromise. You forget any of the not-so-good once you’re moving. Throw it into a corner then change direction suddenly and she murmurs not even a jot. She is happy to be taken by the scruff of the neck and treated like a very very naughty girl and will bring you out of the corner with a grin the size of the outback. In a straight line let the auto do its job in trundle mode and in the corners in the superb sports mode. The best bit is that you are throwing around a large German car but you feel like you’re sitting in a high-tech, high-end Euro-lounge about to be served a Bombay Martini. If you want a really engaging drive then you are going to need to spend more on the purchase price and at the fuel pump, that’s just the way it is.

If resist the urge to tick too many of the options boxes the value is pretty good in the mid 80’s, but the M pack, uber-wheels and other sundry bits and bobs adds about 11k. It should last for ages and when you drive past people will they’ll think “oooooo it’s a beemer”. That will either work for or against you because they will also hear the faint clatter of the farm equipment under the bonnet.

It’s worth a shot.

Model Codes



excl. GST

excl. LCT

MRLP* incl. GST incl. LCT


Cylinder / Capacity cm3


Power / Torque


Combined fuel consumption





Petrol Models





8-speed automatic



135 kW



8.0 sec





8-speed automatic



180 kW

350 Nm


6.3 sec





8-speed automatic



225 kW

400 Nm


5.9 sec





8-speed sport automatic



300 kW

600 Nm


5.0 sec

Diesel Models





8-speed automatic



135 kW

380 Nm


8.1 sec





8-speed automatic



230 kW

630 Nm


5.5 sec

Hybrid Model

ActiveHybrid 51




8-speed automatic



250 kW

45 Nm


5.9 sec