Today’s BMW 5 Series doesn’t have the same mission statement as it did a decade or two ago. For years, the German automaker’s middle sedan was designed to be the absolute sharpest tool in the luxury car shed. Its steering was perfect, its ride was crisp and its engines were punchy. In short, it was meant to be the most rewarding sports sedan that money could buy. And for years — particularly over the course of the E39 glory days — that’s exactly what it was.
Somewhere along the way, the 5 Series’ foremost objective shifted as the sedan morphed into a rolling showcase of BMW’s technological know-how, even if that meant the actual driving experience was numbed and dumbed to match the shifting tastes of luxury car buyers. Thing is, as much as enthusiasts bemoan the effects that cutting-edge technology has had on the feel behind the wheel, the fact of the matter is that the 2021 BMW 540i is a very pleasurable car to drive, and it is measurably the best mainstream 5er that has ever rolled down the line.
The 2021 BMW 5 Series represents a meaningful refresh on the last clean-sheet redesign that we first tested in 2017. The pointy ends have been restyled, making it a little over an inch longer than before. The kidney grille is now one conjoined piece instead of two and more prominent for 2021, but thankfully not comically so like the latest 4 Series. The headlights have also been pinched and pulled more taut.
Our tester looked stately in white, only slightly livened up with Y-spoke wheels with red calipers. The 5 Series remains distinguished, but not over-the-top, like some of BMW’s crossovers.
Inside, the angles and forms are a bit more severe than the previous 5 Series, but the overall look is calmer than the decadent, and frankly nicer, Mercedes-Benz E-Class. Most will say the Mercedes is more luxurious in its presentation, while the Bimmer is more subtle.
Dual 12.3-inch displays dominate the dashboard, one directly in front of the driver delivering need-to-know data in between digital speedometer and tachometer gauges that change in design based on the driving mode. The other is in the center running BMW’s latest iDrive 7 infotainment system. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard, as is navigation. There are real tactile buttons for the climate control and audio system, along with the automaker’s well-known control knob on the center console with accompanying menu buttons.
You can read all about iDrive 7 here, but in short, there are still a lot of layers but it’s mostly logical in layout and relatively simple to learn. We especially appreciate that it can be controlled through both the touchscreen and the wheel-shaped knob.
Besides the primping and prodding inside and out, the big news for the 2021 540i is a mild-hybrid powertrain that incorporates a 48-volt electrical system. The little electric motor adds a little more than 10 horsepower to the car’s rating of 335 horsepower and 331 pound-feet of torque, so the vast majority of thrust is provided by a 3.0-liter turbocharged inline-six-cylinder engine. Those ponies are sent to the rear, or, as was the case with our 540i xDrive test car, all four wheels through an eight-speed automatic transmission.
BMW quotes a 0-60 time of 4.6 seconds for the 2021 540i xDrive (three tenths quicker than the rear-drive version), which is quite good. That’s about the same as the previous non-hybridized version, but we found that the extra push from the electric motor smoothed out the overall feel of the turbocharged powertrain, particularly right off the line, and before and after gearshifts. There are steering wheel shift paddles and a manual mode for the transmission, but the electronic brains are so good in the default and Sport modes that they aren’t really needed.
The mild hybrid powertrain helps the 2021 540i xDrive’s fuel economy improve to 23 mpg city, 31 mpg highway and 26 mpg combined. Compared to the non-hybrid 2020 model, that’s 1 mpg better in the city and combined ratings and two better on the highway. It’s also 1 mpg better than the Mercedes-Benz E 450 4Matic’s highway rating and better than a comparable Audi A6’s ratings across the board, making the BMW a segment leader in fuel efficiency. It’s also worth noting that the less powerful 530i xDrive’s EPA ratings of 23 city and 32 highway mean there’s no great sacrifice to the extra power of the 540i’s six-cylinder engine.