2017 BMW 520d Touring G31 first drive

The premium estate car; a last doyen of middle-class civility. The once default family hauler has been decimated by the onslaught of model proliferation. MPVs fulfil the needs of those hopelessly disorganised in the family planning department, while the SUV lets others look down from on high. BMW is as guilty of it as its rivals, with its range of X models giving those upwardlymobile types something to aspire to, while the Active Tourer offers couples mad enough to consider more than two children, a means of usefully conveying them.


Surely, then, that leaves the 5 Series Touring in something of an automotive no-man’s land? A car without portfolio, and yet, since its introduction way back with 1991 – as the E34 – over one million have been sold. Not only that, but with each successive generation, sales increase, which means that the 5 Series Touring is now a relatively common sight.

It didn’t used to be; indeed, I can vividly remember the first time I saw an E34 Touring, when a friend’s father bought one. It was impossibly smart in comparison to my parent’s old Volvo estate – even the name was cool. The word ‘Touring’ evoked notions of road trips and adventure, rather than the reality of tip runs, shopping excursions and the occasional lift to school.

Practicality had never been more desirable and, standing here in Munich, before being handed the keys to the latest, fifth-generation 5 Series Touring, the effect remains much the same. Space be damned; visually, the estate car ticks boxes for me.

Give me one over a saloon any day, even without the promise of additional carrying capacity. Proportionally, they just look so right, the longer roof more elegant and impactful and, somehow, classier than a saloon.


So if you’re in the market for something that’ll carry clobber, pay attention. There’s an increase in boot capacity over the previous F10/F11 cars; the volume of the rear luggage compartment ranges from 570 litres with the seats in place, to 1,700 litres if they’re folded flat to the floor. That’s some 30 litres more than before, if you’re counting.

Folding those rear pews is easy, and the 40/20/40 split fold allows any number of luggage-to-people ratios. BMW will happily sell you a range of space-dividing, floorcovering, dog-carrying or luggage-retaining accessories if you want, to ensure that everything is as securely placed as possible. Access to that luggage compartment is usefully wide, too. The low sill helpful, and the standard air suspension on the rear axle adapts to the load in the rear. The weight it can carry has increased, too – by a notinsignificant 120kg – which means that, depending on model, it’s possible to load up to 730kg back there. Do that and you’ll want some sort of load-restraining device, though.

With that space come some useful touches for accessing it. The 5 Series Touring remains unique in its class by offering an opening glass hatchback, allowing quick dropping of bags and suchlike into the boot area. It’s aided by the remotely retracting load area cover, too. BMW’s solution for stowing that cover when all the seats are in use is simple and effective, as it has its own designated stowage area under the boot floor.


The tailgate can also, obviously, be opened conventionally, under power or, if you’ve got your hands full, by wagging a foot under the bumper. Clever as it sounds, I’ve yet to use the latter function (on any brand) that’s actually proved useful; indeed, the idea of tottering around on one foot while unbalanced by a load, seems a little bit poorly thought-out to me.

 Another Touring advantage, in my view, is the extra light and height that the longer roof brings, which adds to the impression of greater room back there. As ever, the back seat is comfortable for two, but a bit of a squeeze for three. BMW maintains that the 5 can have three child seats positioned side-by-side across the rear bench, which is commendable, though there are only two ISOFIX mountings. That aside, the 5 Series Touring’s family car status is assured.

Like its saloon relation, the new 5 Series Touring benefits from a reduction in overall weight. As much as 100kg has been shaved from its bulk, with multiple benefits. Key among these must be a significant, 11% improvement in fuel economy. Equally impressive is the fact that the weight loss has been achieved despite the new model’s increased dimensions and additional standard equipment – all UK cars come as standard with the eight-speed, Steptronic, automatic transmission, for example.

In reality, the 5 Series Touring feels every bit as capacious as the numbers suggest it should. Park one of those original, E34 Tourings side-by-side, and the new car absolutely dwarfs it. But, while that’s great for luxury and space, there’s no denying that it’s to the detriment of its effectiveness on narrower country roads; its scale, rather than any lack of dynamic ability, is its limiting factor.


That’s a shame, as the 5 Series Touring’s chassis is as engaging and involving as that of its saloon relation. Yes, there’s a touch more weight, thanks to the different body, but you’ll do well to notice it on the move. The big seller – by a sizeable margin – in the UK and Europe will be the 520d, and for good reason. As a mainstay of the 5 Series range; if there’s a better 2.0-litre turbodiesel unit out there, we’ve yet to drive it.

Developing 190hp at 4,000rpm and 295lb ft at 1,750rpm, the ease with which it shifts the big 5 is remarkable. Even more so, when you factor-in its refinement. It’s supersmooth and there really is no perceptible engine noise below 3,000rpm. The motor only just makes itself heard when you wring it out. Not that you’ll ever feel inclined to do so, as the 520d’s inherent smoothness and low-rev urgency and response, mated to not just the slick shift of the automatic, but its plentiful, useful spread of ratios, mean there’s rarely any need to work it hard. That’s true of the transmission, as well. Yes, you could take over and change gears for yourself but, in practice, the Steptronic is so adept at doing so that you just won’t need to.


The optional Driving Assistant Plus bundles the plethora of assistance systems, including: Collision Warning and Pedestrian Warning with City Braking Function, Crossing Traffic warning and priority warning, Lane Change Assistant and Lane Keeping Assist with Active Side Collision Protection.

The Steering and Lane Control Assistant works at up to 130mph, which might be handy if you’re visiting the motherland. Even so, we’d avoid them all; the march towards autonomous driving is going to be a long one, and the halfway house that’s presently offered is, more often than not, indecisive and downright frustrating to use.

So my advice is to forget it, save your money, steer with two hands, watch with your own eyes, and stop and go with one foot. Used in this way, the 520d is as serene, and capable as cars get. But don’t mistake its ease of use for lack of driver engagement. Indeed, its duality is key to its breadth of appeal. Find a decent road and that old 5 Series magic is still there, though these days it’s hidden away a bit deeper beneath all the electronic trickery.

The suspension is supple, the wheel and body control exemplary, and there’s never any real need to switch out of Comfort driving mode. Leave it as such and the steering is precise enough, too; the biggest flaw in the 5’s wheel is the sheer girth of it, and the spongy, thick rim robs the car of some delicacy at the driver’s hands.

There’s precious little feel through the wheel as a result. Even if the weighting and response is fine, that chunky rim denies you what little feedback might be on offer from the front axle. That’s not unique to the 5 Series Touring, though, as it blights a number of other current BMWs. Someone in the interior department really needs to have a re-think.


The same is true for some of the minor controls, too. This 5 Series’ cabin is something of a mishmash of differing inputs and controls, from conventional switches and knobs, to haptic touch surfaces and the iDrive rotary.

Add in the availability of gesture control, and you’ve got not just a many-layered entertainment, info and connectivity platform, but too many means of operating it, in my opinion. Familiarity eases things, but it takes some learning, and the tiny, fiddly operation of the ventilation is a particular frustration. The gesture control doesn’t really solve any real problems, and you look like a complete idiot sitting there twiddling your finger to turn up the volume!

 Not an entirely successful interface, then, depending, of course, on how it’s specified. The new 5 Series is arguably best sampled in its simplest form. With the 520d’s economy of 62.7mpg on the official, combined cycle, it’s difficult to argue against, while the 114g/ km CO2 emissions rating is even more useful if the company’s paying for it.

Even so, the allure of the 530d, with its 75hp increase in power and sizeable 162lb ft gain in torque, is one that’s difficult to ignore. The pay-off is economy of 56.4mpg and 131g/km of CO2, while the six-cylinder unit also loses some of the four’s incredible refinement, its sound more apparent, more of the time.


Admittedly, it’s not a bad sound, the in-line six’s growl is actually quite appealing but, after the silence of the four, it’s obvious, and not always welcome. Naturally, the greater performance offsets this compromise, the 530d Touring dropping two seconds from the 7.8-second 0-62mph time recorded by the 520d Touring.

But, in reality, the 520d is rarely found lacking in urgency. Where the 520d feels like it’s massively over-delivering, the 530d goes the other way; the anticipated leap in performance you’d expect given the huge torque gain never materialises. It’s arguably exacerbated by the six’s greater noise. The 520d, in comparison, is quietly effective. Its elasticity and response are such that it’s definitely not the poor relation. Debadge it, and nobody will notice, and the £8k saving isn’t to be sniffed at, either.

With just a few provisos, then, the 520d Touring is, arguably, all the car you could ever need. Forget SUVs and MPVs, the estate car is where it’s at; a vehicle that’s got every angle covered, unless you really do need to drive across fields. But then there’s xDrive four-wheel drive for that, and there’s the promise of even more models to come.

The petrol engines will undoubtedly impress, but, in the UK at least, they’re difficult to recommend, although the 530i runs the 530d remarkably close when it comes to economy and emissions, on paper. The reality is likely to be less convincing. So, I’ll take an 520d Touring please, in SE spec, with none of the optional autonomy, and plenty of time to familiarise ourselves with some of the fiddlier elements of the infotainment controls. Drive that and you’ll wonder why you ever seriously considered anything else.

“The new 5 Series is arguably best sampled in its simplest form”

“The 5 Series Touring remains unique in its class for offering an opening glass hatchback”

“Surely, then, that leaves the 5 Series Touring in something of an automotive no-man’s land?”


ENGINE: Four-cylinder turbodiesel

CAPACITY: 1,995cc

MAX POWER: 190hp @ 4,000rpm / DIN

MAX TORQUE: 295lb ft @ 1,750-2,500rpm / DIN

0-62MPH: 7.8 secs

TOP SPEED: 140mph

ECONOMY: 62.7mpg/114g/km

Weight: 1,660kg unladen/1,735kg DIN EU

PRICE (OTR): £38,385

The new 5 Series Touring is bigger yet lighter. Clever engineering abounds.

Below left to right: For normal, daily use, there really is no need to stray beyond the Comfort setting.

The interior is typically 5 Series, although I found the assorted controls a bit of a mishmash. The steering wheel rim is too spongy for my liking, too.

Another Touring advantage is the extra light and height in the rear compartment, that the longer roof line brings.

Plenty of space and adaptability in the rear make the new 5 Series Touring a brilliant load-lugger.

Give me an estate car over a saloon any day, even without the promise of additional carrying capacity; they just look so right.

If you’ve got a family road trip planned, then the 520d Touring is an ideal vehicle to use for it.

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