Sibling Rivalry Mark Williams pitches his F10 520d up against the all-new G30 Five… but which does he prefer? Is newer always better? Mark Williams pitches his sixth generation 520d up against the all-singing, all-dancing seventh generation G30 version… but is he impressed? Words: Mark Williams. Photography: Gus Gregory.
BMW 520d grudge match: G30 vs F10
I have never been a trendsetter. Nor an early adopter. But neither am I against change. It’s just that it takes me a while to catch-up. When the whole world was falling over itself and eulogising about the iPhone, I was soldiering on with my Blackberry, pondering Apple’s offering as “a fad which may blow over”. My first laptop came years after Neanderthal Man was nursing hernias through hauling the original versions about the place and I was still relying on a trusty Sony MP3 player when everybody had alighted upon the Streaming Music Train. And our first iPad came long after the rest of mankind had served as a collective guinea pig and proved the concept. A Luddite then, you may think. So at this point we should probably brush over the fact that the application form which the nice man at the bank had me complete for our mortgage, contains the legend “IT Manager” in the occupation field… Truth is that professionally, I have to follow (or better yet, set) the trends which partly define evolution, but privately I am content to roll along and take my own sweet time to catch-up because riding the wave 9 till 5 is exhausting.
All of this is prefacing a statement. Upon initial introduction with the new G30 iteration of BMW’s 5 Series, I was not as overly enraptured by it as some sectors of the press. Neither was I instantly as sold as I was when I first clapped eyes on the F10 ‘back in the day’. So, is it just a case of waiting for the world (i.e., the leasing companies and fleet managers) to prove the concept and sanitise me to the new car through presence and sheer numbers, or am I actually not keen?
Externally, I found nothing to put me off. Sharp, confident yet quiet evolution. But on the inside, my reactions were a little cool. Not something that I’ve found in the various road tests since the car was launched in mid-February. And we’ll come back to this because to my mind there’s an interesting discussion to be had, comparing the thoughts and approach of a professional hack (who drives different cars every day of the week and hence, arguably considers the G30 only against the context of its rivals) to those of somebody who drives the predecessor every day and approaches a car with one eye on the competition, but the other on the wheels he/she arrived in. This may explain why a car which bombs in all the road tests actually sells fairly strongly, but we’re here to review cars, not get wrapped up in Freud.
Depending on what you currently drive then, and this is always the case of course (regardless of whether it’s a model from the same manufacturer or that of a rival), your first impressions of the G30 will be against that context. And coming from an F10, one wonders how many of those punters will take to the interior. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. What exactly is the G30?
BMW Five Series. Aspirational, dynamic, evoking strong images of rock-solid autobahn blasts, four-up, lights ablaze, outside lane, in a hurry. And then in the blink of an eye another image; 40mpg+, dependable, practical, happy children plugged into iPads in the back, blending seamlessly into family life. And then another image, with a Touring boot on it. All manner of gubbins, maybe the odd surf board if we’re really pushing it. The 5 Series covers all the bases, and the ground in between. It’s the doyen of middle management, the attractive lease deal, the exotic retirement present to be proud of and the Gruntmeister in big diesel spec. It mops up the rich vein of revenue between mid £30k and high 70s. And the G30 is the latest in a long, illustrious line of increasing sales successes. So it’s rather important to BMW.
And it’s jolly good. As in, really good. I didn’t honestly expect them to mess it up of course, but nevertheless the alchemist effect is strong in this one. Such is the blend of talents this car exhibits, it makes Gary Lineker look hopelessly restricted in terms of skillset (and we all know that in reality he can turn his hands to pretty much anything). So yes, to drive it’s very good. But there’s more to a car than its dynamics.
Back to those pro journos then for a moment. Waxed on for several pages they did (and a couple of awards) about the G30. Paint wasn’t even dry, and you certainly couldn’t buy one yet. Mercedes’ E-Class (the latest take which simultaneously looks like a downsized S-Class and an up scaled C-Class, perfectly mirroring Three to Five to Seven on the BMW side, whatever happened to individuality?) had barely attained the top spot in this sector when Munich whipped the covers off the G30 and the whole world did an about-turn from Mercedes to BMW in the blink of an eye. The scribes raved, some of them seasoned veterans and hence, oozing credibility from every pore. So we listened.
And they were right. There’s no denying it, the G30 scoots down the road with aplomb and sparkle, demonstrably better for the reduced mass (around 100kg lighter depending on model and spec, partly achieved through fitting doors which weigh just 6kgs each) and clearly benefiting from engineering wrought by folks who know a thing or two. I’ve been lucky enough over the last few weeks to sample two G30s. The first an xDrive 520d M Sport and the second, as per the pics, the same spec but without AWD. And other than the steering, which I maintain is too light even in ‘Sport’, and the rim which seems over-stuffed at least in my hands, the driving experience has markedly improved compared to the F10. But then you stop at a set of lights, glance at the fascia and the love starts to unravel…
So let’s get down to detail, and some of this may appear in contrast to what editor Harper relayed last month, the context here being the owner’s view. The interior of the new Five Series, in my opinion, is not as cohesive, nor as welcoming as the old one. The F10’s cascading dash architecture fosters an air of envelopment and substantial engineering which is relaxing, comforting and re-assuring. Switch to the G30 (always an interesting exercise, hopping from one car to another and back again) and three things serve to distance the two cars.
First, the G30’s dash is clearly split from the lower portion, where the transmission tunnel meets the mouldings which house and support the heating and ventilation (HVAC) controls and everything higher up. In addition, where these two pieces meet, the lower portion angles inwards slightly, creating a subtle feeling of more space but in doing so, aligning the car more with the interiors of the F30 and cheaper-spec BMWs. All in my opinion, remember. But as the owner of an F10, relevant opinion, I would wager. Second, the HVAC controls and other interaction points in the car are equipped with glossy black plastic finishes, ideally engineered to attract and retain endless finger prints. Suffer from OCD? Don’t buy a G30. And at this point, one is doubtless expecting a tirade against the touch screen technology which now at least partly runs the iDrive.
The difference here though is that one doesn’t only have to (at least for now) use the touch screen, and can revert to the familiar iDrive rotary controller for full operation (or the steering wheel-mounted controls for audio and so on, plus there’s Gesture Control if impressing the kids is the primary requirement). And a jolly good thing too, as touch screen tech in cars is a fad I hope the industry soon drops. Quite why everybody agrees that texting whilst driving is unsafe, yet leaning forward and slopping fingers across one’s sat-nav is considered appropriate behaviour, I’m not quite sure. It’s contrary to the need to concentrate on the art of driving, and considering BMW’s mantra, one can only assume that they’ve introduced this tech because everybody else has and hence, need to avoid falling behind. Admirable, but flawed.
I did at least quickly reconcile with the latest freestanding display (with fresh air behind it, not inset into the dash á la F10). Possibly this is because my previous F30 3 Series was engineered the same way, but whatever; Whilst the reduced dashboard mass undoubtedly contributes to the reduction in that ‘enveloping feel’ I mentioned earlier, I cannot deny that it probably goes some way to the lower mass of the overall vehicle (and BMW claim that the cast magnesium dashboard supports are up to 2kg lighter than the F10’s steel items). Ergo, it’s a good thing and not something which irked after a little familiarisation. One element I did immediately identify with and wholeheartedly appreciate is the improved HUD, 70 percent larger than in the F10. I wouldn’t want or need it any bigger than this, but it’s one aspect of the F10/G30 comparison which I did notice when driving home in my car at the end of the day.
And the third reason? Certain elements of the interior simply don’t appear as well assembled as they should do. On the test cars (which weren’t preproduction) elements such as the PDC button (long, thin plastic) do not receive an activating finger with confidence, moving around a little in their recesses. Another gripe is that the smooth, cool, aluminium-like plastic gearshift paddles have now been replaced by thin slivers of metal which have brittle and rough black plastic backs to them. Consequently, they are nowhere near as nice to use. Nit-picking you may think, but coming from an F10 into the G30, these things add up.
Enough change analysis then, let’s get on with the drive. The weather on the chosen day was utterly awful. We’d been lucky on previous ‘shoots but today somebody somewhere was getting payback. Not that this did much to dampen snapper Gus spirits whom seems to attack these days with a “Right fellas, let’s crack on!” mentality which is most uplifting. And the weather didn’t really bother the G30 either, conducting itself with verve and confidence, despite the streaming conditions.
First stand out feature dynamically? The quality of the damping (optionally adaptive on this example for £985). I’d prefer more of a step when selecting ‘Sport’ personally, as with the steering weight, but as your typical Five Series buyer is a conservative sort (I’m the exception…) one understands the subtle shift in character between comfort and the more focussed mode. Harper’s view is rather more pronounced in this area, citing significant changes in character between the two modes; Owner’s context again. Engaging Sport maintains the compliancy, yet further ties down the body without introducing fidget into the ride and you could surreptitiously run this car all year in ‘Sport’ mode without eliciting moans from your passengers. I’d also wager that the reduction in unsprung weight (wheels, tyres, brakes) of around 9kg compared to the F10 contributes to the feel here, and across the car it’s a case of marginal gains which collectively, add up to a leaner feel. There’s no carbon-core here, BMW sticking with aluminium, high-tensile steel and magnesium, but you don’t miss the exotic weaved stuff, the whole car imbued with solidity and rigidity despite its absence.
Once the car-to-car shots are done (Gus installed in the boot of either car, snapping away at the other one, I wonder if he gets hazard pay?) attention switches to the cornering photography, and running between turn-around points along these narrow lanes gives me the chance to extend the G30.
It’s sprightly enough as I’ve already said, if not quite as peppy as the xDrive I drove a week or two earlier. Blame the engine not being as loosened-up perhaps. The B47 seems quieter in this installation though, and I later spy some (insulating?) fabric affixed to the front of the engine which wasn’t there on that earlier xDrive I drove, never mind the F10. So here comes the corner, Gus installed on the outside of the bend, apparently impervious to the driving rain, and as I nip through the apex the near-side slices through a puddle and the front of the car is suddenly immersed in a Perfect Storm.
Wipers switching to frantic mode (the pessimistic software getting it right for once), the water soon clears and I turn around to go again, more throttle this time which takes us to the limit of grip and a tiny slip from the rear, but no understeer of note, even on this surface. Try again with a heavier hoof, lift then more throttle, a little more slip but no actual correction required as the chassis sorts itself out in a nanosecond, a heartbeat chirrup of DSC tell-tale in the instrument binnacle the only clue. Impressive stuff. And two-wheel drive remember. I don’t elect to disable the electronics completely as we’re not intending to drift our way around North Oxfordshire today but it’s already pretty clear that this chassis has innate balance and a faithful response. Standard rear-drive BMW in other words, and all the better for it.
Not that the F10 is a blancmange of course, and even though OU16 is an SE spec running kerbheight profiles and of a far narrower section that the G30 (225 versus 275, and could we all just take a moment to consider the amusement of 275 section tyres on a 2.0-litre diesel!?), the F10 as I’ve said elsewhere in these pages is a good steer. But the G30 is more incisive, better controlled and more flowing.
So what of the xDrive version I drove previously? More of the same really, except for the subtle tugging at the front end through a favourite dippingthen- climbing right-hander not far from my house.
Throttle on in third through here results in no actual attitude from either end of the chassis, and one draws the conclusion that the ECUs are quelling such antics long before they build by straight lining the corner as much as possible and throwing torque to the front. It’s not felt through the steering, which is what I mean when I refer to ‘faithful’ steering systems – it remains uncorrupted by the drive efforts. But the torque transfer is clear and the nose of the G30 sniffs away from the offside and towards the road’s centre line. This is either slightly anaesthetizing or sure-footed behaviour, depending upon how you like your handling, and it’s true that a tad more playfulness would be welcome (without resorting to animalism and forcing the thing sideways). The bottom line is that you can cover the (sodden) ground in this thing at quite a lick, giving it the full beans from the apex and feeling the whole car drift through on a neutral stance, trusting the passive safety design to not tip the whole lot into the scenery. If I were to buy one at some point, I’d go for an xDrive. It blends the confidence of an Audi Quattro chassis with the slightly naughty side most of Ingolstadt’s output lacks.
Back to our direct comparison, and after a I’ve hooned through a few times for Gus’ Nikon, it’s Bob’s turn to send my F10 through the frame, which gives me more time to sit and ponder the G30 whilst the rain lashes down outside. There’s no arguing with the strides made in refinement, which are tangible over the F10. And it’s laughable to consider the G30 in context with something like an E28 (which I used to be given as courtesy cars from specialists years ago). They were doubtless impressive in their day but compared to the G30, it would be like trying to hold a conversation in a greenhouse towed by a 747.
Flush-fitting glass, laser-precision panel gaps, chassis insulation and so on all make a huge difference. So whilst I’m perched in the fabulous sports seats (now with extra-squishy headrests, very nice) I delve into the iDrive and note the new icon-based menu structure, and the crisp response. All very 7 Series, in the traditional manner. But it’s getting warm in here now, plus it’s misting up, so start the engine and go for the cold air rotary control for the dash face-level vents. Which isn’t there. Long story short, split-level cold to the face and warm to the feet distribution control is now part of the iDrive and not set within the air vents as before. Why, for heaven’s sake? The F10 has the familiar (and damned effective) single rotary control for this function, but the G30 requires an iDrive interaction, a retrieval of the option and then, confirmation. Three activities where previously one sufficed. And it’s the final nail in the coffin in terms of the interior experience for me, however pedantic that sounds.
For the art of driving, four up with a boot loaded with luggage, the G30 is a gifted device. The dynamics, as is clear now, are as polished as anybody could reasonably request. Lord only knows what the next one will be capable of. It’s great to behold externally and the sharp suit cuts a suitably understated yet noticeable dash on the street. In 520d spec it’s as peppy yet frugal as anybody could expect and will continue to serve BMW’s accountants as equally well as it does the switched-on drivers amongst the buying population. But you spend most of your time sitting inside a car, not pondering it from a living room or office window. And for this scribe, it is the interior of the new G30, set against the predecessor whose interior immediately appealed, which hasn’t quite evolved convincingly on this occasion.
I finally bought an iPhone after the first or second generation and have happily used them since, resisting the incessant demands of Android users to try that platform instead. I cannot imagine BMW will carry out wholesale changes to the interior come the inevitable face-lift stage so who knows, maybe this will be the rare occasion where familiarity does not soften my view. Time, as ever, will tell the tale.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE BMW G30 520d M Sport
ENGINE: Four-cylinder diesel, 16-valve
MAX POWER: 190hp @ 4000rpm
MAX TORQUE: 295lb ft @ 1750-2500rpm
0-62MPh: 7.5 seconds
TOP SPEED: 146mph
PRICE: £39,025 (2017)
TECHNICAL DATA FILE BMW F10 520d SE
ENGINE: Four-cylinder diesel, 16-valve
MAX POWER: 190hp @ 4000rpm
MAX TORQUE: 295lb ft @ 1750-2500rpm
0-62MPh: 7.7 seconds
TOP SPEED: 144mph