These days when an all-new car model is introduced, what is unseen often makes a bigger splash than what is. Yes, we are officially in an era when the digital is as vital as the physical, where binary ones and zeros compete with the latest high-triple-digit horsepower feat. This is certainly the case with the latest BMW 5 Series, whose 2017 model represents the 7th generation of what has become the benchmark for midsize executive sport sedans since its U.S. introduction in 1975.

So while this BMW luxury sedan is endowed with the kind of traits you'd expect of an all-new model -- slight growth in size, decrease in weight and an increase in horsepower -- it also arrives stuffed with technology that would seem fantastical just a few years ago. BMW invited us to its own technology incubator in Silicon Valley for a chance to drive the new 5 Series for ourselves and, in a spectacle that would make "Knight Rider" fans swoon, watch it drive itself into a parking space while standing outside the vehicle. 

Engaging and elegant

Before we get to how the BMW 5 Series drives on its own, let's talk about how it is to drive. Because for now, at least, humans will retain control. And that's a good thing in the case of the 2017 BMW 5 Series. The single-sentence review goes like this: If you're looking for a midsize luxury sedan that boasts some of the finest driver engagement around with no detriment to the driver, the new BMW 5 Series continues to be the one to beat.

For our tests, BMW handed us the keys to the two trims that will launch the all-new 5 Series: the 530i and the 540i. Like the 528i before it, the 530i uses a 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine that powers the rear wheels or all four, which in BMW speak is called "xDrive." The 540i, meanwhile, replaces the 535i and again uses a turbocharged inline 6-cylinder. Both new engines are more powerful than their predecessors, with the 4-cylinder making 248 horsepower (up from 240), and the inline-6 now cranking out 335, up a more significant 35 horsepower than the outgoing version. Both remain connected to 8-speed automatic transmissions.

If you haven't shopped for a 5 Series in a while and are skeptical -- dismayed, even -- about a small, 2.0-liter 4-cylinder powering such a substantial high-end sedan, don't be. This power plant has enough gusto to easily propel the new 5, both off the line (0-60 mph arrives in 6 seconds flat in rear-drive models and 5.8 for xDrive variants) and at higher speeds. The fact that the all-wheel-drive version is faster is notable, and speaks to the system's enhanced traction.

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Not surprisingly, the 6-cylinder model is even more pleasing for those who relish spirited driving. Step up to a 540i model and you're looking at a 0-60 mph time as low as 4.7 seconds. Remember when you'd have to pay over six figures for that kind of performance? Yet the 540i puts up those numbers in a beguiling way. Nail the accelerator and this sizable sedan scoots, but the smoothness of the engine and the surprising quietness inside the cabin cloak the velocities at hand. We suggest keeping an eye on your speed, an easy task thanks to the enhanced and enlarged heads-up display (HUD) that projects vital information onto the windshield. 

Steering feel, an attribute that BMW has made into an art over the years, is again highly rewarding in the new 5 Series. This, despite all models now using more efficient electromechanical power steering.

All 530i and 540i models come with three driving modes -- Comfort, Sport and Eco Pro -- and are available with a fourth called Adaptive when equipped with Dynamic Damper Control suspension. Each calibrates the powertrain and chassis feel for the task at hand, and we give bonus points to the seat bolsters that literally hug you tighter when switching to Sport mode. Over 2 days of driving 530i, 530i xDrive and 540i xDrive models, we mostly used Comfort or Adaptive modes, both of which were comfortable yet engaging. Conversely, we used Sport mode on twisty roads without feeling beat up. Three cheers for happy mediums.

Tech Giant

We could write a whole other review about the 5 Series' technology, but for the sake of economy we'll highlight some of this sedan's best attributes here. Not surprisingly, many of the gee-whiz features introduced on the latest-generation 7 Series flagship sedan have made their way into the new 5 Series.

There is gesture control, which allows you to change audio volume, take phone calls and zoom in for navigation by, you got it, gesturing in mid-air with your hand. It took practice, but more or less worked. Other available features include a Wi-Fi hotspot, wireless phone charging, integration with Amazon's Alexa voice-automated system (from the comfort of your couch you can ask, "Alexa, how much gas is in my car?") and the first wireless application of Apple CarPlay.

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Then there's the automated driving features. In addition to lane keeping assist, blind-spot monitoring and other active safety features, the BMW 5 Series' improved active cruise control continues to bring us closer to semi-autonomous driving, allowing drivers to take their hands off the wheel for up to 50 seconds in certain conditions. There's even an available feature called Side Collision Avoidance that, in addition to helping prevent you from colliding with another vehicle when you're changing lanes, can steer your vehicle out of harm's way if another vehicle begins to drift into your lane.

The biggest parlor trick was watching a BMW representative park the 5 Series -- from outside the car. In addition to offering the now-familiar ability to self-park in parallel spaces with a driver behind the wheel, the 5 Series is the first BMW in the United States to offer remote parking. BMW 540i models with the feature let you be outside of the car and, using the Display Key, command the car to park itself, like the world's biggest and smartest RC car. BMW says this is useful for fitting the car in tight spaces where it would be hard to open and close the door. Aptly, this demo took place outside BMW's technology office in Palo Alto.

The Automated Ultimate Driver

With all this talk of self-driving cars and the future of autonomy, a BMW fan may be left to wonder: "Isn't this supposed to be the Ultimate Driving Machine?"

BMW assures us that even as it runs toward the future, it hasn't forgotten its past. "It's about choice," BMW of North America CEO Ludwig Willisch assured us. As the company plans for the years ahead, it envisions a future where future BMWs will drive you when you want to be driven, while also offering the capability and experience of a traditional car when the urge strikes. 

Not so futuristic is the on-sale timing for the 2017 5 Series. Starting in February, the first models to arrive will be the 530i, 530i xDrive, 540i and 540i xDrive trims like those we drove. A base 530i will start just over $52,000, while a 530i xDrive model will start closer to $54,500. A base 6-cylinder 540i model starts around $57,000, with xDrive variants kicking off just under $60,000. Arriving later in spring as 2018 models will be the 530e, a plug-in hybrid 5 Series that pairs the 4-cylinder engine with an electric powertrain, and the V8-powered BMW M550i xDrive.


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