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BMW 520d SE review (2004-2010)
Model: BMW 520d SE
Bodystyle: Four-door saloon
Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbodiesel
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Date of test: November 2005
What is it?
BMW has, over the years, often haughtily boasted that its 5-Series range will not feature less than six-cylinders. Only to launch a four-pot in due course. It was less quixotic this time round, but then it did have a superb four-cylinder engine to call upon; the 163bhp 2.0-litre turbodiesel currently performing miracles in the 3-Series. The 320d has already stolen the ‘best-selling 3-Series’ crown from the 318i, and will surely take a healthy share of 5-Series sales too. It lowers the diesel 5-Series entry point by over £3,000 and is also the cheapest 5 you can buy, with prices starting at £26,000.
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Where does it fit?
This is a fleet-focused 5, be in no doubt. Relatively low list price, low emissions leading to a low tax liability, low fuel consumption – all with the glamour of the BMW roundel. Sounds like it can’t do any wrong, despite being the ‘pauper’ of the range. The company has also worked miracles with the price, for it’s only £500 more than the slower, less economical 140bhp 2.0-litre TDI Audi A6 in standard guise, while SE models cost barely £300 more – and add parking sensors, larger alloys and auto-dip interior mirror. Mercedes is on another planet with the £28,500 E 220 CDI Classic, while Jaguar daren’t offer a four-pot S-Type. Its traditionalists would probably explode with indignity.
Is it for you?
Company car drivers will think it a gift from the Gods. 4% less on BIK bills, from a £3k lower list price – and a free ‘badge delete’ option that means no-one in the company need know. Genius! BMW also cunningly fits a huge exhaust tailpipe, so suspicions won’t be roused by looking closely, either. It’s virtually indistinguishable from a 530d SE. Do note, however, that the standard 520d is the only 5-Series to come without standard run-flat tyres. This is perhaps a nod to company fleets scared by the technology; the run-flat-shod SE test model, with larger 17-inch wheels, costs only £300 more.
What does it do well?
This is the best installation yet of a superb engine. Some of the 3-Series’ vibrancy has been muted – you have to use more throttle than you first expect – but 0-60mph in 8.6 seconds shows it’s still an able performer, proven by effortless speed and ample torquey shove on the move. And what a refined unit it is! Less vocal than in the 3-Series, it’s resonance- and vibration-free on the move, spinning smoothly and only grumbling when the revs drop much below 2,000rpm. Poor relation? Not a bit. This is the best-riding 5-Series we’ve driven, too. Large irregularities and undulations are absorbed with a soft but well-damped motion that’s relaxing indeed – the stiffness of many BMWs has been toned down to impressive effect yet without spoiling the handing. Yes, roll is evident in corners but even brutal motions don’t lead to squidge or wallow. The gearchange, once mastered, is light and satisfying, brakes supremely accurate and feelsome while steering is light, low-geared but accurate. The lightness is a contrast to 3-Series’ hefty racks, but not unwelcome in an exec cruiser.
What doesn’t it do well?
The ride remains unsettled over smaller undulations due to the run-flat’s stiff sidewalls. This is particularly noticeable on the motorway, while the extra noise they can generate over sharp ridges is also apparent over scars in town – where the strange sensation exists that the ride is better over larger bumps than minor ones. Company drivers will prefer the manual as there’s a huge jump in fuel consumption and CO2 emissions when the £1,450 auto is optioned – but the weighty clutch may annoy in town, even though it’s less objectionable when on the move. Some vibration can be felt through the pedals and gearlever at tickover too, due to the revs dropping slightly when the clutch is disengaged. As soon as it’s depressed again, the rise from 750rpm to 900rpm... a small economy measure?
What’s it like to live with?
The 520d is at home on the motorway where the engine’s guts and firm (but not overly so) seats sooth miles away effortlessly. Just be careful in bad weather though, as sidewinds can unsettle it, just as i-Drive will unsettle you. It’s complex, yes, but the system’s slow-at-times speed also doesn’t help intuitiveness. The push-button starter is daft too, though otherwise the wide, very commodious cabin is straightforward, dial clarity exemplary, trip computer a genuinely useful too. Space in the back is fine and the boot enormous, but while interior stowage is slightly better than the frustrating 3-Series, there’s still not enough space to secrete stuff. Wipers set for left-hand-drive with a ‘jumping’ right-side blade is not ideal (it makes high-speed washing a messy affair) but BMW has clearly spent hours honing the car’s aerodynamics; within minutes of setting off, rain-lashed door mirrors and rear window are magically cleared.
Would we buy it?
The 520d makes more sense to us than the costlier 525d straight six. Other than a more cultured engine note, all the 525d offers is marginally better performance along with 6mpg less to the gallon and a £3k list price premium. It would be our choice – and we’d choose it over any rival too. The BMW looks good as those ‘flame surfaced’ lines become familiar, the interior is a well-built vault of comfort and even niggles such as i-Drive and a jittery-at-times ride are not burdens when set against the car’s considerable attributes. BMWs are not often bargains but the 520d, smoothly economical engine and all, must be considered one.
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