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Excellence or Over-Engineering?
BMW 5 Series, X3 and the Polarizing iDrive

Denise McCluggage

When a carmaker's forte is engineering, its fault is apt to be over-engineering.

2004 BMW 5 SeriesI see that in BMW. How else to explain iDrive, that interface between driver and the cars controls that is ingenious but as often cursed as acclaimed. For the initiated, this console-located mouse-like device facilitates access to and control of the sound system, the navigation system, the heating and cooling and everything else buttons and dials were once used for (without the dashboard clutter.)

But for those who lack either the patience or the wit to figure it out iDrive is a maddeningly complicated and unnecessarily layered process for anyone seeking to merely turn up the bloody heat or switch radio stations. Well, actually, that’s unfair. One doesn’t need to touch the iDrive knob to for the simplest levels of temperature control or to get sound from the radio, but if like to adjust the qualities of that sound then you must take the plunge.

Originally introduced in the 7 series, iDrive has now migrated to the 5 series. The howl raised by those resistant to the charms of iDrive (and their name is legion) apparently led BMW to modify the system somewhat for the 5 series adding an escape hatch (push the Menu button) when lost in the maze with no way out. I’m told that some of the more esoteric functions are also left out in the 5 series iDrive.

But still there the iDrive knob sits on the console – intimidating, delighting, obscuring, enabling depending on the driver’s wont. A device that divides as well as conquers. Some long-time BMW owners claim that it sent them fleeing into the arms of Audi, for instance. But will they be missed? BMW rides a wave of popularity that laps on new shores and washes up new sales records monthly.The 5 series for 2004 has undergone the first total redesign in eight years, the fifth since the series was inaugurated in 1975. The new one is larger in both size, technological innovations and price.

As with the iDrive, the 5 series also follows the 7 series in its changed appearance guided by that controversial designer from Wisconsin, Chris Bangle. The much-discussed bustle-back treatment is not as pronounced in the 5 as in the 7, but the new 5 is definitely bigger of butt than the old one. Some may like it; some may not. Those of us who found the previous 5 series pleasing and elegant of line will find this one more brutish even while accepting it as more modern.

'04 BMW 5 SeriesBangle is one of the more verbal car designers in the current generation of stylist stars, using both language and facile body English to explain what he meant in adding bustles, odd lines slashing backwards (on the Z roadster) and all of his other signature cues. The cynics say his glibness is how he conned the BMW management to go along with his contentious makeovers. Management must be truly in his thrall because he is now in charge of design for all of the cars in the BMW group from the Mini to Rolls Royce.

But back to over-engineering. It is, oddly, often induced by excellence. Car design, like a shark, has to keep moving to survive. BMW is recognized for an enviable level of achievement both in simple purposefulness of appearance and excellence of performance. BMWs are a general favorite of car writers and driving enthusiasts representing a benchmark for smart turn-in, precise steering, autobahn brakes and superior handling.

How would you like to be the engineer or stylist charged with making improvements in such an icon?

But the change ogre must be fed. Thus the new bulkier appearance. Thus iDrive and Active Roll Stabilization and Active Steering.

Active Steering is another impressive engineering feat that is new in the 5 series. It involves a variable steering ratio that is dependent not only on the car’s rate of speed and steering input but on all the car’s electronic sensing devices and control systems. The steering ratios thus constantly change depending on all this real-time data. The drive might not even be aware of the changes going on.

What Active Steering does astonishingly well is remove the sturm and drang from high-speed sudden lane changes (a.k.a. avoidance maneuvers.) It calms the flying elbows and stays the rising bubble in the throat to a simple veer and steer that finds the car and heart rate remarkably stable. Smooth, secure and in control.

What Active Steering also does in very slow parking lot maneuvering is make the car seem purse size and memorably parkable.

So why do I not love Active Steering? Because it also makes fuzzy and vague the simple matter of driving down a city street between 25 and 40 miles an hour. In those circumstances, which fill more of most driving days than dodging objects at speed or parking at a crawl, it makes steering the 5 series like playing cards with gloves on.Not that everyone reacts so negatively. The BME 5 series indeed was selected by American Woman Road and Travel as the sedan of the year. Needless to say it did not get my support.

The 5 series is really an entire car line on its own with the 525i, the 530i and the 545i (and the M5, the highest performance, best handling dream car of the series planned for late 2004 arrival.) In the various engine and transmission choices and assorted packages a 5 series BMW can range from $39,995 to $58,295.

The base engine is the 184-hp inline six. This shows me how some buyer’s will settle for very little just to have “BMW” on the hood. This inline six is one wimpy engine in a car of this size and is embarrassingly deprived in launch power. The V8 545i on the other hand develops 325 hp and most certainly earns a driver’s attention and deep respect.

But then again maybe BMW is to be commended for letting those who wish to bask in the glow of its reputation to have the name if not the game. But still much more performance is available on the market for much less than $40,000. Stop by an Acura store and see.At times in driving even the underpowered 525i I again experienced the spell of the BMW. It is such a pleasure when a road plunges in sinuous sweeps through a wooded glade. But then I get angry again when confronted with iDrive and the Active Steering elements that I dislike.

How I wish BMW could make its great engineering feats optional. Give me buttons and dials and let those who like layered communication with their cars choose iDrive. Let me have the old BMW steering that didn’t save me from my excesses whether or not I asked it to..

Why, I wonder, does a company that tags its cars The Ultimate Driving Machine insist on getting in the way of my driving? I like to drive; not be driven

Yes, it’s amazing to have, for instance, many of the advantages of four-wheel steering magically duplicated in a two-wheel steering vehicle thanks to Active Steering. But then I only want four-wheel steering in a truck. Yes, it’s helpful in sudden dodging at high speeds, but I don’t need to do that on a regular basis. And the side effects in normal driving are extremely annoying. Why can’t those you feel as I do opt out?

2004 BMW X3 SUVBut then again those BMW engineers have come up with xDrive, a real-time, as-you-need-it four-wheel drive system for the X5 and X3 that is a dazzler. The sensors involved in distributing the grip to the wheel that can put it to best use are instantaneous. No waiting until something slips, even for an eye-blink. The X3 I drove on icy and other uncertain surfaces drives off as if on bare concrete. Amazing. And useful.

That sort of intervention I can tolerate. And even the stability controls which are a little more intrusive than I usually like (applying brakes automatically to a single wheel with the sensors deem it necessary) I can learn to use to my advantage.

Yes, there are geniuses in Bavaria, many of them at the motor works. I only wish to cherry-pick their innovations and not have them forced on me. But don’t let me keep you from the 5 series; try it, you might be one who likes it.

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