Is the new BMW 5 series a worthy successor to the current one?

Yes, says one of the auto mags from down-under. Their scribe wrote that replacing one of the finest large sedans the world has ever seen was never going to be easy. But it’s a task BMW appears to have passed with flying colours with the 2004 5 Series, which was launched in Australia this month.

BMW 5 series

The development cost was a reputed $1.2 billion, so where did the money go? Some of it went in new technology that includes the world-first active steering, plus a host of new equipment that’s filtered down from BMW’s flagship 7 Series.

The steering features an additional electric servo motor at the bottom of the otherwise conventional rack and pinion steering system, with BMW’s new speed-sensitive Active Steering system varying its ratio from just 1.7 turns lock to lock at parking speeds to a more conventional three turns at high speeds.

A convenience boon in both low-speed traffic environments and an added safety feature in low-grip situations, the variable-ratio component operates in conjunction with ABS sensors, a steering angle sensor and a second yaw sensor separate to the Dynamic Stability Control III systems. Active Steering is BMW’s third steering system and has the ability to add or subtract steering angle, with a maximum of 15 degrees’ correction possible in the most dire of circumstances.

Produced by a partnership between ZF and Bosch, the Australian arm of which produced the crucial sensor, Active Steering is seamless in operation and retains a mechanical link to provide both direct feel and failsafe functioning. The Servotronic aspect comprises traditional speed-sensitive variable power assistance.

All models will feature the three-mode six-speed sequential automatic transmission as first seen in 7 Series and later by Jaguar S-Type, XK and XJ models. A modified version of the same ZF gearbox, with integrated transfer case, is also used beneath Audi’s new A8, so it is obviously the transmission of choice for the big players.

With all cars having to appear as fuel-misers these days, BMW has continued the use of aluminium suspension components and the addition of an aluminium chassis structure ahead of the A-pillar. This has dropped the 5 Series’ kerb weight has by 70 kg, and BMW says the 530i is 65 kg lighter than the equivalent E320 Mercedes.

The new chassis configuration also results in slightly improved weight distribution, with the new 5 now claiming a perfect 50/50 front/rear split. The new 5 Series also claims a maximum five-star European crash rating.

Visuals are always a matter of personal taste, but I have to say that the Chris Bangle inspired bootlid is starting to grow on me, and the new 5 has one of those, handed down from the 7 series. Sharp new wrap-around headlights with ringed parking lights dominate the front-end, while a coupe-like roofline, rising sill line and distinct shoulder crease straddle short overhangs at both ends.

Interior space has also increased in most directions, most notably in rear legroom, which is up by 46 mm, while boot space is up 60 litres to 520 litres - or big enough for BMW to claim it accommodates four golf bags. (They’ve just won at least 60% of Thailand’s well-heeled golf fanatics!)

The six cylinder engines are carried over from the previous 5 Series, however, BMW claims considerable performance and fuel economy gains over rival Mercedes E-class variants. The 530i is said to be good for 7.1 second 0-100 kph acceleration, and has a top speed of 242km/h.

In the Aussie form, all new 5 Series vehicles come well equipped, with the standard kit including the Servotronic Active Steering, a modified version of iDrive, tyre pressure monitor, a total of 10 airbags, full Dakota leather upholstery, woodgrain trim, power front seats, dual-zone climate control, front armrest, multi-function/power-adjustable steering wheel, six-CD sound system, power windows/mirrors, remote central locking, alloy wheels, fog lights, rain sensing wipers, cruise control, trip computer and a 6.5-inch monitor. In addition, the 530i gets Park Distance Control, larger 17-inch alloys, driver’s seat memory and anti-dazzle interior and (heated) exterior mirrors.

The flagship 545i adds different 17-inch wheels, active head restraints, alarm system with remote control, electric rear sunblind, telephone, 10-speaker sound, bi-Xenon headlights with washers, electric glass sunroof, Comfort seats (or no-cost Sport seats) with adjustable lumbar and an adaptive headlight system similar to that of Porsche and Mercedes. Of course, all of these extras are available as options in 525i and 530i, but a host of other options are also available.

All we can do now is to wait for BMW’s latest to arrive in the showrooms here. Being on BeeEmm’s approved tester list means I will get one to drive. It’s just a case of when!

Off-Road Adventure Trips

For all the dedicated off-roaders, my old mate captain Sitthichoke of the Eastern Off-Roaders Club has a couple of trips organized. You don’t have to join the club to be able to go on them, and I know from experience that he runs a ‘tight ship’ (being a sea captain himself) and all the people who have gone on his escorted trips have all made it back safely!

Off-Road fun

The two outings are as follows: 1) Offroad Magazine Caravan 2003 (Bangkok-Chiang Mai) on November 13-16, and 2) Thailand-Myanmar (Burma) Friendship Overland Caravan Trip through Mae Sai - Mongla (Myanmar/China border) - Muse - Mandalay - Yangon (Rangoon in the old money) - Pagan - Inle and back to Thailand by the same route. This will be either at the end of this year or first quarter of 2004, during Songkran.

Captain Sitthichoke says that full details, routing, costs, etc., can be obtained from him for both the trips. He speaks perfect English by the way. His contact details - Capt. Sitthichoke, Eastern Offroaders Club, tel/fax: (038) 431672, mobile 01 864 2270, email [email protected] and [email protected]

Forget about suing your doctor - now you sue your car dealer!

Suing dealers has become a growth industry in the USA, the home of ‘Class Actions’ be that for breast implants or chemical poisoning, as well as personal lawsuits against anyone you’d like to point a finger at for malpractice.

The latest to be caught in the legal web are car dealers, a group who have never figured high in the public’s eye in the trustworthy stakes. However, I must say in their defence, that some of my very long-time friends have been dealer principals or sales people in the new and used car industry.

Of course, the site of all this new litigation is in the good ol’ US of A, where good ol’ lawyers learn all this sort of thing early in their careers, and then go on to become politicians (unless you live in California where you get an ex-Austrian movie star!).

The leader of the band is Bernard Brown, a Kansas City lawyer who makes his living suing dealers and helping other lawyers sue dealers (he really is a helpful guy, isn’t he?). He has been pursuing auto retail fraud cases for 20 years, with an intensity that has made him admired and hated. At 2 a.m. you are just as likely to find the unmarried 49 year old beavering away in his office as home in bed. (He obviously needs to relocate to Thailand and find something else to do at night!)

The hard work pays off, says Automotive News in America. One of his clients just won an $865,500 jury award against a Ford dealership that failed to disclose that a used Explorer it sold in 1994 had a salvage title. Brown’s client had driven the vehicle almost 200,000 miles, so it couldn’t have been too much of a lemon.

Brown is a leader in a growing trend. Lawyers suing car dealers has grown from 19 in 1992 to about 1,000 in 2003, with about one third of the members specializing in auto retail cases.

However, Brown isn’t universally popular. At the mere mention of his name, Bill Morrison, the executive vice president of the Motor Car Dealers Association of Greater Kansas City, hung up the phone in disgust.

Brown started his crusade in taking car retailers to court in 1983 after he was a victim of speedo rollback. He says he discovered after a little research that his 1978 Honda Accord - represented as a one owner car with 48,000 miles when he bought it - actually had four owners and was driven more than 89,000 miles. When Brown took his case to a local county prosecutor and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, he says they did nothing. “Prosecutors focus on what they do best - murder, rape, robbery, child molestation and drug crimes,” Brown says. “They already have tons to do, and in this (speedo rollback) realm, they are like a fish out of water.”

However, that is all changing, as rising damage awards have helped wake up lawyers to the possibilities of bringing claims against dealers. When Brown started suing dealers 20 years ago, few lawyers were interested in the kinds of cases he handles. That’s because the actual damages generally were $25,000 or less. Now litigators are seeing bigger awards. In 2001, an Oregon plaintiff got $1,011,496 in punitive damages in a case involving speedo rollback and failure to disclose vehicle damage.

Brown says he is seeing more cases with punitive damages of $200,000 to $300,000. Awards of $100,000 are fairly common, he says. This in turn has spawned a cottage industry says Keith Whann, a lawyer who represents dealers. “All you need is two of those $840,000 cases and if you get a third of the damages, that’s a half-million dollars. That’s a pretty good year for a small firm.” It also shows that it is time that lawyers were put on flat fees, and not get a percentage of the awards, in my book.

Brown says he’s not out to get car dealers (does he really expect us to swallow that?). There are many dealers he respects, he says. He considered posting the dealerships that have received no complaints on a web site but abandoned the project as being too labour-intensive. “I was afraid I might leave out the names of some honest dealers,” he said. However, it should perhaps be noted that putting up the names of the ‘good guys’ doesn’t bring in any money, does it? Me? Cynical?

Autotrivia Quiz

Last week I asked which car was the first to be offered with full power steering? The answer came from across the Atlantic - it was Chrysler with the 1951 Imperial.

So to this week. After World War I, the war to end all wars, they said (and how wrong could you be), several makes of car changed their nationalities when boundaries were re-drawn. I want to know which makes these were. Clue - there were five.

For the Automania FREE beer this week, be the first correct answer to email [email protected]

Good luck!